Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Musical Rant

Do you ever get the fire in the belly and feel like you want to climb to the nearest mountain peak and shout out what you believe for all to hear, even if they think you're crazy? Today I just received a copy of Symphony Magazine in the mail from the League of American Orchestras (formerly called the American Symphony Orchestra League--it's the symphony management association, and if you take the acronym of the former name, most musicians across America felt it was a humorous, and often appropriate acronym for management, and we believe it was a large reason for the change.) In this issue, there is a profile of the convergence of rock bands and orchestras. The lead photo in the article shows Sufjan Stephens performing a work with orchestra that features multimedia images. This took place in Brooklyn. I think it should happen here.

I've served on our orchestra's strategic planning committee for three years now, and every chance I get, I try to encourage our leadership to think outside the box. I'm one of the younger members on the committee at 38, which isn't that young, but I feel I speak for my generation and the generation following mine. If orchestras don't adapt, they will die a long, gruesome death. Despite the glories of Beethoven, if we don't accommodate the musical tastes of this generation, at least to a certain degree, we will be gone in 30 years.

Our Pops concerts cater to a dying crowd. We play music that was performed by the Boston Pops and Lawrence Welk decades ago. It's live elevator musical, and yet surprisingly, much in our audience still enjoys it. But they're dying, and we have done little to replace them. We're caught at a crossroads, trying to keep the old guard happy, while attempting to bring in new, younger audiences. So far, our attempts here have failed.

Through much musician cajoling, management is finally bringing in something called PLAY: A Video Game Symphony. With savvy marketing, we'll sell the house out. Unfortunately, our marketing department is largely incompetent--that's not me being caddy, it's objectively true. For example, they regularly misspell the names of composers and compositions that make it into print in our season calendar. The musicians always play an in-house game with the new season brochure to see who can find the most mistakes. One year it was over 30. That's incompetence if I ever saw it. The ironic thing is that if this concert doesn't succeed, they will say that it just wasn't the right market, but I'll guarantee that they won't put any posters up where video games are sold. If they do, it will sell well since it's being talked about all over the internet in gaming forums. It's comprised of music from the most popular video games, set to images from the actual games that are projected in the house. I played a similar concert in Chicago a few years back and people flew in from Houston to see the concert, including one guy in a wheel chair who broke his leg the week before. He wasn't going to miss it for the world. These are the types of programs we need to be bringing in, and I'm glad to see that they are doing so.

We also brought in The Lord of the Rings Symphony, and again, sold it out. We brought it a year too late, in my opinion, far after the fervor of LOTR had died down. The problem is that managements run scared, and don't seem to see far into the future or have a strong sense of the current of popular culture. Our lead Pops conductor doesn't watch TV, and even lauds this fact to audiences. It's a potential liability, if you ask me, for the lead musical visionary of an orchestra to not own a TV, the most common portal to popular culture there is.

For the longest time I've been trying to convince our management to incorporate more and more current rock groups, particularly with connections in our state. Sufjan Stephens would be perfect! He went to Hope College and we would sell out a show of his in no time flat! But I fear that once again, the clamor of musicians will fall on deaf ears.

I suppose there is a perception from both sides of the aisle that the other side has an arrogance that stems from ignorance and naivety. Musicians think management is thick and daft, based on the choices they make. Think about this: where can the most creative, outside-the-box thinking be found in an organization that has in its workforce 80 musicians? In the office or onstage? It's a no brainer, honestly and we musicians marvel at the lack of creative expression that is reflected in the decisions of management. On the other hand, management believes that musicians can't possibly know "the real story," and they regularly dismiss ideas that are proposed out of the arrogant air of "knowledge" about what can or can't succeed. I've given up suggesting that we bring in Metallica and fill the local arena with their symphony show because it's been knocked down out of the sky as unprofitable and useless. Well, the San Francisco Symphony seemed to make it a profitable venture, and even if we were to break even, it would put the symphony on the cultural map of our community in a way nothing else could. Sometimes, knowing all of the "facts and figures" only leads us into shackles and chains, preventing us to risk creative endeavors out of a fear of playing it safe.

I have such a passion for the future of orchestral playing in America that sometimes I want to go get a degree in arts management and blaze a trail marked by an unflinching vision and the pursuit of new and creative ideas.

But I'll probably just stay home and make tasty things in my kitchen.

But I do feel like submitting an article to the International Musician, the trade paper of the American Federation of Musicians. I feel that if musicians are to have a future, there needs to be a call to arms for us to be creative, to pool our resources, to discuss and share collectively what "outside the box thinking" has worked in other places and steer the ship from the backseat, because as far as I'm concerned, musicians in the orchestral world are in rudderless ships.

OK...I'm done with my rant. Back to working on my bathroom.


Anonymous said...

Which issue is this from? May/Jun? Jul/Aug?

Dan said...


It's the July/August issue...and I'm curious about something. Though I know my blog is available to anyone anywhere, I figure I know pretty much everyone who reads it (about ten, I'd say). You're clearly a musician in the know, and know that Symphony Magazine comes out on a bimonthly schedule. Are you a musician somewhere, or work in a symphony? Symphony magazine has a very select subscription list!

Anonymous said...

None of the above. Your blog showed up when searching for sufjan stevens. I just searched for the magazine's site to find info about it. The current issue (may/jun) info on their site didn't match anything like you mentioned so that's why I asked if it was a newer issue than what they have listed.

Dan said...

Ah, I see...I'm a fan of his as well--the article is partly about him, but mainly about rock groups working with symphony orchestras, kind of the new wave of things happening in the orchestra world.