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Final thoughts on music and community

I have gotten on a roll with this local arts-groups issue, but Michael Kaiser’s term “slots mentality” has been occupying my thoughts today.

I started to develop a concern that all classical music presenters, almost by default, have a “slots mentality.” If your mandate is to play the great works of the past, exactly what can you do, beyond programming a bunch of concerts? Yes, there’s new music: you can commission it, and you can try to involve your audience by giving them some sense of ownership in it. If your preference is old repertory, you can carve out a particular niche for yourself, focusing on Bach, for example, or Baroque opera. But if your area is Classical and Romantic repertory, it takes extra thought to get behind the “four programs, four pieces each” way of thinking.
(read more after the jump)

One option that a lot of groups are actively exploring these days is to develop a social conscience. Community is a buzzword, and arts organizations are reaching out to parts of it not usually targeted by music programs (the Kennedy Center’s VSA festival for artists with disabilities; the Houston Grand Opera’s oratorio “The Refuge,” a product of discussion with the city’s various immigrant communities). The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is a poster child for this kind of work, from its Orchkids program, bringing musical instruments and instruction to inner-city kids, to its programs for adult amateur musicians, including next week’s inaugural Academy, a kind of boot camp for motivated amateur musicians offering intensive lessons, workshops, and performances with BSO members.

As I was musing about what might constitute distinctive community involvement in Washington -- what might make the NSO, for instance, more a part of its community -- I thought sadly that artistic vision isn’t always enough. Leonard Slatkin’s concept of the National Symphony Orchestra as an American orchestra that should focus on American music was very right-minded, and he certainly worked to follow through on it. It’s notable that he didn’t get more credit, on a national level, for this openness to the contemporary, which to some critics is the be-all and end-all of desirable qualities in a music director. Yes, you could say, his performances were sometimes sloppy, erratic, phoned-in; but there are other active conductors out there with comparable or greater musical flaws who get more respect, generally speaking, than Slatkin does. I wonder if to some extent it’s a question of marketing -- which plays a bigger role in all of this than music purists might wish.

In fact, marketing is not tangential to this line of thought. Purists may say it should be all about the music. Well and good. But I don’t know anybody who thinks it was a bad thing that Opera Lafayette sold out the Kennedy Center Concert Hall this year. This didn’t happen because Washington had a burning desire to see Gluck’s “Armide.” It happened because Opera Lafayette got out there and watered those grassroots: contacting every organization that might have an interest, handing out flyers, generally being proactive about spreading the word. It worked, and it certainly didn’t compromise the company’s artistic standards. Tickets don’t get sold by themselves, however big or small your organization. And the passivity of what Kaiser calls “slots mentality” too easily bleeds over into a sense of helplessness about selling tickets: a feeling of throwing up the hands, saying, Well, we offered it, but they didn’t come.

(Many groups will say, at this juncture, We would get more audiences if you wrote about us more in the Washington Post. That’s a fallacy. No group, of any size, can rely solely on the media to sell tickets. It’s not a strategy.)

I promise to leave this topic for a while now. But I'd be curious to hear others' thoughts on what might constitute greater community involvement for the NSO or any arts group you can think of, large or small.

By Anne Midgette  |  June 10, 2010; 6:15 AM ET
Categories:  Washington , random musings  
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I would be astonished and delighted if an adventurous D.C. classical music organization decided it wanted to commission some new music incorporating go-go, the extremely percussive style indigenous to D.C. and little known outside of the area. For me, this would make my two favorite musical genres available in one concert.

Sometime when I have some spare time, I'm going to describe in detail on my blog the "Go-Go Messiah" idea I have been nursing for a couple years know. (Yeah, I know, all y'all are waiting with bated breath for that one.)

Posted by: Lindemann777 | June 10, 2010 8:50 AM | Report abuse

All tickets to Opera Lafayette performance of "Armide" were $15. While many of us would have gone anyway if a "normal" price for a concert-opera performance had been charged, I suspect that it was the bargain that accounted for the sell-out in a large venue like the Concert Hall (for a group that usually performs in the Terrace Theater).

Posted by: geranuk | June 10, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

Before moving to the USA 10 years ago I spent a decade fighting the UK's orchestral establishment because I'm a conductor who asks questions such as "What lighting are we using?", "Who's going to book the bus stop poster spaces?", "Which schools do you want me to give pre-concert lectures at?", "Which companies will we ask to send emails to all their employees?" The response was generally "Stephen, please focus on the music."

Marketing in all its connotations is VITAL to an orchestra's sustenance yet 20 years ago nobody wanted to hear it. Even now, as I search for a like-minded orchestra in the USA, the elite resistence to 'reaching out' in 'non-traditional forms' is ever-prevalent and truly scary.

Thank you for sharing your perspective, the experience of Opera LaFayette, and prompting decision-makers to realize it's not about them! (Of course, after making comments like this, I still wonder who's gonna hire me?!)

Posted by: spbmrmusic | June 10, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

Lindemann777, I've been thinking the same thing you were thinking!!! I'm a composer who has played with Trouble Funk and would love to merge the two genres!!! If you would like to contact me, go to my website

Posted by: artpal | June 10, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

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