Friday, 24 April 2015

A quiet warning

New ways to write orchestra press releases — that was what I offered in my last post.

But when I first began this series of posts, by saying that orchestra press releases aren’t very good, Sarah Robinson, on Facebook, suggested that the deeper problem was orchestra programming.

And I agree. Orchestras spend most of their time playing the same pieces — even if it’s not the shortest list — over and over. I can suggest what might be appealing, involving ways to describe these pieces (and how they’re performed) in publicity releases, but sooner or later, won’t the sameness of it all get noticed? When you write lively descriptions of the music you’re playing, people notice them, pay attention to them. And so then (again, sooner or later) they notice that you’re describing the same music, over and over.

Take the Minnesota Orchestra’s press release for next season (which, because it’s so weakly done, got me started down this road). If you took a common-sense approach to writing a press release for it (instead of just compiling, as in fact was done, a stultifying list of names and compositions), you’d highlight the orchestra’s Beethoven focus, which is what jumps out at anyone who reads through the programming week by week. Five all-Beethoven concerts in a row! Clearly the most important thing — measured by the amount of performance time — that the orchestra will do.

So you write something lively about Beethoven, and about how you’re going to perform him. But each year you do Beethoven. So maybe in last year’s release there was something about him (even if not so much), and maybe for the 2016–17 season there’ll be more again. How long can you go on with this? For how many years can you talk about Beethoven, Beethoven, Beethoven?

Multiply this by the number of orchestras writing press releases for what they do, and we’re drowning in Beethoven. Maybe we’ll run out of things we can say.

The problem goes even deeper

And this problem — which seems mild enough, if we think only of publicity prose — really is worse than we think. Orchestras spend most of their time playing the standard repertoire. The same pieces, year after year after year, with only slight variation. And doing this takes most of their resources. Most of their money, most of their energy, most of their production work, most of their staff time.

I think this hurts them. Makes them rigid, tends to cripple them. Because there’s not much time, money, or energy to do anything new. Or, in a larger sense, not much time or psychic space to imagine new directions. To take a little time, brainstorm a bit, do it joyfully, come up with things you love, things you’re excited to do, things that will really make a difference to you and to the city you’re in.

joyful blogYou might like to think of these things, but you just don’t have time or freedom to do it as freely as you should. Not only do you not have time and psychic space enough, but you’re always looking over your shoulder, worrying that you can’t pay for what you’d love to do, that your audience won’t like it, that you’re already so committed to the standard stuff that you may not have resourcese left to do something else that you’d love.

Which isn’t to say that orchestras don’t do striking new things. But they tend to do them on the margins of everything else, not as their central focus, and not always with full institutional committment. So that if you have a music director who wants to do new things, when that person leaves, the drive to do the new things may leave with her, and neither staff, board, nor the next music director may care as much.

Is this art?

So I think orchestras are — to repeat a strong word — more than a little crippled by their programming. We don’t see this, because we’re so used to the standard programming that we don’t often question it. Or, really, things are even worse than that. We do question it, or many of us do, but not much changes.

Which leads to harsh, surely radical, but necessary question. Are orchestras really doing art? Art should surprise us, enlighten us, challenge us, take us to new places, show us new things. Deepen our lives. Change our lives. Isn’t that what we say when we advocate for the arts?

But do orchestras do this? Isn’t there instead a sense of comfort in the endless repetition of the same things? You know what you’re getting. You love getting it. You come back, year after year (or at least the loyal audience does), becuase this is what you want. And while it’s possible for a performance of a familiar piece to surprise us — I love when that happens! (and couldn’t put enough exclamation points after those words, to express how exciting this is) — these suprises don’t often happen, becuase how can they, when the pieces are played so often? Is every repetition of the Schumann Third Symphony going to be a revelation?

If orchestras were really doing art, I think they’d treat each season as a clean slate. Start with a joyful question: What do we love? What would we be exhilarated to do? Deeply moved to do? What would excite the people we’re doing it for? What would excite people we aren’t talking to yet? (Which, as I keep saying, and can’t say often enough, is one of the most important questions we can ask, if we want classical music to survive.)

I don’t mean we’d only do new things. It’s completely honorable to do old things, to honor our existing audience. Just as a pop music artist might make an album with songs that a large audience will like, mixed with other songs the artist just does for herself. In any endeavor, this is (to use the word again) an honorable calculation.

Or it’s honorable if it’s made in a discussion that starts from point zero. What do we want to do? If part of what we want is to engage our existing audience, which likes the old things, then of course that’s part of the discussion. But it’s not where the discussion starts. The discussion starts with what we’d most love. Which lets us treat new things as the most important for us. And — a great bonus for everyone, including the existing audience — lets us think about old things in a new light, and present them in new ways.

A footnote: I know that I’ve simplified this, that everything isn’t as black and white as I’ve made it, that new things might well get done with imagination, and old things get done with imagination, too. But the new things still happen on the margins. When did we last see an orchesta announce its new season by highlighting four things that the world has never seen before, reserving the performances of standard works by standard conductors and soloists for later in the release? And I think — harsh as it is — it’s not crazy to ask whether orchestras are in the business of comfort, rather than art. 

Original Content: A quiet warning

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