Tuesday, October 30, 2012

ArtsATL Review: Carnegie Hall Performance

Here's our best review yet, by Leslie Kandell.


Last Concert for Tehran Symphony Orchestra

Sent in by Laurie Cronin.  This is a very sad article about the Tehran Symphony Orchestra ... not only financial but hard-line ideological pressures are stopping the music.


Laurie writes:  'If classical music is so dead, how come musicians are still willing to risk so much to perform it, and audiences to hear it?   One answer is that in an oppressive regime, it is often the only form of protest – in the universal language.'

Tehran Symphony Orchestra rehearsing in Roudaki Hall, 2010.  Photo Associated Press

A different article from the Associated Press reports that the Tehran Orchestra was just reactivated last year, following a two year break.  The orchestra's woes are blamed on the faltering economy, the sanctions from the West, and the collapse of Iranian currency.  But players say that the orchestra suffers mostly from mismanagement and lack of government funding from the country's oil profits.  No one in government cares about the 80-year old institution, which is the oldest orchestra in the Middle East.  Decades-old instruments have not been replaced, players receive very low pay, and many receive no pay. 

Cleveland Orchestra Musicians Ratify Contract...

"....bringing the negotiation process to a notably swift and uncontentious conclusion."


The Cleveland Orchestra had been playing without a contract for some time, but had continued to talk, as civilized people of good faith often used to.  And now they have come to a satisfactory compromise--does anyone still remember the meaning of that word?  All this and they get to play in the visually and acoustically exquisite Severance Hall.  If you ever get a chance to go there to hear one of the CO's concerts, I highly recommend it. Even in the last row of the balcony, it's wonderful. The only drawback is that it makes coming back to the Woodruff such a downer.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Fist Bump: Carnegie Performance Reviews

Sent in by Nicole Khoury ... unfortunately, Ms. Schweitzer got the night wrong.  On Sunday night, I was being blown back to Atlanta on a plane.


First review out of the chute ... Arts Examiner reviewer Jake Johanson was enthusiastic and seemed to find the program and musicians engaging ... although it has to be noted that he gets a major detail wrong with regard to the ASOC soloists (not the quality of their performance, which he liked very much, but the piece in which they sang).  Sigh.


From the "It's a Small World" Department

Brent Runnels
Watching and hearing a group of seasoned singers while they marvel at the voice of an unknown young artist is always fun.  My friends, colleagues and I in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus did just that recently ... when countertenor John Holiday began singing on the stage at the Woodruff Arts Center to rehearse our Carnegie Hall-bound performance of Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms.   As soon as he started to roll out his gloriously full and powerful tone everyone immediately looked at each other and said almost in unison "wow what a voice!"  

I was among those "wowing" his pure and angelic sound, one perfectly suited to the range of Bernstein's lovely melody on the 23rd Psalm text text "Adonai ro-i, lo esar" ("The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want").  At that point we were clearly not wanting for anything other than to soak in his incredible sound!   

John Holiday
As he continued singing I realized I knew that voice; why did I recognize it?  Then it dawned on me, wait a minute I've played for him before!  It took a minute but I realized I had accompanied his Cincinnati Conservatory of Music audition here in Atlanta.  

During my years as a staff singer and Cathedral Concerts manager at the Cathedral of St. Philip CCM used to use the choir room there as a remote location for auditions and they frequently called me to accompany singers who needed an accompanist. John Holiday came through,  I think in 2008, and that year the auditions were held at Peachtree Road United Methodist. I remember how prepared and poised he was then, and of course his voice left an indelible impression on me. 

It was wonderful to see him back with the ASO and ASOC already making such a strong professional impression.  When we got a chance to speak and catch up he was clearly the same open, relaxed and humble young artist I remembered from his audition.  

All this made it even more satisfying to hear him sing so beautifully in our concert last Saturday at Carnegie Hall. It was great to share with my fellow ASOC singers the pleasure and excitement of seeing a young artist make such a strong and beautiful impression in his Carnegie Hall debut.  I hope he will be back in Atlanta soon so that more music lovers might get a chance to hear his marvelously engaging countertenor voice!  

Brent Runnels
Tenor II #220

(Photographs of Brent Runnels and John Holiday taken in front of Carnegie Hall October 27, 2012)

Jung Ho Pak Resigns ... and other disasters

Latest on Jung Ho Pak's resignation

Interesting story on Jung Ho Pak ...

From NPR's Deceptive Cadence ...

WNYC is calling it "Lock Out Season"

St. Paul Chamber Orchestra Faces Lock Out

Locked Out Minnesota Orchestra Performs

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Look for the ™

We've been told that Dr. Romanstein wants to (somehow) use 'The Music is Ongoing' to his own purpose.  It that is true, perhaps he hasn't quite connected the dots to his 'negotiations are ongoing' strategy ... or doesn't realize that the t-shirt is closely tied with the ASOPA.

Maybe these things don't matter to someone who has demonstrated time and time again that he will rewrite events, or conscript any program, in order to paint a misleading picture to the public.
So we've been punctuating The Music is Ongoing with trademark symbols ...


Highlight from ASO's 9/27/12 press release announcing the contract settlement. The financials which support these statements should be thoroughly examined because according to sources, they add up to a big fairy tale:  

"Since 2008, the ASO management has suggested that board members contribute more heavily to the Annual Fund and to financially support other efforts and events, which they have done. In that same time frame, ASO staff has endured layoffs, mandatory furloughs, salary freezes, hiring freezes, and increases in contribution to healthcare coverage.

Ticket sales have increased by 113 percent over the last decade and donations have also increased by 112 percent. In addition, the ASO initiated two additional net-positive contributing businesses: In 2004 it purchased SD&A Teleservices, Inc., (formerly MKTG Teleservices, Inc.), the nation’s oldest and largest provider of telemarketing services for cultural and cause-based non-profits; In 2008, it opened Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park, giving the Orchestra three performance venues in the metro Atlanta area. Both of these businesses are significant positive contributors to the Orchestra’s bottom line."

The truth is that orchestra operations are segregated from the entire institution.  When Verizon was built, the musicians began to notice that the symphony concerts (as opposed to the ‘ASO Presents’ concerts) were a separate line item in Verizon budget ... and the symphony concerts are always shown to be losing money.  Musicians were told that management was ‘unable’ to find a corporate sponsor for the symphony.  The players noticed, too, that summer performance schedules were getting thinner and thinner.  So where is this 'significant positive contribution' to the bottom line?  It goes to pay the debt owed on Verizon, and not to support the orchestra.

There was a time when an Atlanta investigative reporter would be all over this.

The entire press release can be found here.


Friday, October 26, 2012

ASO and ASOC at Carnegie Hall October 27, 7:30 PM

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus will travel to New York City for a Saturday night concert at Carnegie Hall repeating the Copland/Bernstein/Walton program performed in Atlanta last week. In the American musical world, there is no more prestigious invitation for a symphony orchestra (and their chorus) than a date at Carnegie. While Carnegie’s calendar is crowded with matinee concerts and evening programs in the adjoining recital halls that organizations book through concert promoters (i.e. groups that pay to play), the ASO and ASOC have been invited for many years to grace Carnegie’s main stage. It is a privilege, an honor, and one of the great performing experiences for a musician.

Since opening in 1891, the storied hall at 57th Street and 7th Avenue has been the site of some of the greatest events in U.S., as well as international, musical history: the first performance of Dvořák’s New World Symphony (1893); the American debut of Jascha Heifetz (1917); and Maria Callas’ farewell performance (1974). Legendary musicians of all genres – from Gustav Mahler (conducting his own Symphony No. 2), Sergei Rachmaninov (playing his own 2nd Piano Concerto), and George Gershwin (premiering his own concerto) to Benny Goodman, the Beatles, Judy Garland, and Elton John – have performed on Carnegie’s stage. Carnegie Hall has also hosted more than a few major political, literary, and other non-musical guests, including Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Autographed photos and memorabilia crowd the walls of the foyers on each level – the floorboards may have been replaced but the sense of history is still palpable.

From the beginning, Carnegie Hall was renowned as an acoustically perfect space for musical performance – truly a miracle considering the architect had never previously designed a concert hall. The sound, whether from a solo pianist or a full orchestra, blooms forth with startling clarity but just enough roundness to avoid brittleness. Every nuance can be projected from the performer’s space to the listener’s. You can hear everything – whether participating on-stage (where ensembles become tighter and cleaner than in a less-favorable acoustic) or actively listening in the house. While Carnegie is a large hall (2,800 seats), the horseshoe design with its vertiginous balconies creates an intimate atmosphere where it really is possible to play or sing to the person in the back row of the top balcony. 

Harper’s Magazine Rendering of the Opening Night Audience, May 1891
Most people are familiar with the turbulent history of the Hall during the late 1950’s, when operating costs, a changing cultural landscape and competing musical venues in NYC resulted in a scheduled demolition date that was narrowly averted by the activist heroics of Isaac Stern and other concerned New Yorkers. The Hall is now the property of New York City, operated as a not-for-profit corporation with some public funding, but also sustained through substantial private support. The hall was renovated structurally and the interior spaces completely restored in 1986, with subsequent additional modifications to the surrounding buildings and facilities.

Carnegie Hall Today – Isaac Stern Auditorium/Ronald O. Perelman Stage

Our ASO/ASOC concert is part of Carnegie Hall’s Choral Classics series, which also includes Gustavo Dudamel leading the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela and Joe Miller’s Westminster Symphonic Choir in a December program of 20th- and 21st-century works by Latin American composers, and a “Creative Learning Project” (workshop) performance of Osvaldo Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos featuring Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, New York City high school choristers and the “Orquesta La Pasión” conducted by Robert Spano in March 2013.

The Choral Classics series is partially financed by an endowment fund for choral music established by S. Donald Sussman in memory of Judith Arron (past Carnegie CEO) and Robert Shaw.

Tickets are $15.50-$90 and are available at www.carnegiehall.org. As of Wednesday morning, there is still good availability in the Parquet section, more limited seating in the balconies. Rush tickets ($10) for students will be available.

This concert is also marketed as a “My Time, My Music” event, a hook evidently intended to appeal to younger concert-goers: “This is your music. It challenges you to think about your world in a new way…And now is your time. Here at Carnegie Hall, discover composers of today who open themselves to all sorts of things…and a new breed of performers who are making this new music their own.”

That’s us, we’re the new breed. The orchestra and chorus that won’t surrender the musical standards, work ethic, and artistic vision that gets performers to Carnegie Hall in the first place, just because a flock of bean counters can’t figure out how to use a can opener. We’re the organization – the team – that will stare down the demolition squad, renovate the structure, and start securing the future (BTW, anyone want to look up Reynold Levy while we’re in his neighborhood?).

They (New York and Atlanta) ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Laurie Cronin
ASOC Alto I  #363

Music Is Ongoing™ to Carnegie Hall!

A boost from Norman Lebrecht ...


Thursday, October 25, 2012

From Carnegie Hall Calendar

Seeing this is always exciting ...


ArtsATL Review Accompanied by a Rant

Mark Gresham, Arts ATL, attended the concert Thursday, opening night ... enjoying the Copland, Belshazzar and the last chorale of Chichester.    Mr. Gresham had a few issues with the performance (love them, or hate them, this is what critics do ... they come to concerts with certain standards in mind ... and if we don't meet their expectations, we're going to hear about it.).   Overall, it's a positive review ... but he called the visibly sparse audience 'uncomfortable'.  (see his review here)

Mr. Gresham did not comment on the strangely defensive letter in the concert program from Dr. Romanstein, who chose (wisely perhaps) to ignore the months he and WAC spent clubbing the musicians into compliance ... in favor of telling us about all the many sacrifices his 'brilliant' staff had made.  Is he kidding?  With everything that's happened and the musicians' very future at stake, the President and CEO of our orchestra can only manage to think this small?

According to the published contract agreement, only upper ASO Management suffered small salary reductions; there were no staff cuts.  In fact, new evidence shows that there were bonuses, new hires, and raises to offset previous cuts.  So these 'sacrifices', about which Dr. Romanstein seems to be so touchy, amount to ... what, exactly?  An apology for his staff's poor performance?

Because the end result of all this so-called 'sacrifice' was there for everyone to see at Symphony Hall:  a concert program riddled with grammatical errors, no donor pages at all, no pages listing the 'brilliant' symphony staff.  There was a singular lack of publicity surrounding the concert, barely a mention on the ASO'S own web page, a small corner ad in the AJC ... all of which resulted in too many empty seats in the audience.   Where was all that previous rhetoric about ticket sales being up ... donors ready to contribute now that the financial house is in order?  What does that telemarketing company do anyway?  Where is the on-going effort to connect with audiences?   Where is any publicity in the AJC about the Carnegie trip?

Excuse me while I make a rude noise ... but it's customary only to invoke the word 'sacrifice' in the context of people doing an outstanding job.  What Dr. Romanstein wrote amounts to:  'please excuse us for not doing our jobs as well as the musicians do theirs.'

Seeing Double: Two Orchestras in the Same City Locked Out

It would be interesting, as Kiki suggested the other day, to form a learning coalition with these orchestras under siege.  American symphony management is now willing to take players to the mat to make them comply; Boards seem to be in collusion.  But how are all these draconian measures helping preserve the arts in these cities?

From NPR

From MPR (with links to other articles) ... a piece on spending the Minnesota Orchestra's endowment.

From the student news site at St. Olaf's College.  I really like knowing that young people understand the larger picture.




Yes, The Grass IS Greener: Entrepreneurship and Classical Music

Another interesting article from Forbes, which lately seems to be caught up in addressing the 'arts value' question.  Please check out the link, within the article, on Richard Owen's non-profit foundation, the Camerata New York Orchestra.


Thus In Babylon ...

The last time I was able to spend quality time with my Walton score was during the lock-out.  At the time, I wasn't in the mood to do much more than mark my new pristine copy of Belshazzar's Feast.  With a highlighter, I followed the slim and often-disappearing thread of the alto line ... through a thicket of split choruses, semi-choruses and soli ... sketching in skulls, crossbones and startled eyeballs because this is a scary piece ... and there are meter changes, polyrhythmic pitfalls, bad page turns ... no end of opportunities for the unwary singer to honk in early and often.

(I think the secret to singing confidently is to just go for it, holding nothing back during rehearsals.  I once heard Keith Hernandez -- retired NY Mets first baseman -- say something similar:  You go to extra batting practice, especially if you're not hitting well, to get all the bad juju out of your bat.  Choral singing isn't much different.)

Last week, we had a terrific chorus rehearsal with plenty of honking in and cleaning up ... before delivering enough honk-free passages to satisfy the director. As of today, we are weaned from count-singing -- a milestone in our preparation -- and are able to delve more deeply into the work.  

Oscar Wilde's essay The Decay of Lying reverses the Aristotelian mimetic premise that "Art is an imitation of Life."  More often, says Wilde, Life imitates Art. His essay is an exhausting conversation between two Edwardian toffs, Cyril and Vivian, who say things like:  the 'self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy.' Vivian wraps up the discussion with a classic Wildean quip:  'At twilight nature becomes a wonderfully suggestive effect, and is not without loveliness, though perhaps its chief use is to illustrate quotations from the poets.' 

I get what Vivian is saying.  If the aim of life is to find meaning through poetic expression, then the 'sounds of nature' we hear in Beethoven's highly-programmatic 6th 'Pastorale' Symphony, for example, are not simply the products of his compositional aesthetic, which invented them ... they are the means through which he expressed his love for the natural world, and a means through which we divine our own.  

The human condition continues to find poetic resonance in the choral masterworks in which text and the composer's musical language are perfectly aligned.  The choir becomes the anguished voice of the people, singing "Help, Lord!" in Elijah ... "Libera me!" in the Verdi Requiem.  Generations after these works were composed, performances of them can have a disquieting timeliness: events occur in which the transcendent power of text and music are fully realized, as in the circumstances surrounding the origin of The Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin:  We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them

Belshazzar's Feast does not create the same powerful emotional connection ... but, Lord, it is exciting to sing, with its rich tapestry of interweaving melodic lines, complex often jazzy rhythms.  Taking into account its orchestral riches and demanding vocal athleticism -- both of which it has in abundance -- Belshazzar dazzles.  Relentlessly. 

I think the work's weakness lies in the central narrative.  Walton's librettist, Osbert Sitwell, chose the Book of Daniel:   
King Belshazzar, while feasting with his guests and concubines, commits a sacrilege by pointedly using the Jews' sacred vessels to take wine shots and toast the gods of iron, stone, gold, etc.   The king's death and Babylon's destruction mark the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy. 

The problem is that Belshazzar is no archetype of wickedness like Ahab, or a 'destroyer of nations' like his father, Nebuchadnezzar.  Rather, he comes across as a showy, minor despot and a sensualist.  Lacking an arch-villain, Walton had to write a whole lot of music to make the Babylonian excesses sound convincingly wicked, although his handling of Belshazzar's lavish banquet puts me more in mind of those old Bible movie scores.  Everybody is having a great time, right up to the moment the writing appears on the wall.  "Thou art weighed in the balance, and art found wanting."  Eh?  When the disembodied fingers emerge from the ether to write on the wall, I can easily picture Belshazzar frowning, slightly drunk, scratching an itchy place under his turban while Daniel is summoned to explain what it means.  The doom is pronounced and fulfilled in less than two pages.  Faster than the chorus can bellow "Slain!", through divine judgment (weighing, numbering), power is taken from the wicked and restored to the righteous. 

Then sing aloud to God our strength:
Make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob,
For Babylon has fallen!

However ... 2,400 years later, 'Babylon' is still the default symbol for every institutional evil, specifically, spiritual corruption yoked to immense power and wealth.  Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, 'American Civilization' in an 1862 issue of Atlantic Magazine, discourages any idea that physical and economic slavery belong to a distant past:  "... Well, now here comes this conspiracy of slavery,—they call it an institution, I call it a destitution,—this stealing of men and setting them to work,—stealing their labor, and the thief sitting idle himself; and for two or three ages it has lasted, and has yielded a certain quantity of rice, cotton, and sugar. And standing on this doleful experience, these people have endeavored to reverse the natural sentiments of mankind, and to pronounce labor disgraceful, and the well-being of a man to consist in eating the fruit of other men's labor."

The truth is that the showy, minor despots of modern civilization -- Emerson's 'thieves of labor'  -- continue to rebuild the 'great city' over and over:  the 'great harlot', referring to Rome in Revelations ... Hollywood in the 20's.  The 99 Percenters occupy Wall Street.  And instead of saying, 'The Jamaican government must stop the oppression of its people!" a Rasta sings, 'Babylon must fall'.

Isaiah's prophecy wasn't a one-off ... and it's difficult to overlook the irony these days.  Sitwell most likely understood this.  At the conclusion of Belshazzar's Feast, two separate passages of scripture are elided:  the chorus is the jubilant voice of the Jewish people singing Alleluia's, as well as the merchants rending their garments, lamenting the fall of a great city.  

While the Kings of the Earth lament
And the merchants of the Earth
Weep, wail and rend their raiment.
They cry, Alas, Alas, that great city,

In one hour is her judgement come.

Babylon's continued resurrection, however much we abhor it, doesn't surprise us, and there are always plenty of people sorry to see her go.

The emotional core within Belshazzar's Feast can be found in the second movement ... the opening lines are from Psalm 137, some of the saddest lines ever written, in which the chorus expresses the yearning of Jerusalem's exiled people during the last of three deportations into Babylon.

By the waters of Babylon
There we sat down: yea, we wept
And hanged our harps upon the willows.

Setting these lines to music must have flowed easily from Walton's pen ... the choral passages are truly beautiful, filled with longing and bitterness, punctuated by forte-piano stabs of pain from the upper voices.

For they that wasted us
Required of us mirth;
They that carried us away captive
Required of us a song

'Sing us one of the songs of Zion':  in other words, sing us one of those songs about being God's chosen people, under Jehovah's special protection. Considering that the captives only knew holy songs, sacred to their worship -- which they were forbidden to sing under other circumstances -- this request amounted to a demand that the Israelites profane their religion for the amusement of their oppressors.  

Disquieting timeliness, indeed ...  

Danger. Sacrifice. Passion.

The Music is Ongoing™ t-shirt was originally 1-color ... white type reversed out on a black field.

The message "The Music is Ongoing™" was conceived while we were still chuffed about Stanley Romanstein's assurances that the chorus was 'cherished', and by his attempt to elicit the robotic chanting of: 'Negotiations are ongoing.'  Cherish this, I thought, with a gesture I don't normally use outside a car.

When contract negotiations stopped being 'ongoing' ... it was Cyn who said it first: whatever happens, the music has to go on.  The ASO was, suddenly, being commoditized by the people who had pledged themselves to preserving the artistic future of the orchestra.   The Music, an ineluctable necessity for all of us, became irrelevant, a side issue, not even a talking point.

That's when the word "Music" on the t-shirt went red.

Throughout the ensuing painful month, the musicians put the music first.  Locked out of their hall, they brought the music out into the community.  The art that shapes them as individuals, as an ensemble, ultimately gave them courage to safeguard their artistic integrity.  What they elected to sacrifice, what they chose to protect, determined the outcome.  If there is going to be any more line-drawing in the sand, it will be done by the ASO musicians:  this far, and no farther.

They're back.  But make no mistake.  This is not a whipped, demoralized orchestra inhabiting the ghost of an old one.  ASO musicians are used to making sacrifices.  They are intimately connected with the transforming passion of music. Danger of losing their livelihoods is, perhaps, a new experience for some.   Members of the ASOC understood clearly the enormity of the threat and are committed to insuring that this travesty, perpetrated by ASO management and WAC, never, ever happens again.

I have to say (rubbing hands together) ... I am really looking forward to the ASO's next performance.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Top Story: Symphony To Go On Strike. Wait ... That was Last Month

From NPR's Deceptive Cadence


Seattle Symphony negotiations held off until 2013.


From the 'Makes You Want to Howl Like a Dog' Department

Here in Atlanta, when ASO Management needs more money, they cut the 
musicians' salaries and strip them of benefits.

In San Diego, the city council introduces new and exciting initiatives for 
not only raising money, but building cultural awareness.

“The arts and culture community has consistently proven their value to the city,” said Victoria Hamilton, executive director of the city’s Commission for Arts and Culture, which administers the city’s arts funding programs. “And we have demonstrated that Penny for the Arts will give San Diego a great return on investment.”

Who are these people ...?


Monday, October 22, 2012

St. Paul Chamber Orchestra Locked Out

From Norman LeBrecht's Arts Journal 'Slipped Disc'.  I like his dinosaur picture ...

"They want to decrease the number of musicians; they want to cut salaries by 33 percent; they want to buy out the most experienced musicians; and they want to pay new musicians $50,000 per year. You cannot retain or recruit quality musicians under this model," Carole Mason Smith, head of negotiating committee, said.

Direct link to Star Tribune article here.

Your Song, Your Story: San Diego Symphony Connects with its Community

With bad things happening to symphony orchestras across the country, this very uplifting article -- about an American symphony orchestra which recognized that much of its community is under-served, and put together an arts project to close the gap -- gives us a glimpse of how good it could be.  Reaching and building community audiences are absolutely crucial elements to saving our symphony orchestras.

“We are proud of the strides that the San Diego Symphony has made in the arena of civic and cultural engagement throughout the past few years,” said Edward “Ward” Gill, the symphony’s executive director.


New Realities?

John Ruff sent the latest of several articles from groups or individuals purporting to have a formula for saving America's orchestras. 


The article elicited this comment from Larry Wheeler, University of Houston; Former Co-Principal Viola, Minnesota Orchestra ... which I'll quote here:

"The Minnesota Orchestra's recordings of Beethoven symphonies are stunningly good. As an ensemble, they compare favorably to the great Concertgebouw Orchestra. The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra is the finest ensemble of its type in the country. These musicians have fulfilled the job of achieving artistic excellence. In any other job, such excellence would be rewarded. Not so with Minnesota, Saint Paul, and elsewhere. 

If the musicians have done their job, who hasn't? The conductors apparently have. That leaves the management and the board. It is their job to arrange concerts, sell tickets, give money, or get money. Doing so would leave the musicians free to focus on their job, which is to achieve and maintain their art at the highest level possible. 

When musicians pursue the profession, it is done without guarantees, and with overwhelming odds against gaining a top position. Even so, they invest three to six hours of daily practice, in excess of 15 years' training, and large amounts of money on lessons, schools, and instruments. To place the financial responsibility on the musicians by cutting salaries, work weeks, or benefits in order to balance budgets is not only counter-productive, but ethically dishonest. 

Musicians make a pact with society. Having upheld their half, it is time managers and boards uphold theirs." 

James Paulk's Concert Review in Access Atlanta

Chorus is the star in ASO’s road trip preview

By James L. Paulk

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s annual road trip to Carnegie Hall takes place next weekend. On Thursday, the local audience heard the same concert at Symphony Hall, and it was a nice chance to take stock.

This year, the orchestra is carrying along its prized chorus, and the program consisted of music from three neo-romantic composers from the 20th century.

Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” is one of the three ballet scores he wrote, all during his populist period and all inspired by American folk music. There is a wistful, innocent quality to the score. Copland originally scored it for just 13 players but later created the larger arrangement used here. One risk of this version is that it can become overblown, but Robert Spano conducted with admirable restraint, letting the music speak for itself in a performance that was both transparent and, at times, quite rollicking, with the eight sections nicely but delicately differentiated.

Next came Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” a choral setting in Hebrew of several passages of Scripture. It might seem cheeky to show up in New York with a work by Bernstein, still fondly recalled for his tenure at the New York Philharmonic. But Spano also has New York credentials from his years at the Brooklyn Philharmonic. More significantly, he has the kind of chorus that can bite off this challenging work.

In the work’s celebratory first movement, the combination of rapid-fire pace and Bernstein’s orchestration with Symphony Hall’s cruel acoustics sometimes rendered the ASO chorus’ diction into Psalm 100’s “joyful noise.” This problem should resolve itself nicely when the company transfers to Carnegie, with its fabled sound.

Things worked much better for the remaining movements, both gentle and reflective for the most part, and here performed with considerable precision. There is a soloist, designated as either a boy soprano or a countertenor, and the ASO has performed it both ways. In this case we heard a fine young countertenor, John Holiday, whose voice soared through the hall. He has a clear, natural sound, without the reedy quality often associated with countertenors.

Spano’s intense approach to the piece resembles Bernstein’s own, and this is likely as authentic a reading as you’ll hear today.

The big work on the menu was also the most obscure, William Walton’s “Belshazzar’s Feast.” Written in 1931, it was quite popular for a few decades but now gets performed only occasionally. The ASO and chorus made a strong case for it.

“Feast” is a fascinating choral work that deals with the Israelites during their captivity in Babylon. It’s quite vivid, full of pagan celebrations, terrors, lamentations and, ultimately, the triumph of the Israelites. As with everything on this program, the music is conservative but highly expressive. It really does showcase the qualities that distinguish the ASO chorus: its finely honed unity, the clear sound of the sopranos and its ability to sing the most difficult material with dispatch.

Brett Polegato, the baritone soloist, has such fine diction that the projected titles were superfluous. He sang with near-perfect intonation and a fine dramatic sense. And Spano was in his element, piloting the massive ensemble like a finely tuned Ferrari: powerful, elegant, precise and sometimes a little boisterous.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Good for you, Delta ...

This is exciting news.  I also like his 4 guiding principles:

1. Always tell the truth
2. Don’t hurt anyone
3. Always keep your word
4. Try harder than anybody else


Saving American Symphony Orchestras - Round II

The Forbes article Sally posted below invites some comment since it mirrors so many of the current tropes about how to "fix" orchestras (and whether that is fix as in repair and resuscitate, or fix as in "we need to fix the cat so there are no more kittens" is not always clear). So here are some of my comments and post-Bernstein/Walton ramblings to help feed the blog.
First off, you can detect the authoritative and somewhat patronizing tone of the “consultant” who has the answers and is ready to sell them to you. I am glad that the author is an “enthusiastic patron of classical music”, but when someone makes that claim, I would prefer to hear how and why he came to that position, which could potentially provide some valuable insight into attracting and retaining audiences. Some of his casual observations (“the creeping mortality of an aging donor base”) are more worthy of closer examination than the themes he developed for the purpose of selling an article to Forbes (i.e., “stop playing concerts”, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek corrective action illustrated with an over-simplified example of the purported cost-savings). Some interesting statements, but I have to refute several ideas.
Like many “consultants”, he attempts to uniformly apply the principles of the corporate, for-profit business world to the arts. There are certainly areas where some of those principles can be used to great benefit; however, there are at least as many where they cannot. This has less to do with an arts organization being “not-for-profit”, than it has to do with the product generated by an arts organization, in our case, an orchestra.  That product (the concert performance) is ephemeral, but must be made to happen at a fixed point in time while being subject to an extremely high quality standard (the infamous “cost-quality-delivery” triangle thus guarantees you will incur high cost as well). At the end of the evening, the consumer (hopefully) walks out of the hall with a pleasant feeling and vivid memories, and that’s it. There is nothing tangible: the music occurs, resonates, and vanishes under a set of unique circumstances, which is both tremendously exciting and financially problematic. The closest analogy I can think of is a sporting event, like a Braves game, where the framework is fixed and the general outcome is known, but the details vary. But those details are what keep the patrons interested and in attendance. An analysis of the similarities  might be very instructive, but as for comparing the orchestra to a typical corporation producing goods or services – not so much.
With an eye to his Forbes’ reading audience, the author makes the obligatory disparaging remarks about the musicians’ union, erroneously equating it, as do most commentators, with manufacturing trade unions when in fact there is no valid basis of comparison. There are very practical and necessary reasons for both orchestra musicians and orchestra management to work under union rules, and the efficiency of negotiating collectively (if done in good faith) versus on an individual basis when dealing with a large number of employees basically doing the same task is self-evident. I think I’ll just say it: the existence and legitimate operation of a musician’s union should not be detrimental to the financial health of an orchestra – it’s just an easy target.
The ideas of per-concert pay, and of programming to avoid concerts where not all the hired musicians appear for the full concert, derive from the fallacy that when someone shows up to work they are productive for 100% of the time for which they are paid, and that 100% of their time is required to create the product which provides the means to pay them. That is, a direct correspondence is presumed to exist between individual productivity, end product, and compensation. There is a very old profession for which this is possibly true, but it is not a valid relationship anywhere else. In my humble employment, I am supposed to be physically present for a certain number of hours every day. Those hours may be spent frantically trying to make a deadline, answering routine customer inquiries, or sleeping in a meeting (as I'm afraid may have happened this morning). My personal productivity does not occur at a constant rate but in response to what I will call “market forces” that contribute to the overall end product of the business.
The musician gets paid for walking in the door, just like I do. He/she is a part of the process of creating an end product (the concert, see above). So what if the first half of the program only requires strings, brass and percussion but the wind players are in the building waiting to go on-stage for the rafter-buster to follow? The overall product that is being sold is the experience of the concert itself – the considered selection of complementary repertoire that entertains, challenges, and informs the audience. The next logical step if you accept this theory is to pay per measure so that the dastardly union doesn’t drain the coffers on those sneaky tacet movements!
In the end, where is the savings of a strategy which attempts to make a minor differentiation between paying a fixed salary and paying on a per-job basis when you are running a top-notch orchestra that exists to perform a wide range of music on a frequent basis? It’s insignificant when compared to the far greater costs of inefficiently running other parts of the business, as well as failing to appropriately fulfill the non-profit institution’s charter to supplement production revenues with donated income. And why shouldn’t a college-educated, experienced, high-performing professional be able to work under salaried conditions, i.e. to have what the author refers to as “guaranteed work” and its concomitant benefits?
Lastly, the idea that the “community” needs to somehow be “engaged in programming” and have their wishes considered is mostly ridiculous and just indicates that the writer would really, really like to have his own particular wishes considered in his own community. Strong artistic organizations aren’t built on that type of committee input. It would be much better to have a music director with a strong point of view who builds a brand for the organization (as Robert Shaw did with choral music and as I believe was happening with the “Atlanta school”) than to have a vaguely recognizable leadership assemble a rambling season of the Classical Top 40, sub-par pops music, and various musical Twinkie feasts to pander to so-called community “taste”. It’s just another way to dumb-down culture under the presumption that you can somehow please everyone out there in such a way that attendance will magically sky-rocket and all financial problems will be solved. A season-length NPR pledge drive – every season – yay! That may work in the short-term, but what we really need is long-term answers. Thanks to everyone who is working on that!
L.C. – ASOC Alto I #363
BTW, GREAT concert last night, folks – orchestra, chorus, and soloists all. Let’s do it again Saturday!

Saving American Symphony Orchestras

From Forbes Magazine (January 2012).


Orchestras in Crisis -- and How to Move Forward

Here's a great interview with Leonard Slatkin about recovering from an orchestral lockout or strike -- definitely worth listening to, if you missed the broadcast:


Check our listing in NYT Travel Guide


Thursday, October 18, 2012

'Lock-Out': The Omen

This article in Non-Profit Quarterly ...

... elicited this comment from a reader:

A similar dispute between the musician's union and the Sacramento Symphony led to the closure of the nonprofit symphony about 20 years ago in our town. And even though a successor (the Sacramento Philharmonic) arose to take its place, the level of musicianship is just a half step below the previous organization, and the depth and breadth of the season's offerings is far below the Symphony's. The old Symphony went bankrupt at the end, leaving many people embittered (season subscribers paid for performances that never occurred and received no refunds). The "anchor" effect of a decent Symphony affected the Opera and other symbiotic productions. The overall trust of the audience went down as well. The scars are still noticeable, and even though the "replacement" Philharmonic makes beautiful music, it's just never been the same. I only wish other orchestral nonprofits, unions and communities could take a good hard look at the long-term, lingering impacts of these disputes. Ours was a lose-lose experience!

From Minnesota Public Radio

What Are Experts Worth? Now There's a Question ...

Rena Kraut's essay in MinnPost


Woodruff Wins Concessions: Adapistration Article

This is a 9/27/12 article, by Drew McManus.


Indianapolis Musicians Strike Deal to End Lockout

What's wrong with this picture?  Why is it other organizations manage to resolve these things better than here in Atlanta?  Part of the settlement included the proviso that the IO Board raise $5 by January 2013, or they sit down and re-negotiate.






Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Situation in Philadelphia

Today's Wall Street Journal has some interesting reading as well, with the headline: Can these Philadelphians be fabulous again? Familiar issues under the familiar leadership of Allison Vulgamore.

Memory and Transcendence

My favorite quotation is from Murray Sidlin's interview with pianist and Terezin survivor, Edith Steiner-Kraus.  Mr. Sidlin asked her to describe the quality of the chorus, as it pertained to the Verdi.  

When I asked her this question, she gave me this sly, suspicious look out of the corners of her eyes and she said, “When you ask me a question about all those musicianly things, you are no doubt speaking about precise rhythm, intonation, balance, diction. I think you would be proud of this chorus in any urban setting. However, the superficial nature of your question troubles me terribly—as if any of that mattered. Don’t you understand? We had returned to the source of the music—we were so far inside the genesis of the music that we were at Verdi’s table. I don’t understand why people, when they talk about Terezín, mention those elements that you ask about. You’ll never understand, or get close, to what music truly meant to each of us as a sustaining power and as a way of using our skills to inspire—beyond criticism—beyond any superficial evaluation—we were music.”  

Monday, October 8, 2012

Preserving Great Art

A fascinating read from Minnesota . . .

The Situation in Chicago

Yesterday's Chicago Tribune had an interesting article on the financial situation at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Chicago Symphony Orchestra labor strike reflects deeper financial troubles.

(Note: You have to create a login to get the full story. Annoying, but worthwhile! Which is more than can be said for our hometown paper's cultural coverage...)

Sunday, October 7, 2012

We have a season

Chorus Colleagues:

It is certainly nice to know we have a season and the "late unpleasantness" is behind us, at least for a couple of years. I hope feelings will mend and that some longer lasting solution will be found.  As you may know, this has not been a good period for symphony orchestras in America. 

The Orchestra is to be commended for "stepping up to the plate".  The sad thing is that they could have had much the same settlement as they finally accepted. However, I can understand their feelings on the matter.  No question that Orchestra members took a big hit with respect to salary.  They did what they had to do regardless of the pain.  Some will have to rearrange their lives.  That is most unfortunate.  But the alternative would have been worse. 

Seems to me that management could have done a few things better. In retrospect I think Stanley's approach to us might have been  more business-like.  It appears to me that having once sung in a chorus or haviing attended a Shaw clinic or some such, he is "one of us".  He told me that once.  I think not. I'd rather have a "boss" who treats you like a professional.  We are "professional" in our approach.  We just don't get paid.  That's something Mr. Shaw believed is the right way.  I think he was (and is) right. And, perhaps, top management might have offered concessions going in.  But that is then and this is now.

Some have feared that the settlement might compromise artistic quality. If one is talking about numbers, I doubt it.  According to my research, when we recorded the Walton and the Bernstein in 1989, the Orchestra had 91 members, three more than presently.  As for the players themselves, I suspect self-respect and high standards will overcome hard feelings.  These folks are pros.  Will the Orchestra be able to attract top talent?  My guess is, "Yes".  There are many fine musicians out there, probably more instrumentalists available than vacancies. 

The big problem is, as it usually is, money.  We've read that the organization will start fund-raising in earnest in the aftermath of the settlement. 

We give of our time and effort because we love music, our organizaton  and each other.  Many would say that's enough.  At least for the short-term, I'd like to challenge fellow choristers to do a little bit more.  I'm pledging to increase our annual donation to the ASO.  Will everyone join me and contributing at least $100 or more this calendar year?  That's really not too much when you work it out in terms of things we buy on a frequent basis.  The total will not be huge, but every bit counts. 

I know not everyone in The Chorus reads this blog. Maybe someone can figure out how to get the word out to fellow choristers.

As a post script:  One of our colleagues had a criticism of my last post in which I suggested that management should consider putting everything on the table when it comes to cost-cutting, including education.  I agree that his criticism has merit.  If for no other reason, an organization like The Orchestra must be involved in the community.  Perhaps my suggestion was somewhat short-sighted.

Ed (Old #172)

Slipped Disc Articles

From Norman Lebrecht, we have two interesting articles.

Past maestros urge Peace talks in Minnesota:


And this one, from 10/3 which has attracted some interesting comments:


Friday, October 5, 2012

ASO's Season Opening Concert Review

From Mark Gresham, ArtsATL.


A Grim Tale: Looking Back in Anger

There was once a group of skilled musicians, praised and esteemed for the quality of their musicianship, their versatility, and the beauty of their sound.  These musicians were very busy:  winning Grammys, giving concerts, visiting schools, mentoring the next generation of musicians, practicing, rehearsing -- committed to doing their jobs as well as could be done, working tirelessly to improve what was already a superior ensemble.  It was universally agreed that this group of musicians was one of the finest in the land.

Unbeknownst to the musicians, their overlords were busy at the same time, running up a stupefying deficit ...  adding staff -- 15 people in management who made more money than the musicians did --  building costly arenas, and generally doing nothing but spending money faster than the musicians could bring it in.  That is, until the newly-commissioned Commissioner, skilled in exchequer, came into the land and was truly appalled by the sight of such a bloated, top-heavy beast.

The Commissioner vowed to fix this ... and after a few minutes' thought, came up with the winning idea of having the musicians -- the primary revenue stream -- bear the brunt of the debt.   By reducing their numbers, slashing their salaries, playing weeks, and benefits the problem would be solved! The overlords would be allowed to stay nice and fat with barely a dent in their purse or loss of perks.

The plan would do nothing, of course, to add luster to the artistic future of the musicians, but the debt would be reduced, and thus, no argument against it was brooked.  The musicians said bravely that they would not accept this solution. So, with the help of her puppet, the Chief High Overlord, the Commissioner laid siege to the musicians.  Horrified, the musicians looked around them.  "Who speaks for us?" they asked.  "Who speaks for the music?"  But there was no answer.

The Commissioner and the Chief High Overlord took no pity.  They locked the musicians out of their Hall, cut off their health benefits, hijacked their educational programs ... until the musicians, who had been unprepared for the viciousness of the attack, and possessed no weapons or strategy, realized they were facing damage to their artistic reputation and loss of livelihood, and bent to the will of the overlords.

There was much celebrating in the imperial halls of the overlords, who were now able to give up the onerous tasks of fundraising, seeking donor patronage, and the tightening of their own belts.  14 weeks of paid vacation!  A mere 6% salary reduction!  No staff lost!  Let the Casino Party begin!

The musicians, suddenly finding themselves saddled with a massive debt not of their own making, were troubled, but they did not despair.  They took up their instruments with the same accustomed resolve.  The purity of their art would not be stained by the machinations of the foolish ones, who saw no value in the musicians' music, other than the gold it brought them.  The musicians vowed that no matter what these overlords in their ignorance and lust for power had decreed, no matter what humiliations they inflicted, the music would go on.

And so it did.

We need to read this again and again.  http://www.atlsymphonymusicians.com/1/post/2012/09/atlanta-symphony-musicians-accept-new-agreement-including-52-million-in-concessions.html

A Note of Thanks from Our Band

Dear ASO Chorus,

I can't begin to express our thanks on behalf of all of us in the orchestra for your heartfelt support and genuine caring displayed during these difficult months for us. You have displayed through your actions what being part of a family really means. We have felt it through your many letters of support, helping members of the orchestra with medical issues while our healthcare was terminated, and simply being there for us in so many ways. Even though a contract has been agreed to, there is a lot of work which needs to be done as we move forward to chart the right course for the future of both the ASO orchestra and chorus.

Your very generous donation to the ASOPA, and your offer to buy for the whole orchestra the t-shirts to wear along with you on stage has not only been touching to all of us but also a wonderful way to show our unity. We look forward having a photo opportunity and I will ask the orchestra to also bring them to Carnegie Hall for the same reason.

We look forward working with you soon and want you all to know that we will not forget your warmth and compassion displayed towards us while others were badly damaging our orchestra.

With sincere gratitude,

Danny Laufer on behalf of all the ASO Musicians

ASO Concert: Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin

The following links are to the Defiant Requiem, a historical performance of the Verdi Requiem.  Thanks to the sacrifice of the ASOPA, which decided to end a bitter contract dispute in order not to jeopardize the ASO's season, the performance will go on October 11, 2012 at Symphony Hall.

'We Will Sing to the Nazis What We Cannot Say to Them.'

There are many excellent resources, some of which are here.




... and ticket information


From the 'Let Them Eat Cake' Department

An article on the season-opener of the National Symphony Orchestra.

Interesting here, the comments ... one of which calls Anne Midgette out on writing 'a completely worthless, snarky article'.