Sandow on Ricker on diversity

Most readers of this blog will know of Greg Sandow, if only for the work that he’s done for Polyphonic. But he’s done a great deal of other stuff, including writing a blog for He recently did a post on something that Ray Ricker had written for this blog, and it’s worth reading in full, including the comments.

Greg has been advocating a very different approach for our institutions for a while now. I’m not inclined to agree with his basic thrust, which can be gleaned from the online syllabus for a course he’s teaching at Juilliard called Classical Music in a Age of Pop.

But I must admit that my disagreement isn’t based on any particular insights into audiences past and present, nor do I have a considered view of what our field should do to fix its problems in reaching a wider audience, or even in keeping the audience we have.

I find that, when I think about these kinds of problems, I have no idea what audiences like or don’t like, or even why they come to concerts at all. I know why I go to concerts (aside from the ones I play, of course). I don’t go to many; usually only concerts played by friends. Usually I go because I want to support them, or hear how they’re doing. Once there, I find myself focusing almost exclusively on how they play, and what I can learn about playing, or performing, from what they do.

As a consequence, perhaps, it’s not very often I enjoy a concert. When I do it’s usually because of some really extraordinary artistry. I heard Vienna in the pit at Salzburg in Don Giovanni (I was the next thing to being in the pit with them, as I had front-row seats overlooking the fourth desk of first violins). I was blown away by the quality of the string playing. I heard Berlin with Brendel at Carnegie doing the last Mozart concerto, and still remember the just how magically he played the opening of the slow movement.

As a rule, though, I find I enjoying playing music a lot more than I enjoy listening to it. I don’t think it’s an ego thing, or about being noticed (although few performers aren’t motivated at least in part by that). It’s just that music works best for me most of the time if I’m participating.

But that makes it very hard to look at concerts the way an audience might. I know I love playing Bruckner 8. I’d probably enjoy listening to a live performance by a really good orchestra, given how well I know the piece by now. But I’m not at all sure I’d enjoy it if I wasn’t familiar with Bruckner as a performer, which of course is the situation that most audience members find themselves in. And, if I don’t feel I’d enjoy it, it’s hard for me to imagine that someone who knows less about music that I do would enjoy it either. That doesn’t mean they won’t; it’s just hard for me to understand that they might.

It’s very frustrating to look out over a sea of faces from onstage and feel I don’t have a clue why any of them are there. It’s one of the many things that would make me a lousy arts manager.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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