I recently spent a lot of time online gathering information about the fall musical season. I was struck at the huge, Reger-sized variations in quality among various ensembles' websites, from the dazzling to the deadening, the very cool to the very lame. The topic may seem rather trivial, but you can get a good sense of how organizations think — and how they limit their vision — from looking at their websites.
Drew McManus, proprietor of the hugely informative Adaptistration blog, has done a meticulous ranking of orchestra sites, giving pride of place to the Chicago Symphony. I agree that Chicago's is probably the best of its kind, but McManus' criteria often differed from mine. He declares himself uninterested in aesthetics; instead, he prizes lucid concert information, efficient ticket-buying procedures, and plentiful information about the musicians. That's all good, but I think aesthetics are absolutely vital. And few orchestras are using the Internet to appeal to the fast-surfing interloper who's in search of something new. Websites shouldn't simply provide hitch-free functionality to long-term subscribers (many of whom don't depend on the Internet anyway); they should also sell the music on offer. Chicago, for example, has an excellent page entitled "Discover Classical Music", introducing basic terms and asking questions like "Was Bela Bartók the original hip-hop artist?" (No, but it's one way to get the conversation started.) Such bonus features may well explain why the orchestra now does $2.5 million of its ticket sales online. The National Symphony site, by contrast (McManus #2), is official and bland. "Please allow extra time driving to the Kennedy Center," proclaims the front page. We're told that "The Music of Barbra Streisand" is coming up on the Pops series, though Babs herself is not involved. All told, if I were a DC-based Culturally Aware Non-Attender, I'd look at this, roll my eyes, and go back to Wonkette.
I've commented before that many sites actively conceal whatever novelties the orchestra might have deliberately or accidentally perpetrated. Premieres, like deformed Victorian children, are hidden behind a screen. Consider the Indianapolis Symphony, for example, ranked by McManus at #9. Here is their 2004-5 season overview:
Many great works that have figured prominently in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's history will be performed in 2004-05 ... Copland's Appalachian Spring ... the fiery Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz ... Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 and the Bruch Violin Concerto ....Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony ... The 2004-05 season will also boast Rachmaninoff's lush Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the beloved Grieg Piano Concerto, the brilliant Fourth Symphony of Johannes Brahms, Beethoven's "Pastorale" and "Choral" Symphonies, Mozart's "Prague" Symphony, Saint-Saens' "Organ" Symphony, Nielsen's "Inextinguishable" Symphony, Respighi's majestic Pines of Rome, and the romantic Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Many familiar faces will take part in the Orchestra's 75th anniversary celebration ... André Watts ... Joshua Bell ... Stephen Hough and Louis Lortie ... the dazzling young violinist Leila Josefowicz, and the stunning Eroica Trio....
How prescient of Nielsen to supply his own adjective, removing the need for a "brilliant" or "fiery." (My own First Symphony will be called "The Familiar.") Only by scrolling through the calendar and clicking on each concert headline was I able to discover that the Indianapolis Symphony is in fact presenting four premieres this season, plus several other new or new-ish works. On Oct. 15, for example ("Venzago conducts Bruckner"), the orchestra is playing Brian Current's this isn't silence. Who he? A search for "Current" retrieves the information that "Maestro Venzago currently resides both in Heidelberg and Indianapolis with his wife Marianne, Principal Viola with the Heidelberg Symphony, and their two sons, Mario and Gabriel. He loves to cook Italian-style and enjoys visiting art museums." But nothing about Brian Current. It turns out he's a young Canadian composer whose work For The Time Being is definitely worth hearing (and you can hear it on his site). All told, I'd deduct points for Indianapolis' new-music coverup. Why not explain your new-music programming, perhaps even use it to attract new audiences, instead of dumping it like cold water on unsuspecting subscribers? Chicago, by contrast, takes pride in its premieres and advertises them under a "Music Now" series. The Pittsburgh Symphony supplies pithy descriptions and sound samples for the likes of Berio and Christopher Rouse.
McManus is also an invaluable inside source on the contract negotiations that are now roiling the orchestra world. The biggest stink is in Philadelphia, where players and board members have accused each other of greed, sloth, pride, and all the other deadly sins. To the outside observer, the entire argument seems unbelievably petty, since all involved, including the lowest-ranking orchestra players, have nothing to complain about in terms of salary, benefits, and everything else. Concertmaster David Kim makes $253,000 a year; Philadelphia Orchestra Association President Joe Kluger makes $285,000 a year. Who's dying here? Where's the tragedy? "A squabble between the rich and super-rich," Peter Dobrin of the Inquirer has called it. What I want to know is whether anyone has any strong ideas for saving the orchestra from accelerating cultural obsolescence. From what I know, orchestra unions are too stubbornly attached to the old model — practice, rehearse, play a concert, go home — to accept the kind of flexible, multidimensional approach that the orchestra of the future will demand. Yet chairmen and board members are often too full of themselves to make an effective case for systemic change. Each side blames the other for problems that go much deeper, that are profoundly cultural. Alas, it may take a catastrophic failure or two for people to get their priorities straight.