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Posts Tagged ‘Cleveland Orchestra’

Severance Mobile
Could this be in Severance Hall’s future?
(Severance photo: Richard Scheinin; composite by the author)

Once upon a time, success in classical music, as in business, was pretty straightforward. If an orchestra played good music well, and infused it with commitment and emotional involvement, people came to their concerts.

A few ads in the newspaper, on the radio, and maybe (if the ensemble were well-heeled) on television, sufficed to remind folks of their previous good experiences in concerts, and keep them returning. Now and then the ads reminded somebody that he or she used to like concerts, say, back in college; or even persuaded a neophyte to give classical a try. The classical audience expanded. Success!

When these listeners decided that they liked the way the orchestra played most of the time, they became subscribers. Then the orchestra could assume that they’d attend most of the concerts, and count on their yearly payment as part of the budget.

Most orchestras had modest PR staffs (staves?). The folks on the artistic side of the operation spent their time between concerts researching history and interpretation, preparing the score, practicing, and rehearsing. Now and then, they took time out for an interview in the newspaper, or on the local classical radio station.

Life was pretty good.

Along came the world wide web, and soon every well-connected orchestra had to have a website.

Nearly instant information about programs surely made it easier for concertgoers to make last-minute decisions about which concerts to attend and which to skip. Online ticket sales made impulse purchases easier: you’re suddenly free tonight? Why not go to a concert? It worked that way for me, and still does. I can’t help but think that this may have had a hand in the trend away from subscriptions and toward a la carte concert attendance. (So did hectic lives and personal schedules.)

That first generation of the web brought us a flood of information. As "Web 2.0" arose in the early 2000s, the internet evolved from a chaotic public library to an equally chaotic two-way communication medium. Blogging became the thing to do, and the savvy orchestras joined in. Following the example of their kid brothers, the rock bands, they posted audio and video clips.

In this interactive, nearly-universal-access medium, orchestras’ management, and even the music director and musicians, now can be — in some cases, almost have to be — "accessible." That means at least blogging about upcoming concerts, posting on events in the music world, and responding to the inevitable comments and questions. Some have become podcasters.

Now the interactive buzz is moving from blogs to social networks. These make it even easier for "friends" to respond. The Chicago Symphony, to name just one, is on Facebook. So is the Cleveland Orchestra, though they’re not as active as Chicago. During their recent US tour, members of the London Symphony kept fans at home apprised via Twitter. British conductor Ivor Bolton "tweets" about his recording sessions.

I don’t think anybody doubts that this new, more direct involvement gives concertgoers (and potential concertgoers) a more solid connection with orchestras. But the downside is that it takes chunks of budget to pay for web development, produce audio and video, and handle rights issues. It takes orchestra staff time to do all the writing. If musicians join in the fray (and if I were an orchestra player I’d be sorely tempted), every hour they spend typing or recording is an hour they can’t spend on rehearsal, practice, program preparation, and research.

But what can the orchestras do? The media din is getting denser. They have to shout louder, and more effectively, if they want to be heard.

Are the new media really working for orchestras? Does all this activity bring in more listeners? Has it really made a significant proportion of their audiences more satisfied, more connected? Putting it in blunt economic terms, has the investment returned measurable and attributable increases in attendance, ticket sales, and subscription renewals?

I obviously don’t work in an orchestra’s office, but my impression is that trying to answer these questions isn’t easy — and like the new media effort itself, it doesn’t come free. It means yet more labor hours, more software, more surveys, and more contracted services. That represents still more resources that aren’t going to the core business of making music — but it seems to me that, even in the best of times, well-managed arts organizations have to be sure they’re using their limited resources effectively.

Meanwhile, the commmunication revolution continues apace at the other end. No longer are the consumers of all these tweets, blogs, and podcasts — the listeners, we hope — tethered to their desktop and notebook computers. Now they can interact with "content providers" anywhere, thanks to smartphones and wireless PDAs.

And here is where I get uneasy.

It used to be that listeners moved by a concert would talk about it with their companions on the way home, and with their friends the next week. But who needs friends and companions when the whole online world is hanging on your moment-by-moment responses, delivered wirelessly via Twitter as the orchestra plays?

When orchestras were merely diverting resources from making music to making PR, the most dedicated music lovers might have worried about declining musical standards (or not, depending on how well the orchestra handled the logistics). But how many are going to sit still while some cretin three seats over clicks the keys on his smartphone during a pianissimo passage?

You don’t think it will happen? It already has in rock concerts. Increasingly, bands find themselves playing to cameras, while the fans chat on their mobile phones and wirelessly tweet about the concert. Worse, this trend seems to be headed our way.

To my astonishment, our own Cleveland Orchestra is, in a sense, actually encouraging this.

They’ve just announced "Trivia Challenge." You don’t even need a smartphone or wireless PDA; an ordinary mobile phone will do. Take it to their community concert at Public Square in Cleveland on Thursday (2 July 2009) and "text" (when did that noun become a verb?) the word BLOSSOM to the phone number the orchestra provides. During the concert — yes, while the orchestra is playing — you’ll get to answer trivia questions about the orchestra via your phone. "Every participant will be a winner," they say. The prizes? Tickets to Blossom concerts, where I fervently hope they will NOT use their mobile phones.

(UPDATE: The folks at the Cleveland Orchestra contacted me Thursday (2 July, the day of the concert) to say that despite what the news release said — "Fans can play the trivia game on their mobile phones throughout the Festival and Concert" — they didn’t really mean to suggest that listeners in the Public Square audience should answer these questions during the performance. However, they say they think it’s OK for folks listening live on the radio to do so. Presumably they submit the questions to the different groups at different times, though they didn’t say how that works. I’m not familiar with the system they’re using, so I emailed them for clarification. When I hear back, I’ll post it.)

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m all for anything that expands the audience for classical music. I’m all for increasing attendance at Cleveland Orchestra concerts, and for listening to listeners. (I have to admit, I was impressed at the caliber of the audience dialogue that I saw on the Chicago Symphony’s Facebook page.) And to be fair, the Public Square concert is after all a very casual setting, far removed from the elevated mood of Severance Hall.

But I wonder what their core audience will think of this. These are the folks who attend concert after concert, year after year, because they know they can expect outstanding interpretations of great music. Many ante up something close to (or in) the three-figure range for a pair of Severance Hall seats. How will they react to someone nearby clicking keys, or engrossed in a brightly glowing screen? Just as importantly, how much of the concert is that tweeter really hearing?

Maybe I’m concerned about nothing here. Maybe this experiment is a one-time deal. Maybe it won’t encourage more concert distractions. Maybe the response won’t be strong enough to make it worth pursuing.

Maybe it’ll even lead to positive uses for this technology — for example, transmitting program notes, translations of sung texts, even bar-by-bar interpretive guides, to listeners’ wireless devices. Now that would be a good use of new media.

Still, it seems to me that when the folks at the Cleveland Orchestra suggest that their listeners need to stay busy with gadgets while they perform, they’re not exactly demonstrating confidence in the power and value of the music. If they don’t, will their listeners?

Further reading:

Orchestras and New Media: A Complete Guide at Dutch Perspective

Detroit Symphony Unmasked at the League of American Orchestras

Are Cellphones Ruining the Concert Experience? at the Dallas Morning News

Horns Up, Bows Ready, Cellphones On at New York Times (registration may be required)

Chicago Symphony at Facebook

Cleveland Orchestra at Facebook

In musical news this week:

  • Bloomberg’s, poking through the New York City Opera’s tax returns, berated them for their eleven million dollar 2008 deficit.
  • London mayor Boris Johnson will distribute 31 free pianos to public places round the city, complete with laminated songbooks, in the hopes of encouraging impromptu sing-ins.
  • The Basel Schola Cantorum used computer analysis to make a modern reproduction of an 8-foot-long trumpetlike medieval instrument, the lituus, of which no examples survive.
  • Philadelphia Orchestra musicians volunteered to take a pay cut of almost five percent.
  • The Cleveland Orchestra’s assistant director of choruses, Betsy Burleigh, started her new gig as music director of Boston’s Chorus Pro Musica.
  • Kempton Park in Sunbury announced that they’d engaged England’s Royal Philharmonic to play Rossini’s William Tell Overture at a July horse race, to see if it would encourage the horses to run faster.
Stanley Drucker
Stanley Drucker (World Clarinet Alliance)

But the big news is that this weekend the New York Philharmonic’s principal clarinetist, Stanley Drucker, will play his last concerto performances with the orchestra.

The clarinet and I go back a long way. It was the first orchestral instrument I ever heard and saw up close; I wasn’t even yet in school. In the half-century since then, I’ve grown to love the clarinet’s split personality, its dark chocolate low register and its scotch-on-the-rocks high register.

Few composers have exploited that timbral flexibility better than Aaron Copland did in his clarinet concerto, swinging the instrument from his trademark spare lonely-open-plains sound to a jazzy Chicago speakeasy jam and back again. Our own Cleveland Orchestra’s principal Franklin Cohen played it at Severance Hall almost exactly a year ago (May 2008), but the performance I’ll never forget was a Blossom concert in the early 1980s. Cohen was perhaps a half-dozen or so years with Cleveland then; he’d signed on in 1976. The season was late, the night cool, the audience a bit sparse, and that was exactly the right setting for the Copland. Unforgettable.

So I nodded when I read that Drucker would be playing the Copland for his last Philharmonic solos. Not only is it the clarinet personified, it’s one of Drucker’s trademark works. Stanley Drucker’s been an almost unprecedented 60 years with the Phil, and when he steps off that stage for the last time, he’ll have played the Copland in concert at least once for every one of those years.

Sixty years, 10 music directors, over 10,000 concerts. Stanley Drucker has played every one of them with enthusiasm and joy, and I’m betting he’ll apply the same attitude to his post-Phil musical life. (You don’t really think a musician stops playing when he retires, do you?)

Thanks for the long run, Mr Drucker. Thanks for the music. Thanks for the Copland, the Mozart, the Brahms, and much more. Enjoy your free time. And may our own Franklin Cohen give Northeast Ohio as many years of his artistry as you’ve given New York.

Further reading:

NY Philharmonic Bids Farewell To Clarinetist at NPR

Betsy Burleigh
Betsy Burleigh (Chorus Pro Musica)

This month (June 2009), the Cleveland Orchestra’s assistant director of choruses begins her newest gig, as music director of Boston’s Chorus Pro Musica. She succeeds Jeffrey Rink, the ensemble’s director of 17 years.

In addition to her eleven years with Cleveland, Burleigh is music director of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh — a position she inherited from the great choral director Robert Page — and is professor and coordinator of choral and vocal studies at Cleveland State University.

Betsy Burleigh also directed the Akron Symphony Chorus from 1997 to 2002, and the Canton Symphony Chorus from 1997 to 2000.

To look at the 2009-2010 concert schedule The Cleveland Orchestra has just released, you’d never guess that they were staring down the maw of a potential $7.5 million budget shortfall.

Fully staged opera? Check. Renowned guest conductors? Yep. Beloved soloists? Got ‘em.

If you tried to get tickets for this season’s The Marriage of Figaro, you know how enthusiastically Northeast Ohio concertgoers responded to hearing their orchestra in the pit. In 2010 Cleveland will take on another Mozart opera — this time, Cosi fan tutte.

Guest conductors will include Vladimir Ashkenazy, Iván Fischer, Semyon Bychkov, and Pierre Boulez, whose involvement with The Cleveland Orchestra dates back to 1965.

Mitsuko Uchida (BBC)

Mitsuko Uchida is always welcome in Northeast Ohio, and next season she’ll be featured in two concerts — Beethoven’s 4th in October, and two Mozart concertos in April. She’ll conduct the Mozart works from the keyboard.

Yefim Bronfman and Richard Goode are also among the visiting pianists we’ll hear. Violinist Leila Josefowicz and cellist Truls Mørk will appear. We can also expect a return visit from soprano Measha Brueggergosman, among others. Over a dozen more returning and new-to-Severance singers will join the orchestra.

The orchestra won’t reduce the number of programs they offer, although some programs won’t be played as many times as in past seasons.

The orchestra will also introduce three new concert series. Severance Fridays will combine an early-evening concert with a reception featuring drinks, hors d’oeuvres, and live music. Musically Speaking Sundays will begin with a detailed analysis of a work, including live musical examples, and conclude with a complete performance of the work. The Baroque and Classical Series will comprise three concerts — the Uchida Mozart performances; Handel’s Messiah; and an all-Baroque program, including Handel’s Water Music. This last will be led by Bernard Labadie, music director of Les Violons du Roy.

The new series are part of The Cleveland Orchestra’s renewed effort to connect more closely with Northeast Ohio. The centerpiece of this strategy is the week-long Community Music Initiative. It includes music director Franz Welser-Moest conducting a benefit Beethoven Ninth, concerts in Cleveland schools, and a family concert.

How are they doing all this in a down economy? Every element of the season is designed to maximize revenue and/or reduce costs. In addition to the slight trimming in total number of performances in Cleveland, when the orchestra tours, they’ll concentrate on the stops that generate the best return. And as I mentioned a few days ago, they’ve taken some large whacks at administrative costs.

The season’s repertoire delivers a mix of new experiences and familiar friends. Joerg Widmann’s Chor, the violin concerto of Thomas Ades, The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind by Osvaldo Golijov, and John Adams’s Doctor Atomic Symphony and Son of Chamber Symphony will be among the works receiving their first Cleveland performances.

Complimenting them are many well-known standards of the repertoire, including the Shostakovich Fifth (and Beethoven’s and Tchaikovsky’s); Brahms’s German Requiem, second symphony, and second piano concerto; the Schubert Ninth; Rachmaninoff’s Second (and Schumann’s); Strauss’s Don Juan and Also Sprach Zarathustra; Orff’s Carmina Burana; Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition; and the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique.

WKSU’s Vivian Goodman spoke with executive director Gary Hanson and music director Franz Welser Moest about their plans, and has more information on the upcoming Cleveland Orchestra season.

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Further reading:

Cleveland Orchestra announces 2009-10 Severance season at the Plain Dealer

The belt-tightening continues at orchestras across America and round the world. This month (March 2009) the Philadelphia Orchestra pink-slipped a dozen staffers and the Pittsburgh Symphony released nine. The New Jersey Symphony dismissed three. The Atlanta Symphony announced pay cuts of 5-7 percent and furloughed staff members. Since last fall the Cincinnati Symphony have given 8 staffers their walking papers, and gotten their musicians to take an 11% pay cut. The list goes on, I’m sorry to say.

Many orchestras are planning shorter, simpler, cheaper concert seasons. Increasingly, they’re turning to their own principals for solo work in concertos, and asking guest soloists to moderate their fees. (Pianist Emanuel Ax graciously waived his fee entirely for last weekend’s concerts with the Columbus Symphony.)

Severance Hall Pediment (Wikimedia Commons)

Even the mighty Cleveland Orchestra isn’t immune. The same budget beasts battering orchestras in other cities are now clawing at Severance Hall’s doors. Private and corporate donations are down, ticket sales are down, and the orchestra’s endowment fund is down — this last by over a quarter. They’re looking at a possible shortfall of over $7 million — a tough situation for an orchestra that was already in recovery mode after years of deficits.

In response, the orchestra will trim their season and their touring (though perhaps not their performances in Miami, which so far have proven to be revenue champs). They’ll choose repertore to minimize the need for overtime and substitute musicians.

Unlike many of the others, Cleveland has chosen to cut salaries instead of staff. Music director Franz Welser-Moest is setting an example with a 20% giveback, executive director Gary Hanson is letting go of 15% of his pay, and other top brass are swallowing a 10% reduction. Nonunion lower level staffers will see 5% less in their pay envelopes. The orchestra’s managment also plan to ask the players for more “operational flexibility” when their contract comes up for renewal in August.

All this cost-cutting may balance the books for the upcoming season. I certainly hope it does. But if endowment revenue and business support continue to slide, what will Cleveland and the rest of the world’s music makers do? For most US orchestras, ticket sales now cover less than 40 percent of their costs. Where do you suppose the rest comes from?

I’m far from an expert on these matters — I’m the classical music geek at a public radio station, for goodness sake, not an arts administrator — but I wonder if orchestras might harvest some idea from us — that is, public radio — and maybe even from Hollywood.

In the offices of NPR and at stations large and small all across the country, public radio faces a decline in contributions from businesses and foundations. Just as with the orchestras, those who have endowments have watched them evaporate. And as with orchestras, many stations have had to trim operations and/or release staff.

The good news — and it’s deeply gratifying — is that listeners have stepped forward to help make up part of the revenue losses. As has happened in many (though not all) cases round the nation, WKSU’s Spring pledge drive met its goal, and even exceeded it by a small amount.

Meanwhile, the box office take is up for major motion pictures these days, reversing a long standing downward trend. Of course this has generated an inevitable comparison, with the film industry’s much-noted growth during the years of the Great Depression.

In the early 1930s, Hollywood reflected the grim times on the street — and they watched their box office returns dwindle. Their change of course as the tough times dragged on may have been partly driven by a sense of the public’s desire for more escapist fare, but in part it was forced on them by the rise of the Legion of Decency and the Breen Office. Regardless of the impetus, though, it’s hard to debate the fact that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers brought in more Americans worried about next week’s paycheck than did stories of gangster wars and political sleaze.

Now, consider Chicago Lyric Opera. They’re heading into next season in remarkly good fiscal shape. Why? It’s partly because they’ve been holding costs down for years, and they’ve gotten pretty good at it. But a good part of the reason is their repertoire. Their audiences have come to expect frankly conservative programming. The Lyric’s focus on favorites has earned them some catcalls from critics, but their director thinks the company’s current stability while others are teetering has vindicated his approach.

Other opera companies — and orchestras — are paying attention.

I, for one, am not about to criticize them for it. Hollywood’s experience suggests to me that, in tough times, audiences need and crave the comfortable and familiar. It takes courageous administrators to recognize this, and put their ambitious plans for new music and splashy productions on hold. Those uneasy listeners they thus put in their seats will forget their problems, at least for a couple of hours. Those listeners, and their friends, will help pull the orchestras through these dark times. The orchestras will survive, so they can again take risks and forge ahead in the (we hope!) more affluent future.

It wasn’t just lighter subject matter that filled the cinemas of the last 1930s. It helped a lot that producers and theatre owners slashed their costs and brought the price of a ticket down to between a quarter and a half dollar (depending on how deluxe an experience you wanted). As it turns out, that’s about $3.75 to $7.50 in 2009 dollars. Hmmm.

A music lover who’ll drop $130 for a pair of orchestra-level seats in good times might be a little more hesitant when he’s not sure he’ll have a paycheck in 6 months. For someone in that position, even the top row balcony seats may look unaffordable at half that price.

Although not every orchestra is losing listeners — England’s Philharmonia Orchestra, for example, says their ticket sales are holding up well, thank you — many of them are indeed seeing their attendance fall for this very reason.

In public radio, we’ve found that listeners who’ve been with us for years will often pledge upwards of $20 a month, a dollar a day, or even $1000 a year. They know us, and they know the value of our programs. But others who are just discovering us are, quite understandably, usually interested in making smaller donations. So we try to accomodate them. We offer a range of membership levels for listeners of different means and interest.

It seems to me that orchestras have to go beyond just balancing the books on business as usual. Maybe they can learn a little from our experience, and that of the Depression-era movie theatres. In addition to offering appealing concerts, they may have to further widen their range of ticket prices, fighting box office losses by offering some concerts at the regular price, a few at a premium with premium extras and — here it comes — at least some concerts at prices that folks with very limited means can afford.

Kudos to The Cleveland Orchestra for their plans to offer reduced ticket prices for first-time concertgoers and younger people next season. That’s the kind of flexibility that will help keep people in the habit of hearing music live, even if their finances have tightened.

Can we go still further?

Again, remember that I’m not an expert here, so perhaps I’m being naive. If you’re familiar with the issues, feel free to put me in my place with the comments section below. But I think that, in these difficult times, orchestras need to find ways to lower the barriers as much as possible. I have a couple of suggestions.

First, why not fill space that’s currently unused? In Europe many musical organizations offer standing room in the back of the hall for around $5 to $15 per head (or pair of feet), usually on a first come first served basis, no printed program provided.

I’ve stood in Severance Hall, and no doubt will again, but standing room seems less often offered here in the States than in Europe. Is this an area for growth? I suppose it’s not very practical for a family with kids, but couldn’t cheap standing room tickets — say, five bucks — keep a financially stressed music lover coming to concerts until his or her situation improves, or introduce a penurious student to the pleasures of real live music?

Secondly, what about the scale of the concerts themselves? Not every great work requires a full orchestra. We needn’t go as far as Ernest Fleischmann suggested over 20 years ago in his proposal to convert the orchestra into a "community of musicians," but a little more flexibility in orchestra structure and programming could open the doors for a wider audience.

I’m suggesting that some orchestras might consider converting one or more season concerts into chamber orchestra concerts, perhaps even playing them at less traditional locations.

I don’t mean to tread on any musicians’ toes with this notion. From what I understand — please correct me if I’m wrong — union rules make this sort of compromise tough, and for good reasons, so it may take some stretching all round. But there’s a sizable repertoire of substantial, rewarding chamber orchestra works from the 18th to the 21st centuries. By its very nature, the form is less resource-hungry: a smaller corps of players, a smaller space, and smaller crews all add up to more affordable ticket prices. This could bring in music lovers who otherwise might seldom or never see a live concert because of the cost.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that I have some kind of prescription for struggling orchestras. As I said above, I’m no insider. But whether these ideas are usable ones or not, I think orchestras should be looking at ways to make concerts more affordable for music lovers whose resources are strained.

One way or another, our musical organizations will work through these difficulties. They have to. We need them, to keep live music available for the next generation and the one after that.

Further listening:

Cleveland Orchestra announces 2009-2010 season (with reporter Vivian Goodman) in WKSU News

Further reading:

Cleveland Orchestra plans deep cuts at the Plain Dealer

Orchestras plan fewer concerts at The Telegraph

BSO lays off staffers at the Baltimore Sun

Facing the music … Philadelphia Orchestra at Metromix Orlando

Big-league pianist steps up to plate at Columbus Dispatch

State’s top orchestra faces changes at the New York Times (registration may be required)

Hollywood and the Great Depression at Digital History

Hard Times: just what the box office ordered at The Wrap


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