Free Fertilizer if You Bring a Friend!

Just here for discussion.

Since I’m a cynic when it comes to greatest-hits shows, Bryant Manning addresses me directly:

Even if you're a cynic about a greatest-hits show, any initiative to bulk up classical audiences wins every time.

Who wins what, now? The initiative wins...? The performing organization wins, what, more audience? The audience wins...more of the same?

Seems to me that the only thing anyone wins from a greatest-hits show is a first-class ticket to Civil War Reenactment Land. To put it another way, whatever success a greatest-hits show may have (gains more audience, more money, etc.), the only thing that I see it winning is a self-perpetuating cycle of specialized programming geared toward those who devour greatest-hits. In other, other words, the performing organization becomes pigeonholed into an endless dependence on pandering to the lowest common denominator (That’s where the most profit is! Heh, heh). Thus, progress, newness, freshness, sustainability is lost.

Yes, I oversimplified. Okay? I don’t need dozens of scathing emails reiterating something I already know, like last time (such as “but that new money in turn commissions new works.” Pffft. Hardly.). Anyway, you know who you are. But I don’t think I’m that far off the mark.

As time progresses, and I’m told that it will, those greatest-hits will become distanced from relevance (How relevant is Monteverdi, these days?). They will become antiques, items of nostalgia, even more so than they already are (Gregorian Chant anyone?). Recycling them in an endless loop is like watching a Civil War reenactment. They’d be interesting in the way a fifteen-year-old, stained, sticky-paged, public school history textbook is interesting.

Okay, I’m becoming a little verklempt. Discuss among yourselves...


Aaron said...

I grant you that the sentence you quoted is awful.

However, if the goal of doing this kind of thing is to get people who otherwise wouldn't go listen to live classical music to .... go listen to live classical music, what's the harm? If only a handful of those people have a good time and go back to see more live classical music, we're all ahead: they have something new they like to do, the musicians have a new audience member, live performance of classical music is one step further from the grave.

I admit that it would be bad if this kind of thing were the only live classical music available, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

Sator Arepo said...

Maybe it's Greatest Hits Gnomes!

1) Greatest Hits Concerts

2) ...

3) Profit!

Empiricus said...

Well, here's my two cents. The greatest hits are classical music's cash cows. Organizations, often begrudgingly, realize that this is where the money is. And, so, often enough, to boost ticket sales (among other things) they'll program the greatest hits. It's my opinion, however, that this may not be the long-term solution to certain financial woes. I think it's more short-term. But what it might do, on the negative side of things, is foster a sort of feedback loop, where newly found audiences, those that return to the concert hall because of greatest hits programs/promotions, demand more of the same, each and every time. Thus, the organization becomes mired in a stagnant repertoire.

And this, I think, begs a higher order question: does the capitalist formula work for the symphony? Can it?

I talked with Sator last night, before I published this post. And we wondered whether or not there exist any depression-era European articles or studies that detail arts funding in fascist, nazi, communist states. Anyone? It was our guess that, besides certain obvious caveats, funding was still effective and the arts still flourished during the European depression. This conversation was just out-loud pontification. (and believe it or not, we're not nazis)

Oh, and, by the way, this was not a dig on Bryant Manning. I just found the sentence thought-provoking and potentially problematic.

Gustav said...

I'm with you, E. Greatest hits may create revenue for orchestras, but the goal is to create repeat business for classical music. Classical music has always been a been a medium which challenges its audience--you can't be ignorant and enjoy much of the music. When you present a concert of classical music that is constituted primarily of the least challenging quotables of musical history (pieces usually only known through pop-culture references), you aren't introducing music to a new audience, you are merely reinforcing the appreciation for music that everyone is already comfortable with. It's more like a parody of a classical music concert, not the real thing.

"We've heard the da-da-da dum part, the rest is just filler."

Lisa Hirsch said...

First, I want to knock down the "relevance" straw man. What constitutes "relevance" in the classical music field, after all? Is Carter relevant? Rzewski? Glass? Saariaho?

Do you mean current? or contemporary? Or living?

I think that in some ways Monteverdi is a lot more like the composers I listed above than like Mozart. Yeah, they're both OLD AND DEAD - but Monteverdi is on the sidelines of the repertory, unlike Wolfgang A. The general public knows little or nothing of Monteverdi's music. Only music majors and early music folks know him, one of the greatest composers of his or any other age. I'm always fascinated by "greatest composers" lists that start with Bach and end with Stravinsky. Monteverdi, Schuetz, Dufay, Machaut, and Hildegard all belong on those lists, but are they there?

(Deep breath)

Okay, that rant is out of the way.

I'm with Empericus here. I think playing the classics over and over satisfies only those audience members who don't want to hear anything else. Yes, I do believe newcomers will want to hear those works, but - the music that sells out time and again at San Francisco Opera isn't the endless Bohemes and Butterflys and Toscas. It's St. Francois, Le Grand Macabre, and Dr. Atomic.

I know a bunch of people who never go hear old operas. They just don't care - but they suck down the new stuff. There's our new audience - the people who want to hear music of their own time. Orchestras, especially, are great at driving them away, all the while wondering why they're not selling more tickets.

Empiricus said...

I was on the fence about "relevance." That is certainly a thorny and loaded word. I'm glad you brought that up.

To clarify, I believe what I meant was something like this: for symphony orchestras, relevant music may be qualified as such music that is renewable and new, both of which must be of sustainable interest to its audience, while maintaining economic, cultural and intellectual flexibility and adaptability. (I think that's a good definition for the capitalist model of maintaining a flourishing arts organization, too.)

What I find interesting about successful new music productions is that the performing organization is very flexible (5-30 members as needed)and, often, mobile (warehouse concerts are awesome). I just don't see that with your average to above average symphony orchestras.

It's as if the symphony is an aging elephant.

Bryant Manning said...

I wrote a longish response yesterday that was never published here, so instead of re-writing it I'll just say hello.

Sator Arepo said...

Mr Manning,

We don't moderate comments, so if your reply was not published it was a technical (blogger) glitch. Apologies.

And hello!

Empiricus said...

Yeah. Sorry dude. We don't moderate the comments. I'd still like to hear what you had to say.

Empiricus said...

Oh. Maybe I know what happened, cause this happens to me sometimes when I write a long response. For whatever reason, the password protection times out, and won't publish your text. But it will give you a second password; you just have to type in the new password and you're good to go. Sorry for the Blogger issues.

bryant manning said...

yea, blogger must've timed out.

anyway, i was thinking back to when I was ten years old and when I bought a greatest hits tape of Dick Hyman playing Joplin rags. I wanted to hear the familiar parts of The Entertainer, but before long I ended up glomming on to the 3rd and 4th parts instead. Soon I discovered the Magnetic rag and weeping willow and a ‘real slow drag’ and then some Joseph Lamb and then some Bolcom and so forth. So....don’t you have to start with the “lowest common denominator” sometime?

The initiative in question was the “take a friend” thing, which is a pretty nice idea, no? New faces came and while all of them didn’t return to hear Britten’s Les Illuminations the following week, I bet a good chunk returned.

These concerts are *free*, so not sure who’s cashing in.

No long-term artistic or moral integrity is compromised because these concerts aren’t anything else than what they are: a free opportunity to hear live classical music. Snobby-ass funny man Joe Queenan isn’t snooty about McDonald’s because there’s no pretension there in the first place. A quarter pounder doesn’t threaten the existence of a chicken shawarma sandwich smothered in garlic toom. Mmmm. While the thieving magpie won’t immediately get people salivating for some dallapiccola, the seeds will have been planted. I have faith that curious people will take the next step.

Empiricus said...

Glad blogger didn't time-out on you this time. Didn't want you to think we were a couple of jerks or something.

Toward the content of the discussion:

No, I don't have a problem with the "bring your friend" idea. If it plants a few seeds, good. Though, I'm not positive that such promotions are all that effective. In fact, I'm not sure if they simply aren't advertisements, in all negative senses of the word. That's my problem, I guess.


Instead, I was hoping to abstract the issue: Do promotions/greatest-hits really achieve the goals of the organization? I don't think so; please prove me wrong, but I don't think so. I think greatest-hits concerts will continue to perpetuate large-scale symphonic oganizations' financial struggles. And immobile repertoire may be part of the problem.

I don't pretend to know, but...

Thanks again for being patient with blogger. Cheers!

Lisa Hirsch said...

I think "Take a Friend" is great - I was one of Drew's guest bloggers the first year he did the program.

Big problem, though: nobody kept track of who came back! That would be useful information. Orchestras generally have no idea how many people are new/trying out the symphony and which of them come back.

bryant manning said...

"Do promotions/greatest-hits really achieve the goals of the organization?"

You mean, like bring in as many people as possible to their festival? Then heck yes it does. The Grant Park Orchestra has glaringly different goals than the Chicago Symphony, for instance.

"I think greatest-hits concerts will continue to perpetuate large-scale symphonic oganizations' financial struggles. And immobile repertoire may be part of the problem."

Depends on who’s playing them and how frequently these kinds of concerts are given. GP certainly hasn't hurt the CSO's financial situation.

Let me ask you a question: What would you consider a satisfying programming alternative for the Grant Park Festival, which is the country’s largest free outdoor music festival. One greatest hits concert out of ~50 seems fairly innocuous to me.

Sator Arepo said...

Mr Manning,

Fair point about different orchestras = different goals. And more audiences are always good. We (or, at least, I) just get sensitive about Empiricus' "immobile repertoire" (great turn of phrase BTW), I suspect. Clearly not every concert can be a "celebration of modernism". Well, only in my little mind-orchestra.

Thanks for contributing to the discussion.

Empiricus said...

You're right, of course. That is, if getting butts into the concert hall is the ultimate goal. But, is the bottom-line THE goal? Ideally, I would hope not. Maybe I'm being thick-headed.

Don't get me wrong, this wasn't a knock on your review nor the GP, just food for thought.

But, to answer your question, I don't have a solution nor do I necessarily think there's problem with these kinds of concerts--there's a huge market for this stuff, no doubt. However, maybe the goals should be clearer: profit or art(?) or profit for art. You know that organizational sustainability is imperative as much as I, but! it would seem to me that this kind of strategy is not sustainable. In general (which, I guess, doesn't include the GP), greatest-hits concerts seem like, "Oh crap! We need to raise enough money for the following weekend's program" (see Miami)--a sort of immediate solution with no long-term directional implications (by long-term, I mean [arbitrarily] a decade or so].

However, as per our position on our current musical dialog, Dallapiccola shouldn't be all that difficult to swallow, nowadays. Neither should Crumb (to pick a rather mildly "unaccessible" composer).

Alludes to greater problems than greatest-hits concerts...

Empiricus said...

Uh, crap. IN-accessible.

Aaron said...

I still don't think I understand the problem. People have to start somewhere, and the most painless way to introduce someone who doesn't go see live classical music is to give them something they'll probably like. From there, if they had a good time, they can go to concerts of more difficult/less accessible/less well-known stuff. That, it seems to me, is a Good Thing.

It almost sounds like you don't think people can make that progression; that if they go hear a "Mostly Mozart" concert that they'll never move on to Charles Ives or whatever.

By analogy, if I wanted to introduce someone who knew nothing about jazz to jazz, I wouldn't start with Ornette Coleman or Bitches Brew. I'd spin some Dave Brubeck, maybe My Favorite Things or one of Wynton Marsalis' recordings of standards. It can be really hard to appreciate unfamiliar music if you're just kind of thrown into the deep end of the pool. Now, obviously, some people can do it; but for those who can't, I don't see the problem with exposing them to stuff they probably already know and will find familiar.

Lisa Hirsch said...

The flaw is the assumption that new audiences are only willing and able to start with greatest hits. It's just not true. The classical field is at least as likely likely to get young people into the halls for 20th and 21st c. music as for Mozart. Just listen to rock and pop music today and you'll hear why.

Aaron said...

Well, fair enough, Lisa, but that just means that there should be more performances of more recent works - not that "Greatest Hits" performances are bad per se.

If the issue is that there are only X performances available per year, and the "Greatest Hits" program means that good, accessible work by more recent composers won't get heard, then I guess I see the point, although I'm not sure I agree with it.

But I think Empiricus means something slightly different:

But what it might do, on the negative side of things, is foster a sort of feedback loop, where newly found audiences, those that return to the concert hall because of greatest hits programs/promotions, demand more of the same, each and every time. Thus, the organization becomes mired in a stagnant repertoire.

That sounds, to me, like a fear that if I eat stir fry tonight and really like it I'll never eat pasta again. I don't buy it. I agree that it would be self-destructive for symphonies to play the same stuff again and again and again, but that doesn't really seem to relate to the different problem of attracting new audiences to see live classical music, which was the point of the "take a friend" thing.

I guess it seems to me that E. is faulting the performance for not achieving goals it didn't set for itself. On the broader question of whether there should be more, and more diverse, classical music programs, I think that's undeniably a Good Thing.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Symphony orchestras in the US do play the same things over and over again. All you need to do is look at the repertory reports from LOAS to see the extent to which the repertory is stagnant, or any large orchestra's end-of-season stats. I have the stats for the SF Symphony, which played all of ten works by living composers in the past season, two of which were by Michael Tilson Thomas. (I'm not including The Thomashefkys in that number. Greatest-hits programming absolutely limits the amount of newer music that gets played.

LOAS reports are here.

Aaron said...

...and I agree that that's a problem, but it's not a problem with the "take a friend" idea or the (free!) concert that was the subject of this review. I'm not convinced, either, that the problem is caused by audience expectations; as you yourself noted, the SF Opera sells out its new operas and plays to a lot of empty seats when it sticks to the classics.

If it's true that symphonies play too much of the same thing, that's the fault of timid programming. Empiricus hasn't shown that that timidity is a response to audience expectations, and in fact your posts suggest just the opposite - that symphonies would attract bigger crowds if they played a greater variety of stuff. That doesn't mean that it's a bad idea to play some "greatest hits"-style concerts, particularly when (as with this performance) the explicit goal is to get new listeners.

It's unfair to assume the audience can't or won't make the move from that kind of show to one featuring any of the Composers of the Day, which both Empiricus and Gustav do. And it's also unfair to blame a free concert intended to expand the audience for the ossification of classical music programs generally, because the attack is focused on the situation where that kind of program is most justified.