Wouldn’t it be great if an orchestra concert started like this?

OK, maybe not – but we classical musicians can learn something about a good opening from the boxing world, and we need to. I’ll get to that in a second – first, some compliments.

Last night, I played in a great concert with the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, a group I’ve been a part of for several years. This was the final concert of our new Summermusik series, and frankly, we killed it. Over the four weeks of the festival, we played a great variety of music – kudos to our interim Music Director (and candidate for the permanent job), Kelly Kuo, for his thoughtful and creative programming and energetic leadership – the orchestra sounded great. We also had great guest soloists, including Cho-Liang Lin, DaXun Zhang and Sarah Coburn, and enjoyed big and enthusiastic crowds – much thanks and credit go to the CCO board and hardworking staff – Ann Stewart, Ralf Ehrhardt, and especially acting General Manager, LeAnne Anklan! (A suggestion to the board – LeAnne’s title should be one word shorter.)

As you can tell, things went well, and I want to underscore that before I get on my soapbox here – everyone did their jobs very well. However, the opening of our last two concerts reminded me how pre-concert routine can undermine the excitement of a performance and make the audience feel distant, and I’ve got a proposal for orchestras to update a ritual that badly needs it.

At both concerts, the evening began with a welcome from our intrepid board president, Jennifer Funk, who warmly thanked the audience for coming, acknowledged major donors and supporters, and reminded everyone of our next concert – a standard curtain speech, well-delivered. What happened next, though, was very telling. Last Saturday, she ended her remarks with: “And now, please welcome Maestra Karina Cannelakis and your Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra!”, and went offstage. There was warm applause, and then, crickets.

This would never happen at a boxing match, and at a rock concert, the band would have bounded on stage right then and started playing. But that’s not how orchestra concerts work. The players were already on stage (minus one), and the conductor was nowhere to be seen. Why? Because it wasn’t time yet, according to the age-old ritual.

After a long, silent pause, our fearless leader, concertmaster Amy Kiradjieff, came out, bowed, turned to the orchestra and we tuned to the oboe’s A. Then she sat, and we waited some more, again in silence. Then the conductor came out, we all stood up, she bowed, we sat down again, and she took the mic and welcomed the audience too, while also giving a few remarks about the Mozart Symphony we were about to play. Again, well-done – she seemed very comfortable and kept it brief.

Let me reiterate here that everyone did their jobs perfectly – it’s not the participants, but the format that doesn’t work! Jennifer’s warm welcome and the enthusiasm it inspired were long past by the time we actually started playing, and in the interim, the audience witnessed a series of rituals that don’t really make a lot of sense, and which told them that this concert was serious business, not a show.

What if all three women had come out at the same time instead, perhaps with LeAnne as well? All the leaders of the orchestra would have been on stage at the same time, sending a nice message about how board, staff, conductor and musicians are interdependent, a fact whose importance can’t be overstated. Each could introduce themselves, say a few words (or not, if they didn’t want to) welcoming the audience, thanking donors, and saying a few words about the program. Then we could tune while Jennifer and LeAnne walked offstage, and get on with it!

Now, I realize that I’m going to lose several people right off the bat here – to my conductor and concertmaster friends, sorry – but to me, it makes no sense to work up the crowd and then make them wait, mostly in silence, for what they came for, music.

Now I know some longtime concertgoers feel that these rituals are an important part of the concert, but I bet there are lots more people who don’t come to concerts at all because of stuff like this seems overly formal and intimidating.

The CCO took a big risk and showed its willingness to try something new this summer, and it seems to have paid off. To build on the success, and continue to reach new audiences, I propose we (and other orchestras!) make another change – the way we start concerts. Because (with apologies to Cole Porter) another kind of opening might lead to another kind of show, one with more people in the audience!

Till next time,

Nat

 

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