Thursday, December 13, 2007

Inspiration from Jon Carroll

My apologies for rarely posting. Conference followed by deadline followed by turkey followed by prolonged battle with the flu. I'm back.

The SF Chronicle's humor / daily life columnist, Jon Carroll, has written a column on of all unlikely topics, enjoying choral music. He sees that that the world is divided between those who would pick a choir concert over a football game on TV, and vice versa, and confesses to being part of the latter (and larger) camp. But, attending the recent San Francisco Bach Choir concert gave him reason to reflect. It is a beautiful column.

Musings on SF Bach Choir's December concert.

Tip 'o the nib to TdA for sending me the link.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Self-expression and the concert experience

A few posts ago, I observed that a cappella music is much more popular today than classical choral music, and asked why. I strongly believe that individual audience members feel better able to express themselves at the former than the latter, and, again, that the fundamental issue lies beyond the popular roots of a cappella music.

When we are in our teens, twenties, even thirties, we are constantly searching for ourselves. The most obvious way to do so is through the reactions of others (i.e. social interaction). We go to clubs and to concerts not only to hear great music, but to meet other people and to assert our individual personalities in the context of the event. It is nowhere more obvious than at the Club, where participants are expected to engage in physical acts of self-expression, persistently asserting who they are through dance.

We may do other things than dance, clap, and sing along at a popular concert, but we are at all times self-conscious about how we are perceived at these events. We assert and express ourselves through acts of non-participation, as well- we may want to convey a sense of mystery and cool through the aloof act of walking away from the stage.

We are usually free to move around the cabin, to socialize, to eat, drink, and even smoke [outside of California] during the event. While concert etiquette still applies in popular music performance, even when confined to assigned seating, one is free to sing along, tap feet wave hands, verbally respond to the presumably charismatic performer, eat, drink, etc. Even when the performer has the crowd completely mesmerized, the individual never loses sense of who they are. Last November, I went to a big U2 stadium concert, and couldn’t help but join tens of thousands of others, losing myself completely to the power of the crowd and of Bono’s charisma, yet never forgetting that it was my whole person, not just a brain and heart having this experience. Being one-in-the-crowd was just as human an experience as being that individual in a club dancing up a storm or bobbing in the corner with ones eyes soulfully closed.

It goes without saying that pop concerts and clubs are fertile social meeting grounds, and are more sexually charged than the classical concert hall. Face it- there is a much greater chance that you’ll ‘get lucky’ at a club or rock concert hall than at the Symphony.

This freedom of expression is, in part, granted through technology. Pop music performances are electronically amplified, so our behavior [usually] does not pose a distraction.. No matter how raucous the audience becomes, the artists always have the upper hand in setting the tone of our experience.

Can one allow individual audience members a similar freedom of expression in a classical music concert? Can this be achieved in live, acoustic performance? Do we have to check our personality at the door? Must we always have a quiet, ‘contemplative’ experience with this music, without interfering in the experience of the rest of the audience or of the artists?

Outdoor festival concerts allow more freedoms than those in concert halls. We are free to spread our picnic blanket, eat our lunch, read our book or newspaper, let the kids run free around the back of the amphitheater, snuggle with our loved ones, ever (god forbid) talk during the performance. While electronic amplification is helpful in this endeavor, these liberties are foremost granted because everyone understands that the tone is going to be more casual. Opera simulcasts afford similar liberties. But, is the only solution to squeeze classical music into the stadium concert experience? Can more liberties be granted to the audience in smaller, more intimate venues?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Other Pioneers: Greg Sandow & "Butts in the Seats"

Thanks to Lisa, I have learned about another innovator / pioneer in this realm of modernizing live classical music, Greg Sandow. Our blog preface echoes the sentiments expressed in his (quoted below).
...I think classical music will change, maybe drastically. The economics of the way we do things now won't work in the future. The audience is shrinking. There's something rigid, stuffy, artificial in the old presumptions that classical music is the only serious music, that it has to be treated with reverence (and scholarship), and that old masterworks are more important than new compositions (which isn't what many people say out loud, but is clearly how the business works).
I'm adding Greg's blog to the list of links in the sidebar.

Also, Butts in the Seats is another useful blog on performance arts management.

I'll take this moment to shine the spotlight on Lisa's blog Iron Tongue of Midnight. This is another outstanding and personal-yet-highly-informed perspective on the present-day workings of the classical music world. Lisa, I'm honored that you are helping me with this project!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

One Possible Solution to Some Problems

Reposted, with minor edits, from Iron Tongue of Midnight, where I wrote this in June:

Celeste Winant has written about the tendency of multiple choruses in the Bay area to perform on the same weekend, which happens at least three or four times a year. She is also trying to do something about it.

There are plenty of reasons for choruses to do some schedule coordination. We're all in competition for the same pool of free-lance musicians. We all want to sing in the same venues. Some choristers sing in multiple choruses. Choristers are also audience members, and we want to hear what other groups are doing. Hell, we're in competition for the same audience for choral music.

I think we might need something like the Gotham Early Music Scene to help out. This group plans to "help [early music groups in NYC] with marketing, ticket sales, merchandising and assembling the financial data required for grant applications."

Sheer genius: take this specialized work off the hands of small performing groups that don't have the time or infrastructure to do the best possible job with those tasks. Can we figure something out in the Bay Area to do this for choruses?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Listen first to the pioneers: Adapistration

Other classical musicians have long been grappling with the question of how to keep art-music alive and well in the 21st century. Rather than regurgitate (and take credit for) all previous brainstormings, I would like to draw your attention to Adapistration, moderated by orchestral musician, manager and entrepreneur, Drew McManus. He writes from the vantage point of managing the modern orchestra, but the majority of his observations and discussions mirror the issues we must face as well. He has been quoted in articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune, as well as numerous other nationally syndicated publications, and has authored seminal articles on re-energizing classical music performance.

I desperately need to get my hands on these! In the meanwhile, content yourself with reading Mr. McManus's introduction to Adapistration.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Choral versus A Cappella

I've made an un-scientific inquiry into the relative Bay Area popularity of two vocal art-forms; classical choral music and a cappella.

Yahoo! hosts e-mail groups for devotees of both; Bay Area Choral List, (yahoo! group name ba-choral) and Bay Area A Cappella, (yahoo! group name ba-acappella). ba-choral has, at present 147 members, and ba-acappella has 920. I would gather that there are fewer a capella singers than choir members in the Bay Area, which leads me to believe that a large number of the members of ba-acapella are purely fans. Is a capella 6.25 times more popular than choral music?

This begs the question, why would a capella be more popular than choral groups which perform the standard repertoire? I want to look beyond obvious reasons, namely, that a capella is a form of popular music with roots in American folk song, Rock, Soul, Gospel, Hip Hop, and Jazz, or that a capella in this country is almost always performed in English. I want to explore, in particular, two reasons for its greater appeal. When compared with performances of the standard choral repertoire,
  • A cappella better vivifies the personality and charisma of the individual performers
  • A cappella allows for more varied audience response, participation and expression
Can these freedoms be better granted to choral performers and audiences without ditching the standard repertoire? This will be explored in detail in a future post. If you have any thoughts on this topic, let me know.

Does poor scheduling squander market share?

Last year, I observed in my personal blog that too often, multiple choirs gave conflicting concerts on a given weekend. This seems to be a huge recipe for disaster. Our audience is already so small. Why pit one choir against another and fight over scraps?

My guess at the time was that choirs rarely considered other groups' schedules before setting their own. I ideaslistically thought that if groups bothered to pay attention to what was already set on the schedule, there may be less of these so called choral car pile-ups.

Last spring, I started a yahoo group and calendar, Bay Area Choral Schedule, and invited all fellow choralistas, choir directors, and choir executives to join. I solicited a nice-enough response. Twenty or so Bay Area choral mavens have signed on, and between their input and my own research, I have posted schedules for over 30 different active Bay Area choral groups (including symphony and college choruses).

The sheer number of groups tells me something already. Conflicts in the choral schedule are unavoidable. So, better coordination between groups may not amount to much.

The Christmas choral season is upon us. Many weekends in November and December host as many seven or more different choral concerts around the Bay Area on a given night. December 1st boasts the record of hosting nine concerts which I know of, by groups including Bay Area Classical Harmonies, the California Bach Society, Cantabile, Cantare Chorale, Creative Voices, San Francisco Lyric Chorus, Schola Cantorum Mountain View, Soli Deo Gloria and the Tallis Scholars (presented by Cal Performances). The Christmas season is exceptional, though, in that our audience temporaily balloons to include all people desiring an injection of Yuletide choral cheer.

Other weekends host anywhere from one to six events (which I know of), with a median number of approximately three. Many Bay Area groups present three concerts; one in San Francisco, one in the South Bay on Penninsula, and one in the East Bay. They could take care to never present in the same locality as a competing group on a given night. These are detailed tweaks. In reality, issues like staff and artist availability ultimately dominate scheduling, leaving conflict avoidance in the triage pile.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Using Web Sites Effectively

This is a response to Celeste's previous posting.

Alex Ross has blogged quite a bit over the last few years about the internet and musical groups. Applying some of what he has said, information Drew McManus has posted at Adaptistration, and what I have put together from looking at different musical organizations' web site, I have all sorts of ideas about what's useful:
  • Have a web site!
  • Made it good-looking and functional.
  • Keep it accurate and up to date.
  • Post sound samples within what's legal. I personally know nothing about how royalties work when a performance of copyrighted music is posted on the net.
  • Sell tickets on the site.
  • Have a provision for people to make donations to the group.
  • Have a mailing list sign-up page. Um, email list.
  • Post photos.
  • Have audition info posted - dates, audition process, who to contact.

Alex Ross: The Well-Tempered Web

New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross writes an optimistic article about the synergy between the classical music recording business and the Web. Perhaps not all is lost? The article, titled, The Well-Tempered Web, can be found in the October 22, 2007 edition of the magazine.

Why care?

I have been part of numerous San Francisco Bay Area choral start-ups over the last 4 years. These projects spanned the entire amateur-professional spectrum, in terms of artistry. While, in each case, the music making was deeply rewarding, the box-office returns were more often than not, disappointing, if not disastrous. No classical music start-up can survive purely on the concert-revenue-driven business model. Things are harder for us than for our pop musician compatriots.

All classical music groups eventually recognize that outside support is an absolute necessity in these endeavors. Fund-raising and grant-seeking take up a large fraction of the effort of a non-profit arts organization. Our colleagues across the Atlantic still benefit from relatively generous support from State-funded agencies. Here, in the U.S.A., we scour the sidewalks for $50 here and there from friends, $500 from various foundations, hoping and praying that some former oil baron will send us that magical 5-figure check needed to bankroll most professional projects.

If we were to succeed in raising all of the external support necessary to produce a concert, the ghost of Adam Smith would still whisper in my ear, "Why go through all the effort if no one is going to consume your product?" In less technocratic terms, why put on a performance if no one out there wants to share in the experience? An empty house is emotionally devastating and demoralizing. What are we trying to do? Are we trying to force the public to buy typewriters and horse-drawn buggies when they really want iPhones and SUV's? Are classical choral concerts going the way of the Vaudeville show?

My classical music friends and I are fighting this rising tide of disappointment. We are guided by one simple principle. If we are passionate about this art-form, then it must have the possibility of resonating with the wider public. The question is, how.