Thursday, June 5, 2008

Putting Your Money Where Your Music Is

First things first: fifteen years ago today I married the best of all possible wives, and, remarkably, she's stayed with me, which makes this a rather important anniversary. My gift to her was to cease blogging for the past 10 days or so. (OK, not really, as evidenced by the fact that I'm blogging on our anniversary - I've just been in post-semester blogging malaise, busying myself with such inspirational tasks as trying to restore some semblance of order to a badly neglected yard, etc.)

Two important musical points to make about this MMmarriage.

1) We met playing music - Dvorak's Dumky Trio at a summer festival. I guess there was a violinist involved as well (actually, he was quite memorable, but that's for another day), but to me the Dumky will always be the most romantic of duets. Music is undoubtedly the catalyst that brought us together and helped us discover how many other things we had/have in common. And here's a quick funny story. Our oldest daughter has heard many times how that violinist was a bit of a party animal who showed up late for just about every rehearsal, thereby forcing his shy pianist and cellist to kill the time waiting by chatting with each other. So, tonight I'm playing our 1989 Bowdoin Summer Music Festival recording of the Dumky Trio for dinner music. As it starts and I mention that it's Mommy and Daddy playing a trio, our three-year old asks who the violinist is. When I mention that the violinist hasn't started yet (because the trio begins with an extended bit for just cello and piano), the eight-year old deadpans, "what, was he late then too?" I don't even think she meant it as a joke, but it made me laugh. Then, after dinner, she further endeared herself to us by asking to play a Mozart trio we've been rehearsing, so the trio thing is coming full circle. Yes, marriage is good.

2) We've decided that our primary gift to each other will be buying a seven-concert subscription to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Now, this may not seem like the most romantic of gifts, but life with three young children means that seven guaranteed dates for the coming year is something to be treasured. Not that we don't love our time with the little ones, but we're not so good at planning evenings out -and if they're not planned, they tend not to happen. So, this is a very exciting prospect, and it gives us a chance to share more musical experiences.

It's also interesting to think about some of the implications of this choice in light of two principal preoccupations of the musical blogosphere: 1) the ever-aging and decaying audience for classical music, and 2) the problematic position of "new music" in the "classical music" world. As for point #1, I guess we are now part of that ever-aging and decaying audience as this is (shamefully, or not) our first serious financial commitment to concert attendance and - much as it pains me to say it - we're no longer part of the coveted under-40 demographic. How about that? We're rookies and we're already over the hill.

Of course, it's possible that we're also an example of why concertgoers are trending older, given that people tend to take longer to get their careers and families going and given that a night out at the symphony, figuring in babysitting, parking, etc. is not a trivial investment. In other words, maybe there is a future audience out there among the twenty- and thirty-somethings, but they just aren't ready for the commitment. I'm sure Greg Sandow has some magical numbers somewhere to debunk that theory, so I'm not gonna push it. Let's just say it'll be nice to feel young at these concerts.

As for the "new music" issue, let's face it, the decision to invest so much time and money into the BSO already says something about our lack of commitment to the "progressive cause." After all, we could have chosen BMOP instead. I haven't exactly hidden the fact here that I'm most tuned into and turned on by the "older stuff" (check out my desert island list), basically the Bach-Stravinsky repertoire that still best defines the classical music world, and I've come to the happy position of being neither proud nor embarrassed by that fact. The "new music" problem is fascinating and infinitely complex and I spend a lot of time trying to sort out why the classical music world is what it is. Still, as interesting as it is to speculate about what the music world should be and what people should want from concerts and the like, it's also worth considering what a middle-of-the-road connoisseur such as I does get and want from music.

The process of choosing to subscribe to the BSO and picking concerts is as good a way as any of seeing where my musical heart is, though the results are hardly surprising. The works I'm most excited about hearing include Beethoven's 7th (my favorite of The Nine), Mahler 6, Shostakovich 9, the Rite of Spring, Mozart's 40 & 41, and, yes, Carmina burana. I'm admittedly less enthused about the Carter horn concerto (although content that it will be framed by Beethoven and Stravinsky), and that's really the only remotely contemporary piece on the series we've chosen.

Here's where Greg Sandow would jump in and accuse me of just wanting to "bask" in music that I love, but as I mentioned in a comment on his blog, I may know all these standard rep works very well, but I haven't had that many chances to hear a world-class orchestra play them. Sandow seems to believe that listeners ought to be seeking out more demanding (unpredictable) experiences that challenge us to think about bigger things and be startled and prodded and whatever. That's fine for those who want it, but when it comes to investing this kind of money and time, I don't mind admitting that I want to go hear music that I'm pretty sure I'll find satisfying. By the way, although Sandow often cites the progressive indie-rock types as being more about "real" and "meaningful" experiences, I think he underestimates how much fans of those worlds are also seeking to bask in the familiar, as well as just enjoying the sense of being locked in culturally. Not that there's anything wrong with wanting to be "locked in culturally;" I just happen to enjoy being locked into a different kind of culture that, admittedly, may not be so closely tied to the moment.

But hey, it's my anniversay, I've got 364 other days to ignore my bride while blogging, so maybe I should return my attention to her. Oh, and Celtics-Lakers starts in about an hour. Fortunately she likes watching sports. (Did I mention she's the best of all possible wives?) Ho hum, another local team playing for the championship. I just hope the BSO goes all the way this year.


Fusedule Tecil said...

Interesting post which brings up many tangential issues.

Subscribing to ANYTHING is a commitment that is counter to the general trend among performing arts groups. Post 9/11, audiences have been changing. In a 6000 channel universe, with so many competing demands on time and attention, it’s increasingly difficult for arts organizations to keep subscribers. People don’t like to make long term commitments. Most don’t know what they’re doing on Saturday, much less next February 18th. The BSO has instituted the ability for subscribers to exchange tickets easily, in recognition of the fact that people just can’t stay locked into a concert series any more. But they really want subscribers. They are the base of the audience and also provide the organization with a list of potential donors (you’ll probably be getting appeals for donations now and then, as well as invitations to opening night, and various groups the BSO sponsors that, if you donate a small amount, will allow you to get advance tickets to Christmas - whoops, I mean “Holiday” - pops concerts, etc.). No strong arm, but you’re in the database now.

Audiences for BSO concerts are pretty solid; there’s a loyal base of people who come regularly, and classical music is “in” and sexy for a lot of the “younger generation” (whatever that means these days…). Boston is also a prime tourist destination and the BSO is still a big name in the arts these days; combine that with the Boston Pops and Tanglewood and the BSO, Inc. owns three of the top 10 international music brand names. People come.

Most of the time.

Your musing on “new” music is insightful. You’re not alone with your lack of commitment to the “progressive cause.” To hear “the academy” (NY Times, Yale, talking heads, etc) talk about it, the savior of the alleged decline in attendance at symphony orchestra concerts is simple: play more new music. The problem with this theory is that it’s been proved wrong over and over. Just go to a BSO concert that’s devoted to new music. Scores of empty seats. The BSO even raised money for a special endowment, the “Artistic Initiative” fund that is designed to both raise money to cover James Levine’s expensive concerts (like concert operas with top vocal soloists) and the empty seats that appear like mushrooms after the rain whenever a BSO concert is devoted to music of Elliott Carter, Milton Babbit or Charles Wourinen. By the way, the BSO raised the money for “The Jimmy Fund” in a flash.

That triumvirate – Carter, Babbit, Wourinen – symbolizes Levine’s preference in “new music.” The problem is that it could easily be argued that those three composers haven’t put a new musical thought on paper since the 1960s – they just write the same piece over and over again. This is Levine’s blind spot – for him, new music is 40-50 years old. He ignores that which is truly new in order to advocate for his favorites. One can admire his advocacy and commitment, but one can certainly question his judgment. Audiences sure do. They stay away in droves when Carter is on the program.

The BSO realized this pretty quickly. When Levine first came to the BSO, he was like a kid in a candy story. The BSO management apparently let him do whatever he wanted – with the finely tuned engine of the BSO players, he had a dream come true. But look at the BSO 2008-09 season compared to four years ago. Much less of the “new music” and a realization that more carefully balanced programming will put people in the seats. Whether it is the BSO’s job to “educate” the public about “music of our time” is a whole different discussion. What the BSO needs is people in the seats in order to pay a huge budget. If you want more Baroque music, go hear Handel and Haydn or Boston Baroque concerts. Want more cranky, craggy dissonance? BMOP would love to sell you a subscription. The BSO tries to be the “every man” and, on balance, does a pretty good job.

At Tanglewood this summer, the Tanglewood Music Center students will be doing all-Carter, all the time. Dozens of Carter concerts. It’s Carter’s 100th birthday this season and Levine is celebrating to beat the band. Who knows if anyone will come out to hear it. The BSO is doing one all-Carter concert. But they’ve put that music in the ghetto – making a single program of Carter’s music – so those who really like it can come to it and those who can’t stand it are spared it. This is in effect what BMOP does. But note what the BSO did – the all-Carter concert isn’t in the 5000 seat Koussevitzky Music Shed. Rather, it’s going to be in the 1000 seat Seiji Ozawa Hall. Smart planning.

The truth is that there really hasn’t been a piece of “new” music that has truly entered the canon since the Bartok “Concerto for Orchestra” of 1944. Sure, we play a little Copland (but audiences stay away from the “Piano Concerto” and flock to the “Third Symphony”) and some Bernstein (never the “Kaddish Symphony” but often “Chichester Psalms”), and Lieberson, Harbison and Adams get their due. But nobody’s really buying those recordings or embracing that music. It’s still Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler and the “good old boys” who are getting people excited. And filling the seats.

By the way, don’t sweat about the Carter “Horn Concerto.” It’s only 11 minutes long. At 100, Carter isn’t turning out the long pieces he once did. In a sense, his end is more interesting than his beginning: more compact, economical and just long enough to keep your interest before you start wondering if the Emperor has any clothes on.

-Fusedule Tecil


Now THAT's a comment, Fusedule Tecil! I'll try to respond in the days ahead.

Fusedule Tecil said...
This comment has been removed by the author.