Most orchestra concerts begin with a series of individual entrances- the executive director gives a curtain speech thanking donors, followed by the concertmaster, who tunes the orchestra, and finally, the conductor, who comes in, gets the orchestra up (which is unhelpful – we’ve just gotten settled), and bows (for no good reason – they haven’t done anything yet). This can take several minutes, and often drains much of the energy from the room.
What about starting the evening this way instead?
So, we need fire and a cool mascot, maybe some ice – no problem. I can hear the naysayers now – “What about cost?” Remember, each of these items are potential sponsorship opportunities! (“Tonight’s fire is brought to you by Blue Rhino Propane!”) And any safety concerns are easily taken care of, by inviting your county’s fire chief and insurance administrators onto your board and getting their approval as an in-kind donation.
My other big takeaway from the evening – concert halls desperately need a penalty box. In hockey, penalties create the most exciting part of the game – the power play. Maybe the violins could play a movement minus one member if they get called for excessive screechiness when playing on the high E string (which happens all the time, according to ProMusica’s David Danzmayr a conductor who prefers to remain anonymous). Or that one patron who insists on unwrapping their cough drop at the quietest moment in the slow movement – you know who you are. Give them two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct and seat them directly in front of the trombones – that’ll teach them.
Now the big question is, of course, who decides? Conductors, please put your hands down – you have enough power already. What about members of the orchestra, or maybe a board member? Personally, I’d vote for either the third chair cello (always the wisest person in an ensemble) or even better, an unpaid intern – finally a chance for them to get some payback! Here’s where we need some groupthink – please post your suggestions for concert hall penalties, and who should hand them out, in the comments!
Classical music presenters are always looking for new ways to boost attendance at their concerts. Well, the search is over – turns out all you need is skydivers and a soccer team.
On Monday night, I played the American and Spanish national anthems with some colleagues from the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra in front of over 23,000 people, the largest audience for a string quartet performance in history.*
We were preceded by skydivers, who delivered the game ball and an enormous American flag, and our performance (which received the loudest ovation of all time**) was followed by a match between FC Cincinnati and Valencia.
*In keeping with our country’s transition to a fact-free society, I am going to say that this is true until someone proves that it isn’t. So there.
** see above
In all seriousness, there’s a lesson here – anyone who puts on concerts could learn a lot from our counterparts in the sports world. Fans were piling into the stadium over an hour before the game, and they could see the players warming up, get autographs and pictures with them, and, of course, buy lots of stuff. There were also lots of announcements about the club’s work with local organizations, and for at least a half-hour before the game, something was always happening on the field that fans were encouraged to watch and participate in.
In short, there was lots of interaction between the entertainers and the audience, as well as activities to build excitement for the event to come. The “pre-game show” is pretty limited before most classical music concerts. Now some of this stuff wouldn’t work, but just having more going on before concerts, especially involving the players, is certainly worth exploring. Post your suggestions in the comments, and PLEASE, e-mail me if you know skydivers willing to work at non-profit rates.
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!
Last week’s post was about Mark O’Connor’s attack on the Suzuki method, which I (and many others) found quite harsh, mean-spirited and a huge waste of energy. This week’s example of unnecessary squabbling in the string world is a similarly strident (and questionable) attack on El Sistema, the Venezuelan method of community building through youth music education, which has received tremendous attention in recent years and has inspired many new programs in countries around the world.
The father of El Sistema is Jose Antonio Abreu, who began working with 11 children in a Caracas garage in 1975. Since then, upwards of two million children have gone through the program, including Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the LA Philharmonic. The program is praised for paying both musical and social dividends, and is the hot trend in both education and community engagement efforts across the music world these days.
With such popularity, I suppose a backlash was inevitable, and it comes from a British academic. In an article in the Guardian newspaper, Geoffrey Baker, a music lecturer at Royal Holloway University who has just written a book on El Sistema, to be published by Oxford University Press, claimed that far from being the “beacon of social justice” as it is portrayed all over the world, in Venezuela it is viewed as “a cult, a mafia and a corporation.”
Full disclosure, round two: I am not trained in the ways of El Sistema, but I have done a lot of teaching at Cincinnati’s incarnation, MYCincinnati, a wonderful program run by the amazing Laura Jekel. Here’s a video about the collaboration between the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra and MYCincinnati, which is my favorite part about being a member of that ensemble:
In the Guardian article, Baker complains about El Sistema’s “lack of rigorous evaluation to quantify its claims of ‘miraculous social transformation.’ ”
“I found many Sistema musicians unconvinced by claims that the project was aimed at Venezuela’s most vulnerable children,” he writes. “Pointing to a lack of mechanisms for consistently targeting this demographic, they suggested most musicians come from the middle levels of society.”
The article also offers a countering point of view: “Reynaldo Trombetta, a Venezuelan musician and writer who has worked with El Sistema, in his home country and then assisting (cellist Julian) Lloyd-Webber, set up the programme in the UK, rejected Baker’s allegations.
“He said: ‘I’m not really sure who Mr Baker spoke to and I have my doubts about the reach of his research. I have to wonder if he spoke to any of the parents of the kids from the barrios, the slums, who are desperate to get their kids into El Sistema because for them the alternative is these kids getting involved in drugs or crime. You would have to ask them if they think El Sistema is a mafia or a tyranny. More than two million kids have been involved and we still see huge queues, all the time, of parents desperate to get their children into one of the 300 nucleos [community music schools]. Most of the people involved are not aspiring to be musicians, they are just in a country where you don’t learn much about excellence, you don’t learn much about teamwork, you don’t really learn what you can achieve when you work hard and El Sistema is absolutely still a beacon of light benefitting a lot of people, even in things like educational literacy and maths skills.’ ”
Baker’s main complaint seems to be that there is a lack of data to support El Sistema’s claims of community building and personal enrichment for the kids who pass through it. Anyone who’s paid attention to education knows how hard it is to show that sort of thing in numbers, but let’s allow him that one, and say that there could be some better number crunching done. In fact, Trombetta agrees, suggesting that it would be very helpful.
The Guardian also points out that Baker doesn’t offer numbers to back up his claims either:
“Marshall Marcus, former head of music at the Southbank centre and now the chair of Sistema Europe, also cast doubt on Baker’s allegations.
‘My experience over many years is that El Sistema certainly is mainly involved with children and young people from economically challenged circumstances,’ he said. ‘If it is thought by someone that El Sistema has become more skewed towards middle class students rather than helping those living in poverty then I would be interested to see any figures that show that. I have not seen any to date.’ ”
The article also adds: “Argentinian pianist Alberto Portugheis, who was responsible for bringing El Sistema over to play in Britain for the first time almost a decade ago added: ‘El Sistema has had a fantastic effect on education in general in Venezuela. But you cannot expect a musical education to make all the problems of poverty in the country disappear.’ ”
This is a crucial point, I think – learning to play the violin may give someone a great deal to help them deal with the difficulties in their life, but it does not make those difficulties disappear!
So, why am I writing about this? Like O’Connor, Baker seems intent on tearing down something that is very popular and does a great deal of good. Is El Sistema perfect? Of course not – no system is. And as someone who spent eight years working for the Pentagon, I can tell you that anything operating on a large scale has all sorts of problems! Most importantly, like the Suzuki method, for El Sistema to be successful, IT ALL DEPENDS ON THE TEACHER!
In any case, both O’Connor and Baker are doing more harm than good. As I said last week, music education is viewed by many as a luxury, and both the Suzuki method and El Sistema have convinced millions otherwise. We don’t have time for circular firing squads in our business – let’s leave that to others with less important work to do!
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