Critiquing Criticism of Season Announcements

I’m not sure how to introduce this one besides Greg Sandow recently wrote an article about the Minnesota Orchestra’s season announcement press release, and I was unconvinced by what he said. Here’s why.

Mr. Sandow begins:

I don’t mean to pick on the Minnesota Orchestra.

Of all the sentences in the English language, “I don’t mean to pick on the Minnesota Orchestra” is among the most inspirational to me.

I don’t mean to pick on the Minnesota Orchestra.

Which is why 73% of the words in Mr. Sandow’s 1385 word article are about the Minnesota Orchestra…

Or on anyone.

Okay…

But this is the time of year when symphony orchestras announce next year’s season, and their press releases…are weak. The most basic fact about classical music today is that we need new listeners. But I can’t see these press releases doing much to find those. Which to me is a serious problem.

Is there an art form where season announcement press releases attract new attendees? Seriously, is that a thing? If it is, I wanna fall in love with THAT art form, because THAT sounds like a way easier field to make a living in.

Quick question: who among my readers went to their first orchestra concert because the season announcement press release was cool? I ask because I’m trying to put myself in a newcomer’s shoes. The closest parallel I can think of: I’ve never gone to the Guthrie. Therefore, I don’t read the Guthrie’s press releases. The Guthrie is going to hook this particular twentysomething via recommendations from friends, advertisements, social media, cheap tickets, and, once I attend for the first time, a meaningful high quality experience at the theater.

Can’t we learn to talk about classical music, in a way that might make compelling, so we can people — especially people outside our world — reasons to go to our performances?

First, I don’t know what “learn to talk about classical music, in a way that might make compelling, so we can people” means. I can guess what it means but I’m not sure. Second, I don’t think a season announcement press release is the first place we should be spending our compellingness energy on. Recommendations from friends, advertisements, social media, and cheap tickets are going to give first-timers way more compelling reasons to go to performances. Make those hooks compelling first.

And I don’t think the releases even work for those of us inside the gated city. They’re so…

The Orchestra is joined throughout the year by many stellar guest soloists, including Grammy Award-winning violinist Hilary Hahn and violinists Jennifer Koh and Henning Kraggerud; pianists Inon Barnatan, Andreas Haefliger, Natasha Paremski, Jon Kimura Parker and Yevgeny Sudbin; cellist Arto Noras; violist Roberto Díaz, a former member of the Orchestra; soprano Amber Wagner; mezzos Kelley O’Connor and Lilli Paasikivi; and baritone Tommi Hakala. Two Orchestra musicians will be featured as soloist: Concertmaster Erin Keefe, who performs the Brahms Violin Concerto, and Principal Cello Anthony Ross, who plays Schumann’s Cello Concerto in his first-ever concerto solo with the Orchestra under Stanislaw Skrowaczewski’s direction. Other Orchestra members are featured in performances of Frank Martin’s Concerto for Seven Winds, Timpani, Percussion and String Orchestra. In addition, the YL Male Voice Choir of Finland joins the Orchestra for a set of all-Finnish concerts.

…so unreadable. For anyone at all.

That’s…a list of soloists. Should press releases not include information on who is playing next season? That would be weird, not to mention irritating. If not a list, what format should the list take? Haiku?

Anthony Ross is / our resident cello god / who takes on Schumann

Badass Erin Keefe / and her husband Osmo V / play Brahms together

Stanislaw Skrowa / czewski’s name takes up half a / haiku on its own

That’s from the Minnesota release, but could have come from nearly any orchestra.

And by it “could have come from nearly any orchestra”, he means “it came from every orchestra.”

San Francisco:

Soloists familiar to Davies Symphony Hall audiences include pianists Emanuel Ax, Inon Barnatan, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Yefim Bronfman, Ingrid Fliter, Stephen Hough, Lang Lang, Nikolai Lugansky, Daniil Trifonov, Simon Trpčeski, and Yuja Wang. Solo violinists include SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, Leonidas Kavakos, Gidon Kremer, Christian Tetzlaff, Maxim Vengerov, Nikolaj Znaider, and Pinchas Zukerman. SFS Principal Bassoon Stephen Paulson is featured as soloist for a concert week as well. Returning vocalists include sopranos Laura Claycomb, Karina Gauvin, and Susanna Phillips; mezzo-sopranos Sasha Cooke, Susan Graham, and Kelley O’Connor; tenor Paul Groves, and baritone Thomas Hampson.

Cleveland:

Guest instrumentalists returning to Cleveland include violinists Leila Josefowicz, Leonidas Kavakos, and Frank Peter Zimmermann; pianists Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Yefim Bronfman, Rudolf Buchbinder, Kirill Gerstein, Stephen Hough, Maria João Pires, and Mitsuko Uchida; cellist Truls Mørk; and harpist Yolanda Kondonassis. Vocalists returning include sopranos Barbara Hannigan, Luba Orgonášová, and Yulia Van Doren; mezzo-sopranos Jennifer Johnson Cano and Kelley O’Connor; tenors Norbert Ernst and John Tessier; bass-baritone Eric Owens; and bass John Relyea. Artists making their Cleveland Orchestra debuts are soprano Katarina Dalayman, mezzo-sopranos Jennifer Johnston and Marie-Nicole Lemieux, and bass Mikhail Petrenko, as well as pianist Jan Lisiecki. Pianist Julien Brocal will make his Severance Hall debut in an all-Beethoven recital with Maria João Pires.

New York:

Pianist Emanuel Ax will return to perform Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 on two programs: September 30, 2015, and October 1 and 3, 2015; the former program will be repeated at Long Island University’s Tilles Center on October 2, 2015. Violinist Joshua Bell will perform Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, December 29–30, 2015, and January 2, 2016. Violinist Leonidas Kavakos performs Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, March 17–29, 2016. Pianist Lang Lang performs Grieg’s Piano Concerto on the Opening Gala Concert September 24, 2015. Pianist Makoto Ozone and Artist-in-Association Inon Barnatan will perform Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals on the annual New Year’s Eve concert, December 31, 2015. Pianist Maurizio Pollini performs Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, October 16, 2015. Violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann returns to perform Magnus Lindberg’s Violin Concerto No. 2, a U.S. Premiere–Philharmonic Co Commission, January 14–16, 2016

What makes Minnesota so especially disappointing?

And as for reaching new people:

THE BOSTON SYMPHONY ANNOUNCES THE 2015–16 SEASON!
SUBSCRIPTIONS ON SALE NOW!
INDIVIDUAL TICKETS ON SALE MONDAY, AUGUST 3!

I just sigh. Have I ever seen exclamation points less convincing than these?

Yeah, Boston Symphony, what are you doing? Conveying excitement about your product? Seriously, Boston, what the hell?

Who, exactly, are the readers who’ll be so excited? And who — in April! — will circle August 3 on their calendars? No doubt in brightest red.

Just because it’s hilarious, here’s a screenshot of the sole event currently on my August calendar.

awkward

I did not put this event in for the sake of this blog entry.  It has actually been on my calendar for a week now. I am verifiably 100% loser.

The BSO release at least has a vaguely spiffy layout, complete with graphics. And, for the most part, only short bursts of text, instead of the sea of unreadable verbiage other orchestras might throw at us.

But just read some of the text:

In 2015–16 Andris Nelsons joins forces with a compelling array of guest soloists, including pianists Evgeny Kissin in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Paul Lewis in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Yefim Bronfman in Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and Nikolai Lugansky in Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Who might read this? Hmm…maybe a media person, someone who doesn’t yet care about classical music, but who’s in a position to give the BSO some publicity? Will this make her care?

I thought we were talking about orchestra first-timers. Now we’re talking about media people? Are we talking about orchestra first-timer media people? How many of those are there in each city? Moreover, how many of those are in a position to decide whether their institution should cover an orchestra? Maybe Pamela Espeland with her crowd-funded arts reporting at MinnPost, but…Pamela’s in a unique position, since Minnesota is awesome.

I’d love to have a quiet word with the people — at the orchestra, and at their publicity firm — who wrote the Minnesota release.

I think we can all agree: the best quiet words are had via blog entry.

And then Tweeted about.

With an exclamation mark.

omg

Someone I’ll guess, wanted to find some meaning in all the blah, and came up with this:

Several recurring themes are woven throughout the season, such as music that illuminates the links between Brahms and the Schumanns, including Brahms’ Violin Concerto and Third Symphony, and Schumann’s concertos for cello and piano.  Also notable will be music by composers associated with Vienna, among them Mahler, Bruckner and Beethoven; music from Nordic countries by Sibelius, Nielsen and contemporary composer Olli Kortekangas; expressions of nationalism in music, including de Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat Suites and Stravinsky’s Petrushka; and spiritual music ranging from Handel’s Messiah and Brahms’ German Requiem to Wagner’s Parsifal and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.  The season also includes performances of three Bach Brandenburg Concertos, among the greatest Baroque masterpieces, to be followed in the 2016–17 season with the other three Brandenburg Concertos.

I’ll give whoever this was credit for at least trying.

That’s nice.

But…

I just want to sigh. These aren’t real themes. A real theme, something that really has force in an orchestra’s season, would, to begin with, stand out in clear relief, if you read through the schedule, week by week.

You mean… Like this?

Shakespeare Winterfest

Shakespeare Winterfest

Or this.

this 2

Spirit and Spring festival

Or this…

this 3

American Voices festival

Or maybe even, y’know…this

Piano Legends festival

Piano Legends festival

They’d also, you’d think, be something the programs (or other things the orchestra did) would highlight, maybe by putting music from a theme together on a single program, or on back to back programs.

You mean… Like maybe a concert devoted to birdsong and new beginnings? As part of a month-long series devoted to spring?

Our Easter weekend concerts in Minnesota

Our Easter weekend concerts in Minnesota

Or by having panel discussions,

Pre-concert panel discussion, April 3rd concert. I can vouch this happened. I was in the room when it did.

Pre-concert panel discussion, April 3rd concert

concerts of related chamber music,

Post-concert chamber music concert as part of the Spirit and Spring festival

Post-concert chamber music concert after April 3 concert

whatever.

I’ll interpret “whatever” as a clear reference to Inside the Classics.

ITC

“Whatever”

I read through the schedule, very patiently

You definitely have to be “very patient” to read through the schedule linked to in the press release. I just timed myself and it took me an entire three minutes.

I don’t think the themes — supposed themes — make any impression.

What impression are they supposed to make? What are impression-worthy themes?

What is life?

Mind blown

Mind blown

Brahms and the Schumanns. A few Brahms pieces. A few Schumann pieces. (There are more in the season not mentioned in what I’ve quoted.) How do these “lluminate links” between the two men? I don’t think anyone would come away from the Brahms Third and the Schumann Cello Concerto, saying, “Wow, Brahms and Schumann loved the same woman.” Especially since there’s not one program with Brahms and Schumann together.

That’s one way of looking at it.

On the other hand, it’s also repertoire that includes space for celebration of a woman. An amazing, amazing woman. A woman. And unfortunately we live in a world where even that is [expletive]ing awesome. I’m sure there will be more to the theme, and I am not being facetious when I say if it turns out there isn’t more to the theme, I’m gonna call up the Minnesota Orchestra CEO and make sure there will be more to the theme. (Hint: there will be more to the theme. Even if I gotta go to these concerts in full Clara Schumann cosplay. If I have to, I’ll do it. You know I will.)

Vienna. Isn’t every symphonic season a Vienna festival? You don’t have to play Mahler and Bruckner. Just play Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms. (As — in my softest whisper — every orchestra does).

Or you could argue that the focus on Vienna is part of a broader multi-year look at the life, work, times, and idiom of Gustav Mahler as interpreted by Osmo Vänskä and the post-lockout Minnesota Orchestra. But I feel like this is spelling out the obvious, since the announcement actually discusses how the orchestra is beginning and ending its next season with Mahler. And if you look at the current season, you would see that starts, peaks, and ends with Mahler, too. And also, by the way, next year they’re recording Mahler 5 after their acclaimed Sibelius cycle ends, and hmm I wonder what they might be planning to record after that but can’t announce yet because Osmo and the musicians’ contracts are still being re-negotiated, hint hint nudge nudge.

Suddenly the multi-year emphasis on Vienna takes on a new meaning, no?

Nordic countries. Osmo Vänskä, Minnesota’s music director, is Finnish, and well known as a Nordic specialist. So Nordic music isn’t a theme for this year. It’s something he’s always likely to do.

Nationalism. Play anything by composers from Europe who aren’t French, Italian, or German, and you’ve got a nationalist theme. Play Dvořák. Play Smetana. Play Kodaly or Glinka. Do almost anything Russian. All of it music that might show up on your programs every year.

Okay, so I’m gonna jot a note down here… If it happens annually, it is not a theme. Okay. Got it.

Not an interesting theme

Sorry, Grammy voters. This is not part of a compelling theme.

If you want a spiritual theme that means something, you might program spiritual works that are very different from each other. Messiah, a Haydn mass, the Poulenc Gloria, and Stravinsky’s Canticum Sacrum. And why not Bernstein’s Mass? Five very different kinds of spirituality. Highlight these works in some way, by putting them (where possible) on the same program. Or by selling special tickets to hear all five, or by holding discussions. Work with a local chorus, which might sing Palestrina. And a theater company, which might do Jesus Christ Superstar.

At this point I just want to throw a clump of papers in the air in exasperation and let them flutter down like oversized rectangular snowflakes, because this past February here’s what happened in Minnesota.

These Shakespeare Winterfest concerts are complemented by a variety of pre-concert activities in the Orchestra Hall lobby and auditorium. An interdisciplinary collaboration with the Guthrie Theater will take place on all three dates, as students from the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program will present an acting workshop in which audiences will learn and participate in what it takes to get into character. In addition, the Guthrie Costume shop will curate a showing of costumes that are audience favorites.

So. We’re nearing the end of both of our entries. Before I wrap mine up, I want to say something that I’ve been thinking a lot but haven’t yet publicly verbalized.

The classical music world has zero clue how close the Minnesota Orchestra came to completely collapsing. Period. Does this organization have everything planned out that, in an ideal world, it probably should? No. Should it be called on that, in a helpful and constructive manner? Sure.

But does anyone realize why they’re not working on all cylinders yet? I don’t want to re-state the obvious, but: THE MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA HAD A NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE RECENTLY. Forgive our orchestra family – staff, volunteers, musicians – if we don’t yet have every single 2015-16 t crossed and i dotted. A lot of people are working damn hard to promote and celebrate this orchestra and this music. (I know because I’m one of them.) Criticize our family if you like, but do it fairly and intelligently, in a manner that suggests you are at least passingly familiar with what has been happening here.

One last thing. It’s important to note that Mr. Sandow and I agree wholeheartedly on an important core principle. He wants music lovers to communicate in a captivating manner. I do, too. We need to have good arts writers, and good arts writers need to be able to support themselves doing good arts writing. We need to groom orchestra musicians to speak and connect with words, not just notes. We need to train audiences to share the music they love with their friends and family. (The entire burden of promotion should not, and cannot, be on musicians and presenters alone.)

But singling out season announcement press releases, and especially the Minnesota Orchestra’s 2015-16 one, is a terrible place to start.

***

15 Comments

Filed under My Writing

15 responses to “Critiquing Criticism of Season Announcements

  1. george jaquith

    Emily, Is it true that you have never attended the world famous Guthrie Theater? I could hardly believe the statment coming from such an arts supporting person as you, or is is just the symphony orchestra that concerns you? I must hasten to add that I enjoy your contributions and perspectives about classical music.

    • Yes, it’s true I’ve never been! Remember, I live two hours away. My family is very poor and as silly as it may sound to a lot of people, opportunities to drive to Minneapolis were actually few and far between. When we DID have those opportunities, we chose to go to the Minnesota Orchestra. Even so, there were actually stretches of years where I didn’t even see them (2005-2010, for instance!). Hopefully before the end of the year I’ll be moved though, at which point I will be soaking in all kinds of new culture. Thanks for your comment!

      • george jaquith

        Thanks Emily for your thoughtful reply. After reading it, I thought of a letter written just last week to the Friends of the MN Orch. I suggested they were charging too much for their educational/social events. My remarks can be found in another comment about PR spending. The whole topic needs to be reconsidered by the Board.

  2. Eleanor Ann Leonard

    Yes, of course, we get excited in April about events to come in August. Trailers are out and fans are exited about the new Star Wars pic to come out in . . . wait for it . . DECEMBER!

  3. Sarah

    Isn’t Sibelius having a 150th birthday somewhere around now? Because, you know, that might be a SPECIAL non-annual reason to program some of his pieces. Not to mention, of course, CARNEGIE HALL.

  4. Deborah

    Thank you for this very entertaining and illuminating article, and thank you for calling him out. And, it seems that Sandow is confused about exactly WHO a press release is for. Correct me if I’m wrong but I thought they were for the PRESS and shouldn’t be devised like marketing materials (ie. season brochures, web text and the like). I thought they should present the upcoming year in a concise manner, listing all of your soloists, that the press can then easily use for subsequent articles etc. Additionally, side-seat programmers are a pet peeve of mine. Programming concerts is a very delicate art and so many issues/details need to be balanced and considered. Thank you for pointing this out and for highlighting the innovative and insightful concerts by the MN Orchestra!

  5. hyperchord

    Mr. Sandow’s agenda is summarized in his own words that you quoted from his post:
    “I’d love to have a quiet word with the people — at the orchestra, and at their publicity firm — who wrote the Minnesota release.”
    OF COURSE HE WOULD! This is how he earns a living: by selling his services as a private consultant and occasional motivational speaker – not to professional musicians (I know of none who take his musical opinions seriously), but to administrators, board members, and, saddest of all, students who are particularly vulnerable these days.
    His blog post was not written out of concern for the Minnesota Orchestra or the music business generally (where he has never held a permanent position). He is doing what consultants do. He is TROLLING for work. The more work he gets, the more credibility he can tout on his CV web site — it has nothing to do with whether or not he has any expertise in music or UFOlogy (not making that up) or anything else.
    The one thing Minnesota Orchestra does not need right now is advice from Mr. Sandow, nor from some of the others trolling out there.

    • george jaquith

      The venerable Mary Ann Feldman, who served the MN ORCH for so many decades in different capacities, said that instead of spending on expensvie public relations firms, we should have children come to Orchestra Hall to hear Bartok! She insisted that this would do far more for audience development than slick brochures and advertising. Can anyone tell me how much the Board spends on PR contract and advertising? Seriously?
      My daughter worked for a while in the tele marketing sales of the Orchestra but came to the opinion that much of the outreach was counter productive, turning people off and killing interest in the Orchestra.

      Isn’t it all about music education and making great music accessible? I wrote to the Friends of the MN Orch last week suggesting that if they want to have more friends (i.e. music lovers going to concerts) they should charge little or nothing for their events. Now the average cost is $25 per person up to $38 for their buffet service meetings at a country club? Why can not the food service be an optional feature for those who want to eat and drink? How many young students, seniors and middle class families struggling to get by have the funds to attend the Friends meetings, let alone buy a concert ticket? Open the meetings to all at community centers, public libraries and churches. Instead of alcoholic beverages, offer simple refreshments and maybe a cookie, donated by a Friend. Any opinions?

    • hyperchord is exactly right.

      Also, Greg is just full of shit here, and fully deserving of the careful dissection Emily gives him.

  6. I just wanted to say that “Haiku” made me laugh out loud. (Great post.)

  7. Anne

    When I received the 2015-16 Season brochure, I sat down, looked through the whole thing, put colored post its on a dozen pages and cursed the Orchestra for putting together such an amazing season and brochure that it was impossible for me to narrow down my selections to a reasonable amount. I ordered my tickets that night and have had buyers ‘remorse’ ever since because I know I ordered too many tickets, but there were just too many programs that were impossible to turn down. Impossible. So I can’t relate to his criticisms at all.

    • JAKE

      Anne, You claim to have ordered too many tickets. Is the issue one of economics or time? If it´s the money, have you thought of ushering at Orchestra Hall? This would let you see many events. If it is time, you will need to inventory priorities and time use. I servied as a long time usher at Northrop many decades ago. It became the bedrock of a great cultural and social life. Best wishes.

  8. drmarksays

    The problem is how to build the new audiences. It is getting that first interest.
    There is now a massive generational divide, where the below 40 crowd inhabit a digital video world joined at the hip to their smart phones and tablets.
    I can tell you what I notice with friends and family, is that they want to see and hear an orchestra instantly.
    I can show them many orchestras from around the world on the big screen in superb audio, just chromecasting from my smartphone. They are blown away. I can’t show them the Minnesota Orchestra.

    If you are going to get the young crowd, then the brochure needs AV illustration that this younger generation can Chromecast and access across multiple platforms. Inside the classics belongs in the AV universe and the concert hall.

    The Minnesota Orchestra is accessible via MPR and audio discs. While I treasure those discs, they are audio only which I grew up with. By now the recordings should be on BD disc and CD, like other orchestras are now packaging their products, with HD audio downloads thrown in.

    Written media and audio only no longer cuts it.

    I just fixed up an audio system my eldest grandson. He likes classical music and so does his younger brother now. It is connected to his TV.

    On testing he whipped out his smart phone and chromecasted to the TV and the audio came from the audio system I had just set up.

    My point is that his universe and that of his generation is the smartphone, tablet and lap top now. If they can’t see and hear it with that, it does not exist to them.

    We are late at the table here. This technology has advanced at break neck speed in the last 3 years, It is becoming almost a full time job for me to keep up. The quality, reliability and ease of connection has improved at lightening speed.

    If you want the young our two orchestras need to join the party ASAP.

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