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Orchestras' class(room) act


Latest in the never-ending series of orchestras' educational endeavors: the Boston Symphony Orchestra has launched an on-line "Classical Companion" to Beethoven's nine symphonies, with videos, lectures and a "Beethoven Music Lab" that allows you to create your own development section to three of the symphonies. It's all very nice: Jan Swafford's brief video introductions to the individual symphonies are pleasant but too short to be of real use, particularly without telling musical examples.

The benchmark for this kind of thing is the San Francisco Symphony's ambitious Keeping Score project. Michael Tilson Thomas, the SFS music director, understands perhaps better than any other conductor the potential of the brave new media world: "Keeping Score" is a TV series (next up: Shostakovich, starting October 29; check local listings), a radio series, and an interactive on-line component, with the requisite educational arm. It's impressive and extremely well done.

It may be unfair to compare something on the scale of Keeping Score with the smaller-scale educational ventures of other organizations. The fact is, though, that classical music institutions are widely accepting the idea that it's their responsibility to educate the audience -- to help teach people about why they should be interested in the product that the institutions are offering.
(read more after the jump)

It's true that people who love music are often eager to learn more about how it is made, particularly about the ways people who make music think about it. One nice feature of the "Keeping Score" TV shows are the clips of orchestral musicians giving their views on the composer in question. Similarly, the Washington Performing Arts Society's podcast series (archived here) offers performers talking about themselves and the music they'll be performing -- far more interesting than most program notes.

The part that I question about some of these projects -- and about many of the well-meaning pre-concert lectures one encounters -- is the relentlessly didactic tone. Music institutions are feeling, it seems, a responsibility to assume the role that educational institutions are abandoning, in terms of teaching people about classical music. (Opera America is even offering, for a price, four-week on-line courses in a program called "Online Learning;" the current one, which has already started, covers Puccini's "La Bohème.") But there's a fine line between conveying useful information and lecturing at people.

It's true that the more you know, the more you can appreciate what you hear or see -- in any art. But do we really want to be conveying the idea that it requires a special education to enjoy a concert? Or to equate concert-going with school? I realize that Bernstein's Young People's Concerts were wonderfully inspiring, but I still wonder if lecturing at audiences -- particularly younger audiences -- in the 21st century is really the way to win them over.

On the other hand: what's the alternative? Discuss.

By Anne Midgette  |  October 28, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  music on the Web , random musings  
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Comments

I rarely attend pre-concert lectures; when I do, I do either for the possibility of asking questions, or when there is a rare piece played - such was the case with D'Indy's Fervaal.

But for the "educational programs" in general, I think one has to keep in mind who the audience is. A seasoned music lover would listen to the WPAS podcasts or watch Keeping Score, but is quite unlikely to attend them the more didactic programs. But an intellectually curious person who wants to explore music may give them a try.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | October 28, 2009 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Thank you so much for opening up this world to us! I checked out Keeping Score and learned all about Berlioz stalking Harriet Smith in his Symphonie Phantastique -- pretty fantastic. A lot of it requires knowing more about music than I do, but I love getting educated and picking up what I can. The Boston link is not as exciting, for the reasons you give, but also because Swafford talks down to his audience -- it was annoying to hear him imply that the words of the 9th symphony were Beethoven's, when in fact they were written by his friend Schiller. It made me question everything else he said. Still, with all the variety of approaches, it will be possible to learn enough about music to actually listen to it, instead of just bobbing your head with a vacant expression as if you were listening to your iPod, and perhaps some day the tourists who attend our concerts will know enough to have opinions worth hearing and won't give standing ovations for enthusiasm! Talking about education: what is the picture of Fermi talking about the Schrodinger equation for the hydrogen atom doing on your posting? The frequencies are way out of the audible range...

Posted by: gauthier310 | October 28, 2009 12:08 PM | Report abuse

I strongly disagree with cicciofrancolando (if I understand her or his broken English correctly).

Based upon Michael Tilson Thomas’s and the San Francisco Symphony’s new hour long “Keeping Score” programs on Hector Berlioz and Symphonie fantastique and Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Symphony #5” (both of which I saw in San Francisco – the first on-air and the second on disc), I believe that virtually all seasoned music lovers -- as well as all intellectually curious persons, especially teenagers and college students – will tremendously enjoy these superb programs.

Cicciofrancolando, if you don’t mind me asking, where did you see the three newest “Keeping Score” installations – or are you basing your comment on last season’s San Francisco Symphony “Keeping Score” installations on Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Copland (which, while available on disc, have not – inexplicably --yet been broadcast on WETA)?

Only the first of the three new installations – on Hector Berlioz – has yet been aired in San Francisco on public television, and it won’t be aired on WETA until this Sunday at 2:30 PM (remember the time change.)

http://www.weta.org/tv/programsatoz/program/58233

Also, unlike Ms Midgette, I do not find Michael Tilson Thomas’s and the San Francisco Symphony’s Keeping Score project either didactic or lecturing – based upon the five installations that I have viewed last season and this season in San Francisco.

Posted by: snaketime1 | October 28, 2009 12:32 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Snaketime, please read things carefully. I did say that "A seasoned music lover WOULD LISTEN to the WPAS podcasts or WATCH Keeping Score" (emphasis added.)

Also, the way I read Ms. Midgette's post it seemed to me that she implied that some of the educational programs, but not necessarily Keeping Score or WPAS podcasts, can be didactic or pedagogic.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | October 28, 2009 2:13 PM | Report abuse

Ms or Mr cicciofrancolando, I did read as carefully as I could given your poorly constructed comment. You said: "A seasoned music lover would listen to the WPAS podcasts or watch Keeping Score, but is quite unlikely to attend them the more didactic programs." (There is no need to emphasize further your very poor construction of words).

Anne Midgette's second to last full thought, above, was: "I realize that Bernstein's Young People's Concerts were wonderfully inspiring, but I still wonder if lecturing at audiences -- particularly younger audiences -- in the 21st century is really the way to win them over."

I replied: "unlike Ms Midgette, I do not find Michael Tilson Thomas’s and the San Francisco Symphony’s Keeping Score project either didactic or lecturing – based upon the five installations that I have viewed last season and this season in San Francisco."

I read carefully both your disjointed comment as best I could, and Anne Midgette's comments on television, new media, and music education in full.

Given that this is an open and official forum attempting to keep the classical music field vital, I replied.


Posted by: snaketime1 | October 28, 2009 3:02 PM | Report abuse

"What we have here is a failure to communicate."

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | October 28, 2009 3:05 PM | Report abuse

Music lovers have been coming to the Peabody Institute for nearly 30 years to stay on campus, attend week-long music history classes, and go to concerts by students and faculty members. This is the biggest music program connected with Elderhostel (new name: Exploritas). But the appeal of these educational travel experiences to Baby Boomers remains to be seen, particularly in the classical music area, including opera (there are also classes about jazz, Broadway, and Hollywood).

Posted by: richseld | October 28, 2009 5:15 PM | Report abuse

I see that Anne Midgette has edited her extended comment above, and is now calling the San Francisco Symphony’s “Keeping Score” series and interactive web-site “impressive and extremely well done.” I applaud her edit.

Perhaps, given the disadvantage of Washington regional viewers who were not treated by WETA (despite successful fundraising) to the first season of “Keeping Score”, Anne Midgette’s request for discussion could be tabled until more regional forum participants have had an opportunity to view both the new three-installation season of “Keeping Score”; as well as the not-locally-broadcast first season.

Again, Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique will be broadcast for the first time locally this Sunday at 2:30 PM; Ives: Holidays Symphony will be broadcast for the first time locally on Saturday November 7 at 7 AM (sic); and Shostakovich: Symphony #5 will be broadcast for the first time locally on Saturday November 7 at 8 AM (sic).

Perhaps Anne Midgette – or someone at the Washington Post -- can inquire as to if and when WETA will first broadcast, regionally, last season’s “Keeping Score” installations on Beethoven Symphony #3, Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”, and Aaron Copland’s American classical music.

http://www.weta.org/tv/programsatoz/program/58233#upcoming

Posted by: snaketime1 | October 29, 2009 10:16 AM | Report abuse

I didn't edit anything. Once I publish something on this blog, it is on the record. If I make any changes I always indicate them with the words "Edited to add," or, in one case where I fixed an unfortunate typographical error, strikethroughs and a note to readers.

Posted by: MidgetteA | October 29, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Good evening, Ms. Midgette. My response to your above article can be read here:

http://www.soundsandfury.com/soundsandfury/2009/10/to-lecture-or-not-to-lecture.html

ACD

Posted by: ACDouglas1 | October 29, 2009 5:56 PM | Report abuse

What's Enrico Fermi got to do with this? Do you think one of these talks might set off a chain reaction?

Posted by: seismic-2 | October 31, 2009 5:15 PM | Report abuse

Although it wasn’t made clear at all in the text above, the photo refers to the 2009 Fermi Symposium which opens today in Washington, D.C.

Either Anne Midgette- or the Post’s photo editor - apparently saw the reference to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in the text, and thought of the Fermi Symposium, which includes tonight - at the Kennedy Center - the Boston University Symphony Orchestra performing the world premiere of Nolan Gasser’s Cosmic Reflection: A Narrated Symphony, op. 15 (along with a brass fanfare with video). [Gasser was born in 1964.]
Tickets are listed at $20; although they are free to scientists signed up to attend the Symposium. Less expensive tickets may conceivably also be available, and are worth asking about if need be, given the long tail of the deep recession and very high unemployment.

I don’t believe there was any preview of the world premiere in the weekend post, although I could be wrong.

http://www.classicalarchives.com/CR/index.html

Posted by: snaketime1 | November 2, 2009 9:46 AM | Report abuse

Clarification: I wasn't very clear in my above comment. Tonight's science-themed concert at the Kennedy Center also includes Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 4, op. 29, “The Inextinguishable” and three high Renaissance Venetian canzoni arranged by Raymond Mase of the American Brass Quintet, as well as the fanfare with video and brand new Symphony with narration by Nolan Gasser.

Posted by: snaketime1 | November 2, 2009 9:53 AM | Report abuse

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