musings of a professional bassoonist

Monday, February 14, 2011

Connecting, Part II

My last post focused on ideas for building a connection between the audience to the musicians.  This post deals with the issue of connecting the audience to the music.

"Everyone loves classical music..................
......they just haven't found out about it yet."
                                 -Benjamin Zander




In this video, the renowned conductor, teacher, speaker and author Benjamin Zander describes an experience he had while working with a group of street children in Ireland.  One day a boy approached him and told him how the Chopin piece (he referred to it as the "shopping" piece!) which Zander had played the night before had affected him even though he'd  never heard classical music before.  He went on to say that his brother had been shot a year earlier, and while Zander played, thoughts of his dead brother came into his mind; before he knew it, tears were streaming down his face.  It was the first time he had cried for his brother, and it was cathartic.  What a clear demonstration of the universal power of classical music!

(Do not listen to the statisticians who claim that only 3% of the population likes classical music!!)

My recent post about connecting with the audience drew many well-thought-out and helpful comments.  For example, commenter Travis Branam mentioned a blog post he had written on this subject entitled new years resolutions for classical music.  This is one of Travis' suggestions for classical musicians:

"Find someone who can “decode” your music for the general public.   Someone- a musician, a journalist, a blogger, anyone- needs to be appointed as our unofficial diplomat to the masses on behalf of all branches of classical music; someone who will not only carry a unified,  positive and specific message about what classical music has to offer people today but someone who can break down and analyze music in a register of language that someone who doesn’t have a music degree can understand and even enjoy."

Travis is proposing the idea of one individual who can have a far-reaching, international effect.  He goes on to say that we need someone to do for classical music what Oprah did for literature through her famous book club.  Leonard Bernstein is a past example of a classical music diplomat.  (How about having lots of musical diplomats?  How about one or more for each orchestra?)

I'd say that Benjamin Zander is serving as a present-day international musical diplomat.  He has the ability to reach every last person in his audience.  He doesn't do it just by playing the piano- he also speaks, in an enthusiastic and inspiring manner.  That's how an audience is created.  Chances are, everyone who has experienced one of Benjamin Zander's presentations will attend a classical concert in the near future!  

This reminds me of a recently viewed PBS documentary about professional baseball.  Pro baseball was not that big a deal in the U.S. until the games started being broadcast on the radio.  Why?  Because the radio announcers made baseball accessible!  Their explanations of how the game was played changed everything.  Radio announcers made baseball accessible to and understood by the masses.

After watching that documentary about baseball, I began wondering how orchestras might benefit from some sort of announcer who could keep the audience informed during the concert.  Of course, Peter Schickele thought of this a long time ago: 



But is there some way that orchestras can do this in a serious way?  At the very least, how about having a charismatic announcer (maybe the conductor) speak before the piece begins and between movements?  How about subtitles (commonly used for opera) being used to help the audience keep track of what's unfolding in the music?  Maybe twitter or a smart phone application could be used, especially for the younger audience members which all orchestras are currently seeking.

The Columbus Symphony is already using an announcer of sorts (a narrator, really) in a series of educational concerts we're presenting in elementary schools.  The narrator guides students through the concerts.  Sometimes she uses props, which I think is a great idea. She even asks students to volunteer to help her. In my opinion, the narrator could be doing even more- I see nothing wrong with her signaling to the audience when a theme is returning or when the oboe has a solo!  It's time for us to break free from our outdated molds and start innovating!  If the announcer is concerned about offending or distracting the musicians, then it's time for the musicians to let it be known that we embrace change!  (We do, don't we?)

During the past year and a half, the Columbus Symphony has been offering audio streams of our concerts on Instant Encore.  At first, some musicians feared that the availability of our concerts for free on the internet would result in a decline in ticket sales.  Those fears proved to be unfounded, since our ticket sales have been strong.  In fact, our internet presence has been extremely beneficial.  It's a way of putting our orchestra on the map, so to speak.  Several of my long-distance friends have told me how much they've enjoyed listening to our concerts on InstantEncore.  (Also, as an added benefit, the musicians in the orchestra, especially wind and brass players, can learn a lot about their playing from listening to the performances.) 

The Chicago Symphony has created an incredible series called Beyond the Score® which is designed not only for classical music aficionados, but also for newcomers looking to delve deeper into the world of classical music.  The first half of each Beyond the Score® program offers a multimedia examination of the selected score - its context in history, how it fits into the composer's output of works, the details of a composer's life that influenced its creation - sharing the illuminating stories found "inside" the music.  Actors, a narrator and moving and still images are used.  The second half features a performance of the work in its entirety. 



These productions are extremely well done, as proven during our Beyond the Score® presentation of Mozart Piano Concerto #27 here in Columbus, but they're also expensive to present - a problem for beleaguered orchestras.  I wish that presentations like Beyond the Score® were more affordable, because currently, the multimedia approach offers a huge advantage for orchestras which must compete with endless entertainment options, such as other local arts groups, a vast array of internet options, and more recently, videos of world class orchestras shown in movie theaters.

Next season the Columbus Symphony is offering some new options which hopefully will allow us to connect more people with the music.  For example, we will present "Rush Hour" concerts beginning at 5:30 - a great time for downtown workers who welcome an excuse to avoid traffic jams!  Also, the once-popular "Coffee Concerts" presented at midday on Fridays will be re-introduced, in a smaller venue than our regular hall.  These new concerts are sure to attract new audiences.  It totally makes sense for orchestra managements to seek new options (new times, new formats, new venues, new add-ons such as food and drinks) for connecting the music to the audiences.  The mid-sized orchestras most likely to survive are the ones which flex, offering presentations which are appealing and convenient.

Please add your comments and additional ideas!



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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Connecting with the audience

Gone are the days when orchestral musicians had nothing to worry about except practicing.  Now our careers are threatened by:
  • plummeting philanthropy
  • diminishing governmental and foundational support
  • aging audiences
  • competition from world class orchestras on the internet and in movie theaters
  • a glut of live entertainment options competing with orchestral concerts
  • cuts in arts education
  • perceived stuffiness, stiffness and formality of symphonic concerts
Some classical musicians have sought careers in chamber music, and those who have done so successfully have figured out that a connection must be forged between musicians and audience. For example, I recently attended a performance by Carpe Diem String Quartet here in Columbus.  Instead of hiding backstage, fussing over the tricky passages before the concert, each quartet member was in the kitchen of the venue, chatting with and serving food and drinks to the audience members who joined them in the kitchen.  When it was time for the performance to begin, the guests brought their drinks and plates into the performance area (which included unusual seating options like sofas).  The musicians chatted and joked in a relaxed fashion with the audience during the performance.  One of the pieces on the program was composed by a Columbus resident who was present, and he also offered a few words to the audience. What a great way to establish relevance in the community!  The quartet played really well too, but they were smart enough to realize that playing well is just one of the requirements for success in today's classical music environment.  I believe that orchestral musicians can benefit from following the examples of successful chamber ensembles like Carpe Diem.

The musicians of The Cleveland Orchestra have begun an innovative series in which they perform chamber music in the Happy Dog bar in the Gordon Square Arts District of Cleveland.  They are responding to the current environment which is making it difficult for even the top orchestras to thrive.  These musicians are not above donning Happy Dog t-shirts and offering their fine musicianship free of charge.  Why?  It's all about forging a connection between the audience and the musicians.

Just last Thursday The Cleveland Orchestra was stranded in Ann Arbor during a winter storm  Guess what the musicians did?  Thirty of them gathered at Silvio's Organic Pizzeria at the University of Michigan for an impromptu performance of chamber music where they were joined by world-renowned pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard.  It has become habitual for The Cleveland Orchestra musicians to connect to their audiences, even when they're out of town!

The efforts of The Cleveland Orchestra musicians are especially remarkable because the free events are organized solely by the musicians.  Instead of looking around for a target to blame for the current socioeconomic environment which is not as supportive of symphony orchestras, the musicians have found a solution.  Their performances in Happy Dog have created quite a stir in Cleveland, from which the entire orchestra will benefit greatly.

What else can be done to forge those connections?  Well, first of all, the musicians have to be willing to connect to the audience.  Columbus Symphony Principal Clarinetist David Thomas started a podcast project a few months ago.  He asked the members of the Columbus Symphony to volunteer to be interviewed (by David himself) with the intent of making these podcasts available to audience members so that they'd have the opportunity to learn more about the individual musicians.  Sounds like a great idea, right?  Yes, it is, but unfortunately, very few musicians agreed to be interviewed, and the project flatlined.  (Thank you, David, for trying....)

http://blog.davidhthomas.net/wp-content/uploads/397.jpg
David Thomas' house in Clintonville
Another project of David's has been wildly successful.  He has presented numerous  chamber music performances by Columbus Symphony musicians in his house.  Each time, his house has been jam-packed with enthusiastic symphony supporters who relished the chance to meet the musicians and to watch them perform up close.  One of David's many talents is that he really knows how to throw a party, and he sees to it that the music is complemented by delectable hors d'oeuvres and fine wines.  David's most recent chamber concert was also a benefit for the symphony; the guests gladly offered donations.

Some orchestras showcase individual musicians before concerts by having a different musician each week speak a few words about his or her background before the concert begins.  Although the musicians always report that it's nerve-racking to speak before a concert, the audiences love that personal touch.  Some orchestras create a video bio of each musician for inclusion on the orchestra's website, and of course most orchestras feature photos and brief bios of the musicians on their websites.

I think that post-concert gatherings held in the lobby are an obvious way to forge connections between musicians and audience.  The orchestra would not incur any expenses except the fee required to keep the hall (and its concessions) open a bit later. The resulting connections would be well worth whatever it costs to keep the hall open an hour longer. 

In the past, some Columbus Symphony musicians have experimented with a "Meet and Greet" in the lobby of the hall as concertgoers arrive.  However, many musicians feel that pre-concert socializing interferes with concert preparation.  The musicians standing around the lobby trying to greet patrons are not easily recognized as musicians because they don't have their instruments .  Also, the patrons entering the facility always seem to be in a hurry to get to their seats.  Based upon my observations, pre-concert "Meet and Greet" situations are minimally effective.

But the unexpected encounters between musicians and audience members on their way into or out of the hall provide great opportunities to connect.  We're usually carrying our instruments, so everyone knows we play in the orchestra.  I vividly recall an incident which occurred before a concert a year ago.  I witnessed a couple of musicians walking very quickly toward the hall. They were intently engrossed in conversation, and as the musicians veered around an elderly couple, they nearly knocked them down.  The elderly patrons were incensed, and they hissed something about Columbus Symphony musicians not caring about anyone except themselves!  It was very unfortunate, especially since the offending musicians, who unwittingly served as the orchestra's ambassadors, never even realized what happened.

After that, I decided to embark on a mission to offer good will to any concertgoer I encountered.  I began going out of my way to smile at and speak to anyone who looked at me before and after each concert.  Right away, it became clear from the way people reacted that my efforts were appreciated.  In fact, I was surprised to find out that some patrons actually knew who I was!   That invisible barrier which has existed between musicians and audience does not serve us well.  Let's get rid of it!

When we're onstage, we're being watched.  I don't like to think about that too much, lest I become self-conscious, but the fact remains that there is indeed a visual aspect to our performances.  Perhaps we musicians should even consider smiling now and then when our performance is being acknowledged!

Please help me brainstorm.  What ideas do you have to help orchestral musicians connect with the audience

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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Shostakovich 11

Dmitri Shostakovich
Judging from the reaction of the audience following last night's Columbus Symphony performance of Shostakovich Symphony No. 11, Opus 103, "The Year 1905", the power of this symphony transcends the specificity of Bloody Sunday and the Revolution of 1905 which the piece commemorates.  On Bloody Sunday, a peaceful protest (against autocratic rule) by Russian workers and their families turned into massacre as Russian troups opened fire on the defenseless crowd.  Hundreds died senselessly; the Revolution of 1905 ensued.

Shostakovich himself wrote of his 11th symphony:
"...it deals with contemporary themes even though it's called '1905'.  It's about the people, who have stopped believing because the cup of evil has run over."
Undoubtedly, many people in the audience and the orchestra were mindful of current events in Egypt during last night's Shostakovich 11 performance.  We were fortunate to participate in such a powerful demonstration of the relevance of classical music.

Shostakovich quoted nine different Russian workers' revolutionary songs which were woven into the texture throughout the 65-minute symphony.  This was a departure from his usual style, and probably contributed to this symphony's immediate success in Russia upon its publication in 1957.

Shostakovich wrote some of the greatest bassoon solos of all time, most notably the recitative-like solos of 4th movement of Symphony no. 9.  The first page of the 1st bassoon part of Shostakovich 11 contains nothing but solos:


The first solo (2 bars before 15) occurs following a lengthy rest.  To avoid surprising yourself and everyone else with a pitch below A=440, it is advisable to remove the reed from the bocal and quietly blow air into the instrument for a couple of minutes prior to the entrance.  Bassoons are extremely sensitive to temperature, and any entrance following a lengthy rest should be preceded by blowing air into the bassoon, unless the stage temperature is unusually high.  The reason I know this is because I listened to the InstantEncore stream of the Columbus Symphony's Handel's Messiah performance from a couple of months ago.  I was horrified to hear an entrance of mine sounding quite flat on low F after a prolonged rest.  Then I remembered the advice of my Japanese bassoon teacher, Ryohei Nakagawa: he insisted on blowing into the instrument during long rests to keep the pitch stable.

The passage above which begins 3 before 21 (and becomes a soli with the 2nd bassoon at 2 before 21) is to be played as powerfully as possible.  It really is ff!  The last 3 bars complete the passage with 1st bassoon and contra.  Of course, it's a good idea for the bassoonist to drop his/her jaw in the attempt to keep the pitch of low Eb down.

Near the end of the 3rd movement, which is a funeral march lamenting those who lost their lives in the Bloody Sunday massacre, Shostakovich wrote the following bassoon solo which is accompanied by 2 clarinets during the 1st 3 bars:


The bassoonist is well advised to match the dynamics of the 2 clarinets until they drop out.  (It may require a volume louder than p!)  Then the bassoon can end the solo quietly beginning at 5 after 117.

There are some tutti passages which require significant wood shedding in this piece.  This example is from the final page of the 1st bassoon part:


Along with the other woodwinds, the bassoons are likely representing the intensity of the crowd - the people who will ultimately prevail in their revolution.  We should not let Shostakovich down by fumbling through this passage!  Its intensity requires precision.

Here is the audio stream of the Columbus Symphony's performance of Shostakovich from this past weekend:

Russian Masters - Rachmaninoff Paganini Rhapsody - InstantEncore

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