Mr. Greg Sandow has been offering some good insights on his blog. 1) Writing about a new film called Copying Beethoven, he voices a complaint that I've had about almost every music-themed movie I've seen: "...it irks me that the people who plan these films do extensive research on costumes and furniture, but don't trouble to find out even the most basic things about how music in the eras they depict was actually performed." The idea that the Ninth Symphony scene in this film consists of people in period costumes miming Bernard Haitink's 1996 recording — on modern instruments, and in modern style — is reason enough to give it a miss. 2) Greg's critique of the Met's David Letterman appearance is also right on. You'd think the camera could have lingered a little longer on Juan Diego Flórez. AC Douglas is on the same page, which is a first. 3) Most important, Greg picks apart a Wall Street Journal article on audience-outreach ventures at American orchestras. I have a long, half-finished post on this subject, which has now been rendered unnecessary, although I'll offer the gist anyway.
Judith H. Dobrzynksi's article begins with this rebarbative gambit:
HERE'S A TEST for symphony orchestra lovers. True or false:
1) To woo younger audiences, which are bored by Beethoven, Bach and Brahms, orchestras must play more contemporary works, even at the risk of alienating their aging core audience.
2) By offering free concerts, orchestras will expose more people to classical music and generate new ticket-buyers.
3) Orchestras can create new audiences by designing and offering educational programs for the vast numbers of Americans who know little about classical music.
4) To ensure the survival of orchestras over the long-term, schoolchildren must be exposed to classical-music concerts.
The answers are false, false, false and false.
Point 1 is most problematic. Obviously, if you characterize the case for new-music programming in such crude, straw-man fashion, you can easily knock it down. But I'm having trouble finding any corroborating data in the Knight Foundation report on the article is based. Where is the discussion of "contemporary works"? I don't see it. I believe Dobrzynksi might be trying to paraphrase the Knight Foundation's evaluation of various festival-style events, incorporating repertory old and/or new, which have been presented by the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the New World Symphony, and several other orchestras. The report says that most of these worked very well on their own. About the Brooklyn Phil: "[Joseph Horowitz's Interplay events] were deemed so interesting and successful that they were picked up by other orchestras...." About the New World Symphony: "The In-Context festivals and innovative concert formats proved of great interest not only to local audiences but to other orchestras." Sort of undermines the Journal headline, "Unsuccessful Overtures." The trouble is that in some cases the innovations apparently did not lead to increased ticket sales for regular programs. (The report is frustratingly short on hard data.) What's missing is an assessment of orchestras such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony, which have made a long-term commitment to twentieth-century and contemporary repertory, with powerful results.
It's a curious document, really. The foundation confines its attentions to the effects of programs that the foundation itself has designed and funded. Can it objectively evaluate its own ideas? Can it then generalize from those results to the orchestra world at large? I'm skeptical of the methodology, although I see nothing objectionable in the rather obvious wrap-up:
No single magic bullet will address the many serious problems that orchestras face. Magic of Music started with the simple premise that changes in the concert hall experience would transform orchestras. That turned out to be simplistic. More varied and interesting programming, a revitalized concert hall experience, more involved music directors, better marketing, enhanced participation of musicians in governance and decision-making, less restrictive collective bargaining agreements, more innovative use of technology, alternative leadership models, larger endowments, more education and outreach — all these things and others can contribute to solutions. Yet it is their combined power to produce transformational change that orchestras must unleash.
As Greg says, Dobrzynksi echoes this conclusion at the end of her article, weirdly contradicting her opening, which essentially implies that all innovation is pointless. I'm afraid that reactionary orchestra subscribers won't have got that far, and will triumphantly quote the opening sentences as they tell their orchestras to stick to Beethoven and Brahms.