16 June 2008

There's Still Time

In researching the Minnesota Orchestra's website for the previous missive, I stumbled upon this promo for an upcoming concert, excerpted below:

He wowed the audience in January when he performed here with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. In this concert, the 28-year-old Sean Jones joins with other rising stars to bring you fresh arrangements of jazz standards.

I know nothing about Mr. Jones and by no means wish to drag his name through the mud by saying this, but I'm suddenly comforted by the fact that whoever wrote this blurb seems to believe that the potential for age-based novelty still exists in a musician who is nearly 30 years old. That I have at least 3 more years to do something spectacular relative to my age is an entirely unexpected yet altogether pleasant surprise, even if it means temporarily forfeiting the right to be jealous of Eldar (disclaimer: shall I to fail to accomplish anything whatsoever these next 3 years, I reserve the right to reclaim this jealousy with all its privileges and obligations).

Of course, the 3-year window applies only to my tuba playing, since we all know that 50 is still young in composer-years. It's good to know that a press release fawning over "47-year old composer Stefan Kac" is not entirely out of the question. I might just write it now while the ideas are still fresh in my head and there are still 22 years left to double check spelling and grammar. Unfortunately, I won't be able to make it to Orchestra Hall on June 26 to see what all the fuss is about. You see, I'll be out of town that week playing at the International Tuba Euphonium Conference...even though I'm only 25.

13 June 2008

Reflections on a 4-Concert Package

Although I was a regular at Minnesota Orchestra concerts throughout my high school and undergraduate years, I recall attending only two concerts by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra during this same time. There are many reasons for this: Downtown Minneapolis was much closer than Downtown St. Paul; my tuba teacher was a member of MNOrch and often offered us free tickets; and all the brass dorks (myself included, at that time) wanted and needed to hear BIG pieces with BIG excerpts played on BIG horns.

Among the backstage attractions at Orchestra Hall during this time was a wall of plaques from ASCAP honoring the orchestra and its then music director Eiji Oue for so-called "adventurous programming." I shudder to think how the less adventurous orchestras were programming their seasons. For the most part, I never was and still am not a big fan of MNOrch's programming, despite the fact that it has allowed me to hear many of the standard orchestral excerpts for tuba live and in person (back when that mattered to me, at least). For a while, it seemed like Mahler 1 was being played twice a year every year. Later, Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe slid into that role, once even popping up with no prior warning when a soloist a cancelled at the last minute. Ravel for Prokofiev is not a fair trade in my mind, but that's just my opinion.

The two main problems I have with the way concerts were programmed there 5-10 years ago (and which seems to me to persist to a great extent as we speak) have, I think, already been deconstructed by many more astute observers of orchestras. For one thing, the predictable hodge-podge of old and new pieces is not always as effective as it might seem on paper. While the goal of such programming is to make sure that there is "something for everyone" on each concert, it also ensures that there is something for everyone to dread, making it difficult for anyone to look forward to the entire concert rather than part of it (and sometimes it's an exceedingly small part).

In my humble opinion, it would make more sense to offer at least a few programs throughout the season where the theme is musical or stylistic rather than making a weak attempt to contextualize a token contemporary piece by surrounding it with works to which it is supposed to have some tenuous extramusical connection. If what we really need is context, why not provide musical or aesthetic context by playing other pieces by this composer, by their contemporaries, students, or teachers? After all, are social and historical context not meaningless without an aesthetic context to go with them?

Rather than diluting an already sparce collection of new(er) pieces to be played any given season by presenting them one at a time as a small parts of larger warhorse-laden programs, why not present them together on a couple of modernist blowout concerts presented a couple of months apart? The answer is that managements would rather have patrons detest one-third of every program than all of one of them. If it has been empirically proven that this keeps more butts in seats, then so be it; I for one would rather see it done the other way around. And if you think that my opinion doesn't matter because I am also a trained musician, well...you might as well stop reading here.

My point is not that old and new(er) pieces can never be on the same program; of course they can. However, if the primary concern in pairing them is not aesthetic, one has to wonder what the point is of having a concert in the first place. Furthermore, with purchasers of mere 4-concert packages now being labelled "Season Ticket Holders" (more on that in a moment), there definitely seems to be a framework in place for dispensing with the notion of a monolithic STH bloc that comes to every single concert and demands the same repertoire year after year. Clearly, orchestras are slowly embracing an approach where people simply go to the concerts they want to hear. The ticket policies are starting to change, at least here in the Twin Cities; hopefully the programming is not far behind.

Add to all of this wrangling over what to do with the new(er) piece(s) on any given program the fact that orchestras would often rather commission a new piece from the Sexy Composer du Jour than program an acknowledged 20th century masterwork in the same idiom (or, just as often, commission the SCdJ to write a derivative, backward-looking piece that sounds old but can be labeled new without lying). Obviously, for orchestras to be supporting living composers is, in the abstract, a good idea (let's put aside for now any perceived problems with their actual choices and the mechanisms for making them). Nonetheless, a larger audience for new(er) music cannot be built this way any more than a larger audience for Classical Era music can be built by omitting the works of Mozart and Beethoven and instead commissioning new works written in that style by composers of lesser ability (and that would be most everyone). No one wants to listen to that. Being almost a decade into the 21st century, we've long since passed the point where a living composer can fill the same role on a mixed program as Stravinsky, Bartok, or Debussy. Concerts simply cannot be allowed to stay in the "Music of Mozart, Beethoven, and My Neighbor" format so long that everyone in between is forgotten. Even the most musically conservative of ears would find a few worthy pieces written in the last 70 years were they simply made aware of them. For the rest of us, there may well be too many to count, making it particularly frustrating that they are not performed.

I have many gripes, obviously, but none of this is enough to keep me away entirely. When I do attempt to make plans, one problem I have had with both The SPCO and MNOrch is the way their ticket packages and season schedules are presented. It has become damn near impossible to find a schedule that simply lists all of the concerts in chronological order. Instead, we get a series of mailings every spring and summer featuring series grouped by day of the week, location, time of day, and so on. I can only assume that this is a response to "busy working professionals" who already know what they're doing any given day of the week from now until they retire. Some of us, however, have no idea (and thankfully so). Can we PLEASE start printing schedules from start to finish, the way the rest of the world does?

I mentioned this to the SPCO representative who called me about renewing my subscription a few months ago. They promised to send me one; I still don't have it, though I have received the same barrage of flyers plugging pre-packaged concert series, none of which are comprised entirely of concerts I'm actually excited about attending. Even the SPCO's website does not, as best I could tell, offer a simple PDF schedule that lists all of next season's classical concerts from start to finish. They do allow you to search the schedule by guest artist, composer, or instrument. (come on guys, no concerts featuring tuba?), but this is a rather inefficient way of piecing together a complete schedule.

On the other hand, MNOrch's website seems to have been improved over what I remembered. For starters, there is a reasonably intuitive online calendar with a complete listing of Orchestra Hall events by month. The only drawback here is that the complete program is not listed on the calendar, and that each month is a separate page; hence, to view the season from start to finish, one must navigate to the first month, click on the link to the first concert to view the program, then navigate back to the month, repeat for the rest of that month's concerts, then navigate ahead to the next month, and so on. Better yet, however, there is a downloadable PDF document that includes a complete and chronological classical season schedule with the complete program for each concert given. I never thought I'd see the day. They did an excellent job cramming all of this information on to a single page, and capitalizing the composer's names so that they jump out a bit was a good move, but if you're as much of a modernist sore ass as I am, you surely noticed that where the Schoenberg arrangement of Bach is listed, the composer's name is capitalized but the arranger's is not. Good job guys. We wouldn't want people staying home because they thought a piece by Schoenberg was going to be on the program, would we?

It also appears that MNOrch will allow customers to essentially build their own series rather than only offering certain combinations at discounted rates. If the SPCO offers such a thing, I can't seem to locate it on their site. I can't think of a good argument against offering customers the option to use their 4- or 5- or 6-concert package on the concerts of their choice, and this would certainly help facilitate an increase concerts of exclusively new(er) pieces as it would avoid locking anyone into hearing them who did not want to.

This post has now gotten long enough that I've basically lost sight of the reason I sat down to write it, which is that last year around this time, I finally took the plunge and bought a 4-concert package for the 2007-08 SPCO season. I mainly did it as a way to force myself back into hearing orchestral music, which I had all of abandoned after I was no longer eligible for student rush tickets (the package was also quite a bargain, even by those standards), and also because The SPCO's programming has, for some time now, piqued my interest more so than that of their crosstown colleagues. The last of those 4 concerts was last Friday night; it did not disappoint, nor did any of the other 3. Perhaps the only disappointment (and yes, I know we're all sick of hearing this) was that I was quite possibly the only person under 40 in the entire balcony. I say disappointing not because I subscribe to the theory that this means classical music is over and done with, but because I knew it was only a matter of time before the sheer curiosity of my fellow concertgoers led to some sort of socially awkward exchange (and of course I'm throwing caution to the wind here in assuming that none of those involved will actually read what I'm about to write; after all, people that age usually don't even know how to use computers, right?).

Sure enough, during the intermission, I hear from my right: "Did you get a student rush ticket?" I was in the middle of a sentence when I was presented with another query from several seats to my left: "Are you a musician?" I sat there in confused silence for several seconds trying to decide who to answer first and how. I've never felt more like George Constanza. It was as if these things had been on everyone's minds the entire first half and now that someone had broken the ice, the floor was open (wide open) for questions.

Here I was sitting in the same seat that I had already been in for three and a half concerts over a span of almost nine months, still utterly unable to blend into the middle-aged white-collar bourgeois scenery. I wanted to break into a profanity-laced tirade about how this was "my seat," that I paid good money for it, that I earned that money working a day job like everyone else around me, that I'm not a student any more, I didn't play in the marching band when I was, and that in light of the preceding observations, I ought to command at least enough respect to be allowed to finish my sentence before the next old biddy whose brother's roommate's uncle happened to play the tuba in junior high school interrupts me with more small-talk.

Instead, biting my tongue, I began to cue up all of the standard diplomatic answers I've been conditioned to give to people my parents' age and older so as not to offend them too badly when they inquire about why in god's name I would eschew a comfortable bourgeois academic life to rough it as a freelance jazz tuba player in the Midwest. This was no small task seeing that it had to be projected in two different directions 180 degrees apart. I couldn't help the feeling that somewhere out there on the East Coast, Greg Sandow was laughing his ass off at me for all the times I said I like the vibe of orchestra concerts just fine thank you. This incident, I think, really has nothing to do with any of that. It's just part of growing up (or not). I can only hope that people will still be underestimating my age by 10 years when I'm a senior citizen. Maybe by then I'll be getting complete season schedules in the mail, and maybe I will open them to see the names of Ligeti, Messaien, Lutoslawski, Kernis and friends next to each other rather than Mozart. That'll be the day.