Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Join Us Next Week for a Messiah Sing-In and Bartok's "Miraculous Mandarin"

Having bought NY Philharmonic tickets online last month, I've been on their e-marketing list, which I enjoy: I like keeping tabs on what they're doing (for example, a new piano concerto by Esa-Pekka Salonen in February), and I still have a healthy layman's interest in classical music marketing.

(And email is vastly preferable to phone calls; I still remember with vivid irritation the New York City Opera calling me at my work phone sometime last year & launching into a sales pitch I had no interest in. Look, I spent $25 to see one twentieth-century opera; that doesn't mean I want to spend $120 to see three nineteenth-century operas, and furthermore why are you calling me at work?)

But the main point. This kind of programming really gets me riled up:

[December 6–9]

Bramwell Tovey conductor
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra
with Wynton Marsalis music director

Copland El Salón México
Christopher Rouse Symphony No. 2
Tchaikovsky Nutcracker (selections)
Tchaikovsky/Ellington & Strayhorn Nutcracker (selections)

Aaron Copland's piece is cute and faux-Latin cheesy, so whatever. But Christopher Rouse's Second Symphony is uncompromisingly bitter; he wrote it to commemorate a composer friend who died in a car accident; it's dissonant and extremely loud and ends in a cataclysmic onrush of heavy percussion. Why the hell is this on your Christmas pops program???

This seriously gets under my skin, and I'm plenty used to the "match the scary new piece with the beloved chestnuts" phenomenon at orchestra concerts. Here the Philharmonic sets up a program likely to attract a larger number of casual listeners than usual and then throws something at them that's not only difficult but also bizarrely out of place.

This says all the wrong things about contemporary music (Don't Trust Contemporary Music!) and about orchestra concerts in general (Our Audience's Emotional Experience Is Frankly Not That Interesting to Us!)

Rouse's Second can bring a house down: I saw it happen in Philadelphia, at Christoph Eschenbach's first weekend after he'd been announced as their music director. It's genuinely urgent, moving music. There was a huge ovation afterward; it probably helped that Rouse was there & had talked about the piece for a couple of minutes beforehand. (The other half of the program was Dvorak's New World Symphony, which is also an unhelpful pairing but at least a fairly neutral one.) I don't doubt the same thing could happen in New York, but it's a lot less likely with a crowd that's essentially shown up for Jazz at Lincoln Center.

There are also a smaller number of people, myself included, who might be interested in hearing a modern symphony but would sooner gag than sit through two sets of Nutcracker excerpts.

Despite having been on the periphery of the orchestra industry for a few years, I'm still not really sure why this flies. Is the Philharmonic trying to prove it's not a pops concert? My guess is rather that it's a case of standard operating procedure, gone a step more inappropriate without anyone in programming caring to tell the difference. When almost all modern music in orchestra concerts is out of place, it's probably easy to cross the line between a not-so-great program and an actively counterproductive one.

The classical music industry is paying close attention to audience development issues, as well it should be. Holiday concerts are important to this, however trivial the music seems, and it's depressing to see a major institution phone it in programming-wise.

There's a great related anecdote from a while ago on Greg Sandow's classical music blog. It's presented in the context of inept marketing, but it's a programming issue too: there's a time and a place to perform Shostakovich's "Babi Yar" Symphony, but boy howdy, it ain't Valentine's Day.


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