League Conference: A Conversation with Greg Sandow
In her introduction, Judith Kurnick, Vice President for Strategic Communications at the League, described Greg Sandow as a cultural critic, someone who could bring thinking across disciplines and share ideas that you would never have thought of before. He’s been a member of the graduate faculty at Juilliard for 17 years, and was involved in the Mellon Orchestra Forum, assisting orchestras in rethinking and revisioning what orchestras could be.
Greg Sandow: When I was at the Mellon Forum meetings, I used to say “I’m 007, I have the license to kill,” meaning that I could go to any meeting and say anything. But listening was more interesting than talking.
Today we’re going to dream about 2023, and imagine that all your problems are solved. You have a new and vibrant audience and all your concerts are full. Maybe people in college will come to your concerts on dates. That happened with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the 1950s. You could have college nights for different colleges in the area. That was done by many orchestras in the past; the Boston Pops would do it. When it was MIT night, the MIT students would snake dance through the streets from their campus in Cambridge, across the Charles River, to Boston. And when it was Harvard’s night, they had to call out extra police because the Harvard students were rowdy – they would make a lot of noise and demand to hear the Academic Festival Overture.
In the 1920s, when a great soprano retired, her teenage fans at the Met strung banners from one side of the house to the other. These things are not unprecedented.
In 2023, the entire community is buzzing about you – you can track references to you on Twitter, even from people who don’t go to your concerts, because the orchestra is creating that much excitement in your community.
They download your concerts, they buy your recordings and they buy your merchandise at stores all over town. And you have no funding problems, with no artistic compromise. In fact, you are freer than you’ve ever been – you’re not afraid to program whatever you want for fear of offending your audience because your audience is so excited about everything you do. Probably not impossible. When, a few seasons ago, the New York Philharmonic programmed a concert version of Ligetti’s opera Le Grand Macabre, their subscribers turned in their tickets en masse, but then they sold out three performances to excited young people in New York. Possibilities exist.
Question 1 for attendees: Write down three reasons why we don’t have this vision of the future right now.
Comments from attendees:
- Limited staff – even larger orchestras are maxed out with the budget and staff time, just doing what they have to do. It’s a real problem for smaller orchestras.
- We’re operating in crisis mode – how are we going to make payroll, we have a deficit looming, etc.
Greg: Deborah Borda [CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic] noted a long time ago that orchestras don’t have an R&D component. Corporations launch new products all the time and they expect some of them to fail. The League is sort of our R&D arm, but orchestras need to be willing to take risks. We need to have money squirreled away to spend on taking risks, so that if you lose it, it’s OK.
- Fear of offending longtime supporters and donors.
Greg: On the one hand we have to continue to do what we’re doing, and on the other hand we have to embark on a completely new path. How do you have the resources to do both and do it without offending your established audience?
Lay these concerns aside for now because we’re dreaming – we should always beware the gospels of despair. One of my favorites is, “Nobody likes classical music anymore – nobody’s educated in it so people don’t care about what we do.” We should beware of blaming others for what we do, and watch out for thoughts that prevent us for thinking about what we can do on our own. We should think of successes.
One of my favorites is Present Music, a new music group in Milwaukee, that has several hundred subscribers and then they sell several hundred more tickets. How do they do it? I’m going to have that conversation with them, but I noticed on their website that they have an audience development committee of 15 people. I think they prioritized this.
Also, the Toronto Symphony, which says 1/3 of its audience is under 35 – they just persevered with discounted tickets and special concerts for young people for well over a decade.
And the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in London has late night repeat performances of some of its regular concerts – these people are young and not at all like the regular classical music audience.
I will quote from South Pacific, from the song Happy Talk – “Gotta have a dream; if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?” The orchestra has power, can change itself, and can change the reality it deals with or at least make people in the city react very differently from the way they usually do.
Question 2: Imagine it is 2023 and you’re looking back – write down one thing that happened in the 1st or 2nd year. Something that gave you a sign that it’s working, that all of this can change. It might be a really big thing or might be a small thing, but something you did or something that happened in the community.
I was at a dinner party in New York, and I was the newcomer, so someone asked, “What do you do?” I replied, “I work in classical music.” The conversation ground to a halt – no one knew what to say!
- If the traditional stuff works, go do it. The traditional stuff needs to be applied in the best possible way – to the max.
- Different way of delivering tickets, not via subscriptions, geared to younger people who don’t make advance plans.
- Let the audience photograph and videotape during concerts to share on Facebook and YouTube – then you would know that people love classical music
Greg: The last is profound in many way. At the Kennedy Center, the very first thing that happens is the shaking finger on the PA system, “No cell phones! No photography! No recordings! Not “ Welcome! Happy to see you!” , but “Don’t do this, Don’t do that.” This is probably not the way you want to greet people. People like to hold up their cell phones so their friends can hear what they hear, but that’s forbidden in classical music. But if it happened, you’d know that people love what you did, and their friends loved what you did.
And the prohibition of clapping between movements really only became uniform in this county in the 1950s. In Mozart’s time people applauded during the music the minute they heard anything they liked. Imagine you’re playing Beethoven’s 9th, and the timpani solos in the Scherzo, and people applaud – that happened at the premiere. If that happened at your concerts, you would know that they care. My Juilliard students often say, “I love my audience but I wish I knew what they were thinking.”
Question 3: It’s now February – Black History Month. There’s a dynamic young Hispanic mayor and she wants to celebrate diversity in your town. There’s a meeting of cultural and community organizations. The theater company has it easy – they do two plays from August Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle. The dance company does two dances celebrating blues and hip hop music. The art museum shows outsider art by African Americans in past generations. And the Historical Society has unearthed a guy who ran a barbershop who was also the lead singer in the doo wap group in your town in the 1950s.
What is your orchestra going to do?
- Play music by black composers.
Who? And the people in the black community say, “We don’t know that name. Does this music represent our culture?” A lot of African-American composers are not known in the African-American community.
In the 1990s I wrote a piece about African-American music – my editor insisted because I felt I had no experience in this subject. It was fascinating, talking to African Americans in the New York community that were prominent in the classical music world. The New York City Opera premiered Anthony Davis’ opera X, an opera on the life of Malcolm X. At the premiere, the hall was 1/3 African Americans, which was not your standard classical audience. But then they never returned to that opera.
The American Composers Orchestra commissioned a piece from a jazz musician; they used gospel choirs. Again, a good involvement from the black community but they never went back. People really notice that.
Things that could be done: I met a black cellist from the Cincinnati Symphony who told me that in the late 1960s, Aretha Franklin did a show in a big club in New Jersey. She demanded a string orchestra, and insisted that all the players be black. So maybe in 1968, a black classically-trained string player was not on everyone’s consciousness; the club owner had to really scramble to find them. The cellist told me that he was one of them, and the string players didn’t know each other. The concert began to develop a consciousness and encouragement amongst people who were doing something not common for people of their ethnicity to do.
The Brooklyn Philharmonic, trying to relate to communities in Brooklyn, went to Bedford Stuyvesant, a black neighborhood, and rather than trying to figure out how to bring Beethoven and Brahms into Bed Sty, they had conversations with community leaders: “What is it the makes sense to you, that speaks your cultural language, that also speaks ours?” They came up with a collaboration with Mos Def, a hip hop star from the community, and composer Derek Bermel, who’s an insane hip-hop guy, to write an orchestral version of Mos Def’s music. It’s fabulous orchestra music and fabulous hip hop. They got tremendous turnout.
Elaine Mack wrote a book, Black Classical Musicians in Philadelphia: Oral Histories Covering Four Generations, which is a history of active classical music in the Philadelphia black community. It reminds me of something Michael Morgan, the African-American conductor of the Oakland Symphony, once said to me: “In previous generations, a lot of African–Americans were interested in classical music but because of the racial climate at the time, they had no opportunities to make careers.” Now those barriers are down. Orchestra could consider doing an oral history of their community and upstage the historical society!
If we imagine 2023, and the community is taking an active vibrant interest in what you do, then you, presumably, are taking an active, vibrant interest in what the community does. This might take you into parts of the community you haven’t had much contact with.
I’m thinking of the inspiring part of Jesse [Rosen]’s talk yesterday, about how little arts education there is in East St. Louis, a poor minority community. And I’m thinking of the South Bronx, which is now in pretty good shape, though it used to be a wreck. And no, there’s no arts education, but all by themselves, they developed hip hop. It’s important not to have a missionary attitude (“let us bring art to these people”) but rather sit back and listen to them – what can they do on their own. And then maybe develop a community collaboration.
Question 4: Let’s look back from 2023 and look at the first five years: what’s a large thing that happened during that time period – a big development that indicates that you’re in a different place.
- Empower young musicians – they need a multiplicity of talents and roles. Music schools are starting to stress entrepreneurship and business skills.
- Make everything digital.
- We need a new approach to concert dress. Greg: Baltimore has upturned the idea that orchestras are not visible in their community; you have created a lot of buzz. I thought it was brilliant that you teamed up with the Parson School of Design to have students design new concert dress. They then partnered with the Mannes School of Music to try it out at a concert. It would have cost a fortune to approach a famous fashion designer. I was once a consultant to the Grammys when they had a full orchestra, and they did have a designer come up with concert attire, and the musicians bitched and moaned about it. You can’t just parachute that stuff in.
- Community relations is a two-way street – we don’t know enough about how we appear to the outside world. Greg: One large orchestra did a series of educational outreach concerts and never bothered to ask the teachers their impressions of the concerts.
Question 5: Tabatha Coffey comes to town. She’s the host of the TB show Tabatha Takes Over. She’s a hair designer, a salon owner, and an entrepreneur. In her TV show, she descends upon hair salons that aren’t working very well, and she often meets with very fierce resistance. Let’s imagine that one of your donors has paid Tabatha to come and work with your orchestra.
She works with the way the staff dresses – they must be neat but not too trendy. Is this a friendly place that welcomes people as they come in, and reassures them they’ll have good things done to their hair? She made one salon in South Beach (Miami) repaint the place and do a make-over. Then the employees went out onto the beach and passed out flyers about the grand reopening, but also pointed to a tent where people could get a free haircut.
Maybe this applies to orchestras, and maybe it doesn’t, but what might she say if she came to your orchestra? The orchestra world doesn’t know enough about how we look to the outside world.
- I noticed last night at the St. Louis Symphony concert that Daniel Lee, principal cellist, stayed on stage during intermission and talked to audience.
- Orchestra members should smile while playing. They should look like they’re enjoying being there. Greg: At the University of Maryland, the musicians were asked to accessorize their black clothes according to the music. Blue and green for Mahler, red for the Symphonie Fantastique. You notice the bass player with blue ribbons on his tuning peg, a beautiful shawl on a violinist, blue socks on another. It’s individual, it’s festive, and you get the feeling that they care and they’re happy to be there.
I was in Norway last week, taking part in a debate at the Bergen International Festival on the Future of Classical Music. A lot had been said about musicians in orchestras smiling and someone angrily got up in the audience and said, “Do you mean in 1900, when we didn’t have these problems, those orchestras actually smiled, and that shows that everything is different?” The point is it’s a whole spectrum of things and it’s not just about smiling. It’s just generally looking involved.
In 1900 you had a natural kind of communion between orchestras and audience that you don’t have now. And certainly earlier, in the 1820s, there are wonderful stories about musicians in German orchestras – the violinists, when playing those fabulous downward scales in the Finale of Beethoven 5 making eye contact with the audience, because it was all so new. And people in Paris crying out in wonder at passages in Beethoven.
Last time I saw the Berlin Philharmonic – they were playing Mahler 9 – everybody moved their bodies with the music. It was especially noticeable in the bass section in the last movement; they were practically dancing with their instruments. It wasn’t choreographed at all; it was just spontaneous. This is probably one of the reasons they have that fabulously rich sound, if their bodies are so into it. You look at them and you know that they “love to play.” There are many ways that involvement can be shown.
An historian, William Weber, has written a paper about listening during the 18th century, when everybody talked during performances and then applauded when they liked something. He argues that it’s a serious form of listening, even if you are not rapt.
At the premiere of Mozart’s Paris symphony, Mozart wrote a letter to his father, saying, “I knew there was one passage in the first movement they were going to like, and so I was sure to repeat it, and then end the movement with it. And sure enough, they did like it and they applauded.” Here’s an audience that was talking and moving around – there are paintings showing that. And then they hear something and they applaud. I would say that that’s a very involved listening of a kind that we don’t know about.
I was hosting and co-programming a concert series some years ago with the Pittsburgh Symphony. I tried the experiment of playing the first movement of Mozart’s Paris symphony and reading Mozart’s letter. I invited the audience to applaud when they heard something they liked, because that’s what Mozart’s audience would have done. The applause was different from moment to moment, and the lustiest applause came in the recapitulation at the place where it diverged from the exposition. These were not trained musicians in the audience, but they realized that something new was going on! The most interesting lesson was that whenever something new happened, they stopped clapping so that they could hear it. I had the feeling that they were listening more intently than other audiences. This is radical and it’s not appropriate for all pieces.
If you do something that make it more than a concert – that makes it an event – the audience might respond, “I can’t believe what they did?” and you start getting some buzz. This raises the difficult question: Is it about the music and are we detracting from the music if we do that?
We have to understand that music is a larger phenomenon than just listening to the notes. If you go back in history, you’ll find that people acted as if the show was the important thing and that the music was a part of that, but that the way it was presented, and the audience reaction to it was important. Take Handel – the first time he produced an opera in London, he released doves in the air for a garden scene. [Not a great idea after all!]
In the interest of seriousness and artistic leadership, and getting back to Maher 9, one of the things people might say after a concert is: “I heard this piece, I felt the universe shifting as it was played, and I know the orchestra felt that too because of the way they looked.” We’re talking about deep, rapt, spiritual immersion in what you’re doing, and no one can possibly miss that they know and love classical music.
That is actually my dream. I’m going to end with this: I talk so much in my work about performance enhancements and changing the whole atmosphere. What I would really like to see are performances that are so vivid, so compelling, so unmistakably powerful and right, that people don’t need anything more than that to be riveted. This is the frontier that we might think about. We’re all playing the music pretty well in American orchestras, but are we playing it ‘jumping out of our seats’ well? When we get to a big climax, is it so riveting that no one could possibly miss it? Haydn wrote all those symphonies for the entertainment of Prince Esterhazy’s guests – if those false endings didn’t come across, well, “Fire the guy” because he’s not really delivering. I would like to see our performances so powerful and so vivid that no one in the audience can possibly miss that something exciting is going on.
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