Thursday, June 23, 2005

Marketers, Elitists, Video, and Gentility

Mr. Henry Fogel, who is president and CEO of the American Symphony Orchestra League, warned arts leaders and all of us recently that classical music performance will have to change to survive. He echoes others, mostly orchestra administrators, who have been chanting the same lament for quite some time.

He noted that orchestras and other arts organizations have been separated by class and by race. Complex program notes, musicians in white ties and tails and dowagers who hiss if one claps at the wrong time, all keep newcomers out of the concert hall, he noted. After recently seeing a conductor wag his finger at concertgoers who applauded too soon, he wondered "how many more times those people will actually pay money for tickets so they can be humiliated?" Mr. Fogel also criticized concert presentations, which he said have become predictable and stale. "The impact of television, video and computers makes it impossible to continue our art form without some consideration of the visual," he said.

Marketers recite this litany to persuade us to allow them to make such changes as they pronounce necessary to correct falling ticket sales, empty seats, and diminishing endowments. Well, marketeering since the 90’s has changed almost every facet of our lives, not necessarily for the better, and not necessarily successfully. They presume to have the answers in the face of change; to reflect vox populi, the voice of the people, but is often instead aegrescit medendo, the remedy that is worse than the disease. Falling attendance is met by young, sexy soloists, selling “stars” with no mention of the music, Concert Companions (CoCos), seat monitors, and dumbing down “complex” program notes and decent social behavior. Marketers presume to have their cake as they toss it away.

This is what Thomas Frank calls "market populism", a very selective synopsis and paraphrase of which follows. Markets confer democratic legitimacy, markets bring down the pompous and the snooty, markets look out for the interests of the little guy, markets give us all what we want. Hollywood and Madison Avenue have always insisted that their job is simply to mirror the public's wishes - that movies, ad campaigns, and classical music concert presentations, succeed or fail depending on how well they conform to public tastes, not model it.

Marketeers guess that they serve all tastes, classes, and races, and they humiliate gentility. As marketers meld themselves theoretically with the will of the masses, virtually any criticism of them can be described as an act of "elitism", a sneer for the redneck and blue collar culture, or any attempt "to promote the interests of the few at the expense of the many." That pretty well defines me, so I’ll take aim.

I’ve repeatedly written (see Applause and the Dinosaurs) and said that change is a norm – inevitable- and we must change with it or be left behind. But, in not accepting the fact that most people, influenced by more clever marketing, just don’t care for classical music anymore, marketers for classical music now strive to change its presentation in concerts and will destroy what they are trying to preserve - even sooner.

I would reply to Mr. Fogel that of course classical music is separated by class and race. So is adventure travel and Harrod’s. Is he suggesting that somehow classical music discriminates or causes discrimination? That would be absurd. Complex program notes invites opinions. He sneers at hissing dowagers, but they are likely to be those that endow the orchestra, and someone needs to teach concert manners, whatever they are or will become-even conductors who wag their finger. His comments suggest a return to 19th century Promenade Concerts with technogadgets.

I have heard that it is not classical performance that needs to change, but people; that American society, with exceptions of course, has become crude, vulgar, impolite, casual, and ignorant, with a stunning belief, led by marketers, that society should consist of a common denominator; all is equal: a classical concert must be visual to compete with the media; Indie pop is art music; a classical concert is like a rock concert; wear sweatpants or levis in a concert hall just as in a tent program, a spa, or doing Saturday morning chores; guzzle liquor at concerts just as at gallery openings. Marketers would likely offer hot dogs and beer between movements if it would increase attendance.

The great and unique art of music at a classical concert is primarily an aural, not a visual experience. Yet, who would not say that observing the conductor, watching the passion of string players, the colorful entry of the woodwinds, a thundering timpani roll, Herculean brass chords, sudden or subtle dynamics, is not visual? But, we’re being told that it must be dumbed down to video to sell tickets. The real performance is up front, folks! Must we have a Concert Companion or monitor that draws our eye and distracts our ear and attention from the live performance?

No one will deny that classical music in America is ailing and that a prescription is needed that might cure it. Stiff formality can be relaxed, prohibitive prices and palatial venues can be changed, moth-eaten programs can be more innovative, tiresome concerts can be shorter and begin earlier for folks who must be on the job early next morning, parking and child services could be provided, museum and gallery food services seems to work, etc. etc. Any or all these might improve attendance.

But the biggest problem remains: public taste. Marketers could try to change that but they won’t. Their first commandment is to follow, but incredibly, they have made us believe they are Moses. In any case, people being what they are, they could not be successful anyway, and even if they were, historic, period, classical music as we have known it is (let’s face it) a dying dinosaur. Marketing cannot change that.

Whether or not anyone recognizes it anymore, there are some things in our western culture that are splendid, fine, elegant, inspiring- and yes- with musical/social manners and expectations. Classical concerts can move us emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually like no other art. Visual technology can only diminish it. And, if someone doesn’t know enough not to clap, talk, drool Redman and spit, turn off their cell phone, tap, cat-call, wear Stetsons, cough, smoke, eat or drink, at a concert then someone indeed needs to tell them it is unacceptable. Buying a ticket does not entitle the holder to be boorish, or worse, that it be encouraged by marketeers.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

No Comment

The first week in June there was a Beethoven week on the BBC. By midnight on Friday Radio 3 had played everything he wrote - every symphony, every quartet, every sonata. And there was a series of three films on BBC2 in which conductor Charles Hazlewood told viewers about the composer's life, and three programs of musical analysis on BBC4. All this on prime time TV! And that’s not all. By the end of June all his symphonies will have been available to download free, courtesy of BBC.

There is a library of books, studies, and monographs on Ludwig, and not just on his life and music. His sexuality, deafness, diseases, genetics, pianos, underwear, friends, enemies, etc, have all been probed by reputable scholars and professionals. His music is a staple in symphonic programing, chamber music, and piano recitals.

But, Dylan Evans wrote in The Guardian recently that Beethoven was a narcissistic hooligan. He writes that Beethoven turned away from the ancient perception that music was supposed to transcend a composer’s idiosyncrasies and replaced it with “an inward-directed, narcissistic focus on the composer himself and his own tortured soul.” This led to “awful” serialism, or “, almost everything that went wrong with music in the 19th and 20th centuries is ultimately Beethoven's fault.” Mr. Evans compares “dark” Beethoven unfavorably to Mozart, Vivaldi, and Bach- lighter composers who cheer him up. Friends are trying to stop Dylan’s laughing!

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200 years ago bagpipes were outlawed in England.

Bagpipes-(noun)-I understand the inventor of the bagpipes was inspired when he saw a man carrying an indignant, asthmatic pig under his arm. Unfortunately, the man-made object never equalled the purity of sound achieved by the pig. -Alfred Hitchcock

Q. How do you get two bagpipes to play a perfect unison?
A. Shoot one.

Q. What's the definition of a minor second? A. Two bagpipes playing in unison.

Q. What's the difference between the Great Highland and Northumbrian bagpipes? A. The GHB burns longer [but the Northumbrian burns hotter]

Q. How do you make a chain saw sound like a bagpipe? A. Add vibrato.

Q. What's the definition of a gentleman? A. Someone who knows how to play the bagpipe and doesn't.

Q. What's the difference between a dead snake in the road and a dead bagpiper in the road? A. Skid marks in front of the snake.

Q. What's the range of a bagpipe? A. Twenty yards, if you have a good arm.

Q. What's the definition of a quarter tone? A. A bagpiper tuning his drones.

Q. How can you tell if a bagpipe is out of tune? A. Someone is blowing into it.

A Canadian Officer, pinned down with his unit in 1944 in Italy, urgently signaled his CO: "Need reinforcements to rescue us, please send six tanks or one bagpiper."


Ireland gave the Scots the bagpipes . . . and they still haven't gotten the joke yet

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

In The Valley of the Sun

Music in the Valley of the Sun is unlike some other metro cities where it’s hard to choose which classical concert to attend any one night of the week; where world-class artists and ensembles parade through a Kennedy Center or Avery Fischer Hall and there is excellence found even among amateurs.

It doesn’t take long even for a newcomer to the Valley to realize that classical music is of little consequence to the community. Without intending to insult the many musical organizations here, (Lord only knows how they struggle to merely survive) perhaps it’s because there is little of high quality.

There is the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, a mid-level professional ensemble, which for a city this size with so much money and so many high profile celebs living here, should be among the best. One reason may be that management doesn't pay the musicians enough and in 2002 cut their pay 14%. A deal made a few days ago gives them 4-4-5% increase over a three year contract. That’s still rather less than what they earned in 2001. It acts as though the musicians and the community should be thankful for whatever is thrown their way. Oscar Wilde said, "If that's the way you're going to treat a symphony, you don't deserve to have one."

That has been almost the case, but led by Maryellen Gleason, president and CEO of the Symphony, there are signs of improvement. Their bottom line is black this season and it’s expected to be even better next; management and musicians are not at odds; Michael Christie debuts this season and he’s almost certain to improve the past staid programming-eventually.

But, this season is disappointingly full of the same tired stuff of Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, et al. Notable though, are AdamsViolin Concerto with Leila Josefowicz, and Aaron Jay Kernis’ Musica Celestis for strings. About half the season’s music is “Pops” programs (with Doc Severinson, Marvin Hamlisch), many Messiahs, and there are outreach programs too… well, you get the idea, trying to get the community interested and satisfying their grants obligations.

As the valley’s prestige classical performers, they certainly don’t get any help from the media. In all the several newspapers and TV stations, classical music events are rarely mentioned, and listings don’t include classical music. Showup.com gives the best arts listing in town. New Times completely ignores classical music, and Phoenix magazine lists only the high profile ensembles. Just a few years ago, solid music criticism by Dimitri Drobatschewsky was given space by the Arizona Republic, followed with lesser space by composer Kenneth LaFave, and now to almost none by Richard Nilsen, an arts journalist, et al. But, there is front page coverage for pops groups and entertainers. This from a major newspaper with thirty photographers on its staff! That pretty well defines my point.

The circle is small, but classical music and news in the valley is found in its lone classical radio station KBAQ (kay-bach ugghh!). Current events are announced and they provide a comprehensive listing on their web page. However, their programming is much like the Phoenix Symphony – traditional, safe, sterile - and hokey, like their daily noon Mozart Buffet, where it’s implied Mozart is aired on a platter to be tasted together with a listener’s pastrami on rye (rolling eyes!).

Almost every suburb surrounding Phoenix has its own orchestra and its own struggle: Sun City, Scottsdale, Peoria, Tempe, Chandler, and there are more. Arizona State University offers its music making to the community on campus, and it varies from very good to mediocre. And, it does community service.

The Mesa Symphony Orchestra just lost its conductor, Gordon Johnson, who amicably resigned because he hasn’t been paid. He travels to Mesa from Great Falls, MT, where he is the conductor there and has no doubt piled up a considerable expense tab. Financially strapped Mesa plans to fill in with guests for the next season.

Musica Nova, a string orchestra, led by Warren Cohen, does some adventurous and imaginative programming, but it lacks the experience and polish to bring it off. Perhaps time will mature them if they can survive. Jeffery Siegel has survived, traveling to Scottsdale from NYC for many years doing his popular Keyboard Conversations and flying out on the next day to another of 18 cities this season, performing 61 concerts in all.

Meantime, a breath of hope in the grand opening of the Mesa Arts Center, the largest in Arizona, with four theatres seating 99 to 1600. Their 2005-2006 season appears colorful and appealing with classical music headliners Kurt Masur and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Murray Perahia, and Ravi, among the almost 90 events, though not all musical.

The picture isn’t complete without noting the choral organizations. The quality ranges from a mere good to awful. None will knock your socks off. The professional Phoenix Bach Choir led by Charles Bruffy, enjoys a reputation, aggressive PR, and a strong following. Among the amateur groups (in no particular order) is the Phoenix Symphony Chorus directed by Robert Moody which ably assists the orchestra in those special works, you know – Messiah and Carmina, etc., the Phoenix Boys Choir, led by Georg Stangelberger, Sonoran Desert Chorale conducted by Jeff Harris, Carolyn Eynon’s Arizona Arts Chorale, Masterworks Chorale, Mary Ann Dutton, conductor, and Christopher Samuel’s Valley Chamber Chorale, Cantemus, led by Darrell Rowader, and there are others. Choral music here, as elsewhere, is much more likely to program contemporary scores and much more likely to be liked by listeners. ASU had, until three years ago, one of the best choruses and choral departments in the country but when David Stocker retired as head, it slid swiftly downhill.

To make the story shorter, and a recap, there is a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for any classical music here, and perhaps one of the reasons is there is so little, and so little of quality - a sort of cultural dustbin. To be sure, there are other reasons and maybe I’ll address these later.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Classical Music in Asia

I just read that Spoleto (U.S.A.) is programming a 2 ½ hour Peking opera The Kingdom of Desire, a free version of Macbeth performed by Taiwan's premiere theater company. This is like holding hands in a continuing east-west love affair. Peking opera in China mirrors classical music in America: not much general interest and it’s in a survival mode. Peking opera may be an ugly maiden, but western classical music in Asia is as popular as Eros.

It’s not news that many top performers today are Asian or that young Asian classical musicians are taking prizes and honors in American and other competitions. Most recently it was when the Van Cliburn Piano Competition entered its final round. Three Asian women reached the finals and eight of the 35 contestants hailed from the People's Republic. Rounding out the Far Eastern contingent were two South Koreans and another Korean native now a citizen of the United States. The competition was grueling and controversial and two of the three top awards went to female Asian pianists-Joyce Yang of South Korea, and Sa Chen of China.

American orchestras are particularly well-represented in string sections, and have been for some time. But, the explosion of Asian pianists is a newer phenomenon. Nelita True, professor of piano at Eastman, says between 70 percent and 80 percent of the school's piano students are Asians. “The piano departments of the major schools in the United States would close if it weren't for the Asian students," True says. At Juilliard, it's more than 50 percent, says Kaplinsky. At the University of Texas, professor Anton Nel figures the Asian contingent is nearly 40 percent. Joseph Banowetz, professor of piano at the University of North Texas, says two-thirds of his students are Asians. From this, it might be argued, there are fewer non-Asian students prepared to apply.

But, they aren’t all trained in the U.S. Dan Zhaoyi, in Shenszhen, China is a maestro with a knack for catapulting young students to the highest levels of international competitions. His students have chalked up an extraordinary number of prizes. At the 2000 Frederick Chopin competition in Warsaw, Poland, Dan had two students in the contest's final round The 18-year-old prodigy who won, Yundi Li , has gone on to play the world's great concert halls. You'll be hard-pressed to find a more elegant performance of Chopin's B-minor Sonata than Yundi Li's 2001 recording on the DG label. His other student is Sa Chen, who took the crystal last night in the 12th Van Cliburn Competition.

Chinese Conservatories are bursting at the seams. China has nine hyper-competitive music conservatories, with students often moving long distances to enroll. The Sichuan Conservatory in Chengdu, a city in southwest China, recently divided hundreds of practice rooms in half to cope with the needs of its 14,000 (!) students.

Young people crowd symphony concerts. Private music schools are flourishing, and urban parents jockey to hire the best tutors, seeing music as a path to status and educational achievement. 38 million Chinese children study the piano. It's estimated that 100,000 children in Beijing alone are studying piano. Millions more practice the violin and other orchestral instruments. The nation has about 4 million professional musicians, and new concert halls and opera houses are being constructed regularly. And we mustn’t believe it’s only China.

How come? Classical music is big in Asia. There is a tremendous amount of government support for music in all these countries," Kaplinsky says. "When I was in Japan last August, judging a nationwide competition, the final ceremony was attended by a former prime minister, the minister of culture, a tremendous number of dignitaries. When we have a major national competition in this country, I can't think of any dignitary from any government that would think to appear. It adds clout and excitement as far as the students are concerned, to know that what they're doing is important not just to their parents, but to everybody else." Japanese still talk about Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic when they visited there in 1977. Now, there are important conductors such as Hisayoshi Inoue, Scotland-based Takuo Yuasa and Kent Nagano; composers Karen Tanaka, Somei Satoh, Yoshihiro Kanno, Toru Takemitsu, and too many more to list and the names of Japanese pianists, singers, and other musicians would be lengthy.

In Viet Nam three Vietnamese pianists from the Ho Chi Min City (Saigon) Conservatory of Music were among the winners at the Bradshaw&Buono 2005 international piano competition held in New York on May 18-19. Nguyen The Cuong Quoc, 12 years old, Nguyen Doan Thu Thao, 13, Hoang Ngoc Thien Y, 15, and the other winners were invited to perform in Carnegie Hall. And this is the first time young Vietnamese contestants have competed in an international piano contest in the US.

In Hanoi, Viet Nam, maestro Tetsuji Honna conducted performances by the Viet Nam National Symphony Orchestra at Hanoi’s Opera House on April 15 and 16. The 2005 Toyota Concert featured works by George Gershwin, (An American in Paris), Leroy Anderson, and von Weber, and Hilary Hahn made her Vietnamese debut at the Hanoi Opera House on May 6 in the ninth annual Hennessy Concert.

In Korea, a country smaller than Kentucky, there are 125 arts high schools and colleges, 49 performance management companies, 27 recording and publishing houses, 18 full-time chamber ensembles, 10 opera companies, 31 full-time orchestras, and 55 music performance facilities.

Composers Na In-yeong, Park Cheong-seon, and Lee Young-jo, incorporate Korean folk melodies to elevate Korean music from its purely ethnic or regional appeal to an art form that can solicit global interest. Chung Kyung-wha, one of the world's premier violinists, her sister Chung Myung-wha, a cellist, and their youngest brother, Chung Myung-whun, formerly music director of the French National Bastille Opera, established the Chung Trio during the 1970s. They have performed with world-class orchestras in every continent and have produced numerous recordings. In 1997, violinist Ko Bong-in won top honors at the Young Tchaikovsky Competition while still a student in the Korean National University of the Arts Preparatory School.

Korean sopranos Jo Su-mi, Hong Hye-kyeong, Shin Yeong-ok and Kim Yeong-mi, have earned international fame and baritone Choe Hyeon-su won top honors at the 1990 Tchaikovsky Competition. There are currently 31 orchestras in Seoul and other Korean cities. The orchestras have produced several talented conductors, including Chung Myung-whun, Lim Heon-jong and Chung Chi-yong.

Korean choral performances have also been internationally recognized. Korea won first prize at the World Chorus Competition in Vienna in 1997, and it hosted the World Choir Olympics in Busan in 2002. Yun Hak-won, Yu Pyeong-mu, Na Yeong-su and Park Chang-hun are among the nation's leading choral conductors. Prominent composers of choral music in Korea include Na In-yong, Park Jung-su, and Lee Young-jo. There are hundreds of amateur choirs across the country offering excellent performances.

Lately, the number of Korean students studying music in the U.S. has steadily increased, but Seoul National University, Yonsei University, Hanyang University and Ewha Womans University, each with its own college of music, have trained most of Korea's top musicians. In 1993, the School of Music at the Korean National University of the Arts was established by a presidential decree in order to enhance and promote musical training in Korea. The school incorporates a European conservatory style with an American university-type educational system with a faculty of well-known professors of music from the United States, Germany, Russia, and Hungary as well as many of Korea’s notable music teachers.

For the time being, the U.S. still has the money bags and Julliard, but it seems that classical music will increasingly become Euro-Asian. Chairman Mao, in a moment of candor, said something like, “After all, Europe is merely an extension of Asia.” Did he tactfully omit the U.S.? Or is it the other way around?