OPINON: On “tarting up” an orchestra schedule

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

 

Last week Joshua Kosman, music critic of the San Francisco
Chronicle, posted a thought-provoking column (LINK) that referred to sobering
financial comments coming from David Gockley, general director of San Francisco
Opera.

 

In his column, Kosman drew analogies to the travails
currently plaguing the Philadelphia Orchestra and New York City Opera and concluded with the following: “There’s no reason to
imagine that anything comparable is in the cards for San Francisco’s future –
both of these crises (NY and Philly), after all, could have been seen coming
from quite a ways off had anyone cared to look. But they are cautionary tales
nevertheless, a reminder that no arts organization is guaranteed survival or
success.”

 

However, in discussing the Philadelphia Orchestra, Kosman
wrote something that really set my teeth on edge. While laying much of the
blame for the orchestra’s travails at the feet of the ensemble’s management,
Kosman wrote: “orchestra management [recently made] the decision to cut subscription
concerts by 15 percent, cancel touring and tart up its musical offerings with
light classics and film scores.” Much as I admire Kosman’s writing, I think
he’s dead wrong on at least three points.

 

There are four ways you can solve a financial crisis, be it
in a family or an organization: raise revenue, cut expenses, declare bankruptcy
or go out of business.  The
Philadelphia Orchestra’s management and board have elected a combination of the
first three.

 

On the revenue side, the orchestra is undertaking
significant fund-raising efforts throughout many segments of its
constituencies. In this, of course, it’s competing with every other arts
organization.

 

On the expense side, among the decisions were, as Kosman
notes, to reduce concerts by 15 percent and cancel touring — perhaps put touring
on hiatus would have been a better choice of words, although the orchestra will
continue to make its annual pilgrimages to Carnegie Hall in New York City.

 

A 15 percent season reduction sound severe but is it? The
orchestra’s 2011-2012 season covers 29 weeks, similar to other major ensembles.
There’s also a three-concert series entitled “Beyond the Score,” which uses
lectures and demonstrations to deconstruct a familiar piece (Jeffrey Kahane,
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra music director, is leading one of these; it’s
similar to what Kahane and LACO do each season at Ambassador Auditorium). Also
on the agenda are four “Family Concerts” on Saturday mornings and three holiday
concerts during December.  Considering that the orchestra isn’t selling out most of its
concerts, the 15 percent reduction in performances may not even be noticed.

 

As to the touring suspension: tours can be valuable for
orchestras. They usually increase the ensemble’s prestige and may lead to
ancillary income from recording sales. Most importantly, tours help the
musicians bond with each other. Tours are also expensive, often egregiously so.
Considering that the orchestra’s music director-designate, Yannick Nzt-Sguin,
doesn’t assume his position full time for a couple more years (and, thus, isn’t
yet available for a tour), suspending the activity makes eminent sense to me.
Moreover, if I were a PO subscriber, I’d want the orchestra’s financial
resources devoted to local concerts, not overseas.

 

Finally, to the Philadelphia Orchestra board’s decision to “tart
up [Kosman's words] its musical offerings with light classics and film scores.”

 

First, from a factual point of view, Kosman is almost
completely wrong when examining the upcoming season. Perhaps Kosman considers George
Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue to be a “light
classic”; I don’t but I won’t argue semantics. There is one week with a “film
score”: Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront, although this doesn’t really fit the genre.
Bernstein wrote this 22-minute piece in 1955 as a symphonic piece, using
materials from his 1954 score for Elia Kazan’s landmark movie the year before. Many
orchestras have played it. What would really be bold would be a screening of
the movie with the orchestra playing the film score.

 

Second is the issue of whether including motion picture
music “tarts” up a classical concert. Throughout musical history, composers
have written significant music for non-orchestral purposes; movies in the 20th
and 21st century fill that role. Without wanting to debate the
quality of film music, I notice that Kosman didn’t kvetch about a program that
includes Debussy’s Symphonic Fragments from The
Martyrdom of Saint-Sebastian,
which was incidental music composed in 1911
for a play written by Gabriele d’Annunzio (almost an exact corollary to film
music). Moreover, every orchestra programs opera overtures by Mozart, Rossini,
Wagner, etc. throughout their seasons.

 

What astonishes me is not that a symphonic orchestra would
program film scores indoors but how few do it. I wouldn’t advocate an entire
season of film scores (although a series might be an interesting possibility) but
if a program with movie music entices someone to go to a live concert in a
concert hall, how bad can that be? You build audiences in small, incremental
ways. If movie music isn’t your cup of tea, don’t buy a ticket.

 

As I said, I’m amazed that more orchestras don’t screen entire
films with the orchestra playing the score, although it’s worth noting that the
Los Angeles Philharmonic will show the movie version of West Side Story on July 8 and 9 at Hollywood Bowl with the Phil
playing Bernstein’s iconic score. Synchronizing an orchestra with a movie isn’t
easy but many conductors have done it successfully.

 

Outside the box? Sure — so what?

In its recently completed season the Los Angeles
Philharmonic ventured an innovative program that mixed the words of Shakespeare
(as delivered by actors) with music that Tchaikovsky wrote about three of
Shakespeare’s plays (Hamlet, The Tempets and Romeo and Juliet). Smart concept,
well presented; it worked particularly well in the motion picture telecast in
theaters.

I also remember several years
ago that Michael Tilson Thomas created an evening entitled “The Thomashefskys,”
which featured stories and music from the conductor’s grandparents and their
life in the Yiddish Theatre in the early 20th century (he later
brought it to Los Angeles with the LAPO). It, too, was outside the box and
involved so-called “popular” music of its day. Kosman’s 2005 review (LINK) of
the San Francisco Symphony program was highly laudatory; he certainly didn’t
think the concept “tarted up” the schedule.

_______________________

 

(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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