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The Relationship of the Music Director and the Marketing Director: Designing a Symphony Season

0 Christopher Stager
christopher_stager Editor's Abstract

Christopher Stager, a symphonic marketing consultant and a regular contributor to Polyphonic, had been consulting with my orchestra, the Hartford Symphony, for several years, helping our Music Director, Edward Cumming, put together each season’s program and develop a marketing plan for that program.

The relationship between the two men is a solid professional friendship, full of mutual respect, and the passion each has for music is readily apparent. One evening, in Hartford’s Catholic Cathedral where we were rehearsing a Bruckner Symphony, I noticed Chris pacing around the church, looking very excited. When I caught up with him at the break, he couldn’t stop talking about the incredible acoustics in that space, and how perfect it was for Bruckner in so many ways. Edward joined us and they were off, with Chris describing a similar Bruckner concert series in Toledo, and Edward remembering yet another Bruckner performance, and both of them talking so fast I could barely keep up.

I knew then that I had to get the two of them to sit down and record their thoughts on programming an orchestra’s season. And so they did; the results are really intriguing.

Ann Drinan

Christopher Stager: Edward, why do you think that there is such palpable tension between the marketing side and the artistic side of an orchestra?

Edward Cumming: Probably the biggest reason for any kind of tension – although this is probably less so today than as recently as ten or fifteen years ago – is because music directors have their mission. They want to do repertoire that is important to them, and which they feel is important both for the orchestra to play and for the audiences to hear. And perhaps music directors aren’t always taking into consideration just how well programs will be received by audiences. This is where I think it’s important for music directors and marketing directors to at least try to find some kind of middle ground where they can work together.

CRS: That’s a good point. Being on the marketing side, I know the effect that Carmina Burana here or Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto there will have on sales. The bigger issue for a marketing director is how to present the more challenging, less salable program. To find a way to stretch the audience.

EC: For most orchestras, today is different from ten or fifteen years ago in that you can’t count on being able to sell a season just to your subscriber base. It has become much more important today to try to create programs that attract the single-ticket buyer, the person who’s buying tickets at the last minute. And if you’re competing with other arts organizations and presenting organizations, it becomes that much more crucial to create programs that will put you over the top.

One example of how you and I and Charlie Owens [the Hartford Symphony’s then executive director] work together very well is the program we did a few years ago featuring Berlioz’ Romeo and Juliet – this is a piece I doubt very few people knew. But they knew the title and so you said, “Well, sure, let’s do it.

CRS: I remember saying there was one week a year we could sell it, and that’s Valentine’s week.

EC: And sure enough, we had long lines at the box office. The Berlioz was a piece that was unique to that particular time. That’s a perfect example how a music director and a marketing director can work together to perform a work that the music director wants to do and the marketing director finds a way to make it successful.

CRS: I also had an experience in Toledo where they’re currently working through a Bruckner symphony cycle in a cathedral(as you are testing here in Hartford), instead of the concert hall.

I am not surprised by how well Bruckner sells in this acoustic space – it wouldn’t have sold nearly as well in the traditional hall. I’m finding that you can triangulate programming – with programs at the top of the apex, timing at the lower left, and venue or location at the lower right of the triangle. Where you do something and when you do something is as important as what you’re going to do. The marketing director can facilitate in helping you find the opportunity that will have the greatest success. That’s much more important than just looking at programs and saying, ”Hey, can we have more Tchaikovsky symphonies?”

EC: One challenge that you and I discuss regularly with Charlie Owens is the venue question. Most venues, particularly throughout the United States, are too large. They were built to be multi-purpose halls, and they were built basically to satisfy no one. Everyone is unhappy because they’re too reverberant for Broadway shows that amplify the place, and they’re not reverberant enough for orchestras that rely upon an acoustically-satisfying space to make music. Some halls are better compromises than others, but they all seem to have too many seats – tending towards 3,000 seats – which is just too large for orchestras.

Another issue you and I argue frequently about is that you want the Hartford Symphony to perform Mozart and Haydn symphonies, the Bach Double Concerto. It’s so difficult because on the rare occasion when I do this in the large hall in Hartford, it just doesn’t project right. It doesn’t have nearly the same impact it would have had in the small spaces for which these pieces were written.

So why don’t we do it in the small hall next door to the huge hall? Because that hall isn’t big enough – it only has 900 seats, so we’d need to do multiple performances just to get all the subscribers in. With all the expenses of a performance, we’d have to charge a great deal per ticket just to break even, and there’s no guarantee that we’d sell out the place doing it.

CRS: But this brings up an interesting point from the marketing director’s angle: if Mozart and Haydn and Bach are off the table because of the size of the hall, then basically, the orchestra’s repertoire begins with Eroica and ends somewhere around Shostakovich. So maybe 40% of the whole of the repertoire is unavailable to the orchestra.

Given this, how do we put together a subscription season? What are the balances we have to look for and the omissions that we don’t want to make? How much of the unknown will the subscriber absorb? How high is the trust that will carry Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet and deliver far more than they expect? How do we get that balance in the subscription season?

EC: Well, there are so many issues to take into account. There’s a five-year plan that’s overarching. Then there’s a one-year plan, because you want to have balance within the season. You have so much of the Germanic-Austrian repertoire, which usually accounts for 35 to 40% of any season anyway. You need to balance that with the Russian, the French, the more modern repertoire, with American music. And then you have other music from Eastern Europe or Scandinavia or Latin America that you may want to include. You need a balance throughout a season. Then concertos. We have eight programs in our Masterworks series – it would be nice to have at least two, maybe three piano concertos, a violin concerto, maybe a cello concerto. Maybe feature a singer. Perhaps a wind instrument as a soloist every once in a while. Even a guitarist.

You have to take these balances into account, but then you also want programs where each piece feeds into the next. If we’re doing a piece that’s pretty much guaranteed to bring in a lot of people (like Carmina Burana or Beethoven 9th), then I figure I pretty much have carte blanche to do whatever I want on the first half of that program, knowing that people are going to come anyway.

This is where I sometimes like to challenge listeners, but I don’t want to turn them off. Hopefully over time, when the audiences that continue to come to Hartford Symphony concerts see a name that they don’t recognize, they’ll say, “Well, last time we heard a piece by a composer that we don’t know (or an unfamiliar work by a composer that we do know), it was okay. It was presented in such a way that it was a treat to at least hear it. And in some cases, that piece actually prepared us for what came later in the program.”

CRS: I think that you really inherit the issue of trust, and it’s easily squandered if you make the wrong decision.

I remember when I worked with The Cleveland Orchestra in the late ‘80s, early ’90s, there was some criticism of the programming. That it was just too “modern.” They were working through Schoenberg, Berg and Webern – the second Viennese school – at the same time they were doing Mozart and Beethoven. Executive director Tom Morris simply said, “It’ll come. It’ll come.” I was there to see the whole thing. The orchestra stayed the course, we developed a smarter audience, and ticket sales kept building. The audience may never have really embraced Webern or Berg, but they never heard this music played so beautifully, or placed as well within a program.

And because of that trust, developed over seasons, there was no backlash against the programming. It was gradually accepted. It wasn’t passionately embraced, but it was accepted. It never seemed to impact ticket sales or their relative and appropriate goals.

EC: Yes. This has also happened in Los Angeles but it didn’t go over well initially. When Esa-Pekka Salonen first arrived in Los Angeles, he was the best thing since sliced bread. But then in his second and third years, after the bloom wore off, he continued with his adventurous programming and there were some times, particularly in the old Dorothy Chandler Pavilion which is not a good space for orchestras to play in, when they struggled with their arts, but Esa-Pekka did not diverge. He stayed the course, as James Levine is doing in Boston. They’re several seasons into this particular mission; subscriptions may be a little bit down, but single tickets are up.

CRS: Which is interesting because in Boston, Levine’s programming is not new; it’s just not been around there for a while. Isn’t this what Koussevitzky did all the time? Isn’t Levine’s approach part of that tradition? Consider that, without a Koussevitzky, how less rich the 20th century would be in music. We’re talking about music from Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra to Pictures at an Exhibition in Ravel’s orchestration. There’s Copland’s Third Symphony and Bernstein’s Second Symphony. Hanson’s Third Symphony. Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. All these because of Koussevitzky. I would love to know what the Boston Symphony’s ticket sales were during that time. My understanding is that subscriptions were always very high, but I’m not sure. I should look into it. At the very least, we can be sure audience trust was astonishingly high.

I think what it comes down to is that marketing directors have to believe in these programs. We have to know what they’re going to sound like, and why they work – their arc, their emotional temperature.

I think that conductors sometimes think that, if they offer a Brahms symphony on the program, it will sell and make people comfortable. But it doesn’t. I think the number of pieces that actually sell isn’t more than 50. And the pieces that don’t sell are probably 100. But in the middle are all these pieces that virtually have a neutral effect. Brahms and Dvorak don’t sell as well as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, even though they’re all from the same Romantic era.

EC: Part of that may be because more of Tchaikovsky’s and Rachmaninoff’s melodies have been used for film and commercials; people know them.

CRS: Possibly. It was moreover a part of our grandparents’ popular culture in a way that Brahms was not, I suppose. My grandparents knew Tchaikovsky, and it was passed onto my parents and then on to me. But I don’t think my grandparents or my parents could pick out one Brahms Symphony from another one.

EC: And then you come up with these cultural flash-in-the-pan factors, like the success of the movie Shine, which all of a sudden made Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto more popular than his Second Piano Concerto.

CRS: Absolutely. And I can tell you, marketing directors are still getting a boost from Amadeus. We will play the Amadeus card until it doesn’t work anymore. But Mozart sells because of that movie in ways he didn’t sell before 1984. Peter Shaffer found a way to connect people to Mozart as no one else ever had.

EC: Really? That movie was single-handedly responsible? Mozart did so much better afterwards?

CRS: Maybe it was a slower build. I admit that this is very speculative on my part, but if you listen to Mozart by Toscanini or, at the same time, by Koussevitzky or Stokowski, it’s romanticized, driven, thicker – at least to my ears, as heard through the prism of Beethoven. Sir Thomas Beecham and George Szell, I think, began to change the Mozart perception. The performances of Beecham, certainly those of Szell, influenced the way Mozart is played today. Clarity, balance, proportion. I would presume that before them, an all-Mozart concert would have seemed preposterous.

EC: People hadn’t even started listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by then.

CRS: That’s a 300-year-old piece that only came into its own with the LP.

Let’s talk a bit about what doesn’t sell. I know that almost all marketing directors panic when they see a new piece, a world premiere, on the program. I’ve come to believe more and more that new music is actually a subset of unknown music. That may be the problem – more than its newness. For example, I would think that if we programmed the second half of a concert with a symphony by Henze or Carter, we know what the sales challenge would be. But the challenge would be just as great if the second half featured a Mendelssohn contemporary, such as Niels Gade or Franz Berwald, simply because it’s music no one really knows.

EC: Right.

CRS: The sad fact about our audiences is that many of them are not adventurous. And at $70 or $65 a ticket – it’s hard to be.

EC: Well, we’ve tried to work around that through the concerto. I remember clearly that, in my first season here, in January or February 2003, we did a new piano concerto by Stephen Montague that was only about three or four years old. We surrounded it with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

CRS: People certainly came for Scheherazade.

EC: Yes, for Scheherazade. And I purposely put the Ravel there although it didn’t come off so well because, again, it’s a very small orchestra in a very large hall, and it has five short movements. It would’ve been better just to do the whole ballet, connected.

By the way, that’s a problem for me: doing pieces that don’t have their own inner momentum. I love Prokofiev’s music to Romeo and Juliet, but I have a problem doing it on a Masterworks concert because it stops, starts, stops, starts, etc., whereas doing the ballet in sequence has its own momentum. This makes so much more sense to me. If you’re doing a less formal concert, then doing a lot of shorter pieces is fine.

But that’s why I would never do, say, Fauré’s Pelius and Debussy’s La Mer on the same half – because it’s seven different movements. By the time it’s over, both the orchestra and the audience are tired from having to start over and over again.

CRS: Do you think this episodic quality is one of the reasons why Bruckner has such a hard time finding an audience?

EC: Well, in part. But I think Bruckner is just too Catholic for some people!

CRS: Yes, and it requires you to pace yourself as a listener in a way that people are less and less able to do.

EC: But getting back to this piano concerto that we did: people came for Scheherazade, but they’ve long forgotten that we even did Scheherazade and they’re still talking about this wild piano concerto. Part of it was the artist; we had Louise Bessette, who is one of the very few pianists for whom I cannot take a fast enough tempo, and I love that about her! She just kept saying, “Edward. Plus vite! Plus vite!” And that was very, very exciting for the audience.

And it’s not even the kind of piece that people would want to hear in their homes, but hearing it in a hall where you have a trumpet behind the audience and you have all these things going on at the same time, people were just so caught up in this piece. In many ways it’s a very classical piece. Stephen Montague writes music that borrows from the basic sonata-form tradition in a very big way, but he’s wild with his sounds and people just loved it. They were still stopping me in the street weeks and months later to talk about it.

But it worked because it was a concerto. If we had done a symphony by Stephen Montague, I’m not sure it would’ve worked.

CRS: I recall that we worked on that together – the bait on the hook was Scheherazade and they got the Montague as sort of value added! They did come away with the concerto as the thing they talked about.

EC: Another program on which we worked together was where we featured Ravel’s Bolero but in the middle of the concert, we did a new concerto by Roberto Sierra. A concerto for saxophones! People loved it and we also addressed a unique aspect of Hartford, which is that we have a very large African-American and Latino community. To include a piece by a Latino composer featuring an African-American artist as we did with Roberto Sierra’s Concerto for Saxophones featuring saxophonist James Carter, we addressed issues unique to our community, but we still gave them Bolero at the end.

CRS: Well, a great concept – yes. But only a qualified success with the audience. We were never able to attract the Latino community, despite our efforts. And the traditional audience wasn’t really interested in a program of Latin music.

EC: I think 278 subscribers opted out.

CRS: It was one of the highest subscriber exchanges and one of the worst single-ticket concerts you’ve had, although – no question about it, it was a noble experiment.

Subscribing imposes discipline on the consumer. Without it, they’ll go hear Bolero, they’ll go hear Paganini’s Rhapsody, but they won’t stick their toe in the water. Subscribing compels them to be adventurous, if you will. Subscribers with a limited ticket-exchange policy are really compelled to be adventurous. They have to listen. With a hall the size of Hartford’s Bushnell, it’s virtually impossible to sell it out with 5,600 seats on a weekend in a city that’s really very tiny. Open exchange makes it more difficult to do things like Roberto Sierra because if subscribers don’t want to go, they’ll just exchange their tickets for Beethoven’s Seventh.

I think this, more than programming, is the marketing director’s unspoken dilemma. If you don’t have open exchange and a good subscription base, you can push the audience as long as the trust is there. With limited exchange, it’s easier to build tolerance and interest in the unknown or the lesser known. With open exchange, the subscriber has the ability to opt out of a concert: “I don’t have to go ‘cause I don’t want to learn anything new; I know what I like and I like what I know, and don’t show me anything new, and don’t give me any more information.”

Again, back to my time in Cleveland, limited exchange played a huge role in cultivating a more adventurous subscriber base.

EC: I try to listen to the people who email us. That kind of feedback is very important, but I also get lots of handwritten and typed mail that comes via regular post. I recently read a letter from a subscriber who doesn’t like the Shostakovich that we do, who doesn’t even like the Fauré. “I just come for Beethoven, Beethoven, Beethoven.”

CRS: He wants all nine every year?

EC: Exactly. But I often get lots of letters about a particular concert. This happened once when I did a Stravinsky/Schchedrin/Shostakovich program.

CRS: Rodion Schchedrin’s Carmen, right?

EC: Right. I thought people would come to hear a composer’s different take on Carmen. But we flanked it with Stravinsky’s Symphony of Winds, which is never going to do as well as his Firebird, and on the other end, Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony, which will never do as well as the Fifth or the Tenth.

CRS: The Fifth and the Tenth don’t do that well, either.

EC: Right. I got quite a bit of mail against that particular program, so I’ll never do that again. I’ll have to have one piece that, if not a surefire winner, at least is recognizable. I’m here to tell you that we music directors are stupid if we don’t learn these lessons and take them and work with them.

CRS: But at the same time, we can’t, as institutions, be wholly consumer-focused, because they will take the lead. We have to present them with what they don’t yet know. I hate to say this but subscribing is the act of making them do what they don’t want to do. Make them go to eight concerts a year when they want five. That’s why the balance of the subscription is so important.

EC: We have other factors at work too. Sometimes a particular Broadway show comes into the Bushnell for ten weeks, which forces the orchestra to compress its season. This causes the subscription issue to become even more on the front of the table because a subscriber goes to a concert and then all of a sudden, a week or two later, there’s another one. In a city like Hartford, people prefer to have their subscription concerts spaced out a bit.

CRS: When you lose the hall to a big Broadway production, you’ve come up with innovative ways to address that problem. One thing you’re doing here is the Bruckner series in the cathedral when the hall’s not available. Similar to Toledo. In fact, I think I must have shared their experience with you. So you’ve tackled the Third Symphony.

EC: And the Eighth the following season. We don’t want to be so beholden to any one place because it puts that venue in the driver’s seat in terms of how much money they can demand of us in rent and so many other issues. If we become just a little bit harder to get while still being cooperative, it helps from both an artistic and financial point of view.

CRS: In terms of my working with you on marketing the symphony, you are clearly the head of artistic planning. I think it’s important for me to understand what you’re thinking. I do try to understand the kind of things you like. Several times I brought something to you because I thought this would be an interesting piece for you, Edward, and also an interesting experience for your subscriber base. And as often as you said no, you said yes. I think it’s very important not to have that traditional animosity between the music director and marketing. This is an obvious statement, but I think the onus is on the marketing director to have some knowledge of what will make a program work.

EC: The thing about our relationship that benefits the Hartford Symphony and me in particular is that you are a bit of a one-of-a-kind in terms of a marketing consultant. I now realize that you know a lot more music than I’ll ever know. To give you an example, I did a program built around Mozart’s final symphony, No. 41, the Jupiter Symphony. When I told you that I thinking about including excerpts by Dvorak, and even thinking about bringing in a piece by the rock group Yes, which has in common something that Mozart does in the trio of the minuet, well, you immediately said, “Well, of course you’re going to play the Finale from Haydn’s Symphony No. 13, aren’t you?” I didn’t even know this theme, and didn’t know that Mozart used it in the finale of the Jupiter.

I’ve been with so many other orchestras, not as music director, but as staff conductor and resident conductor, where this sort of collaboration doesn’t happen.

To give you an example, there was an orchestra where the music director very much wanted to do Schoenberg’s Gurre Lieder, which is a very expensive piece to do, requires an orchestra of about 140 players, a massive chorus, and I think six soloists. And these soloists are expensive because the parts are very difficult and they require artists at the very top – A-list types. The marketing director of this orchestra was just against the idea and said, over and over again,” I can’t sell it. I can’t sell it.”

Well, the music director had the very, very savvy idea of actually playing little bits and pieces of Schoenberg’s Gurre Lieder. The piece was performed in September, but the year before, say in November, he played an interlude. And then a couple of months later, he played another passage, just orchestral music. He did them as mystery pieces; they were unannounced, so the audience didn’t know they were going to get them until they arrived for the concert. And it just completely took away any pre-conceived notions that most of these people had about Schoenberg. Of course, we know that Schoenberg wrote a lot of music that’s forbidding to listen to, but early in his career, he was just intoxicated with the music of Wagner. The audience got so enamored with hearing bits of the Gurre Lieder over the course of the season that, come September, every concert sold out. And the marketing director had been so committed to the notion that it was going to fail.

CRS: That’s a great example of a music director coming up with a marketing concept, a true sales concept. The problem with Hartford’s doing Gurre Lieder isn’t doing it; it’s having to do it twice. If we could collapse two nights of subscribers into one performance and give them all a seat that they would be happy with, we would have very few single tickets left to sell. Nothing makes people want a ticket like not being able to get one. You can probably get Gurre Lieder pretty close to 80 percent sold for one great performance. Everybody would be on board; trust would be higher; and you’d be freer to do something like that the next time because the audience reaction was, “Oh, we loved it! You were there, I was there, the place was full.” I’m more and more interested in playing with the number of performances presented to meet the variable demand. Right-sizing it, if you will.

It’s what I call the multiplex model – a movie theater may have 16 screens, but each have different capacities. As a film finds its audience, it moves into a larger theater and as it loses audience, it moves down. But we always play the same hall – always doubles or triples, even if the market can only sustain one or two. Nothing’s ever going to sell evenly. If we could only adjust to that and find a way to consolidate the interest.

It’s tough enough to sell 6,000 tickets for Beethoven’s 9th, so Gurre Lieder is a real challenge.

EC: Are there other marketing director horror stories?

CRS: When have you had a bad relationship with a marketing director?

EC: Well, I can think of another example where the marketing team decided to build a whole brochure for the season based on people’s knowledge of the William Tell Overture, not as William Tell, but as The Lone Ranger. And based on people’s knowledge of Copland’s Hoedown Rodeo, not as Hoedown Rodeo but as It’s Beef, and Also Sprach as the theme from 2001. The whole season was built on trying to get people to come just because they knew a piece of music from their cartoons or from the TV or a film.

CRS: I think it doesn’t work because you’re doing all the thinking for them. I’ve always tried, particularly in radio advertising, to play “the big tune” without referring to the context from which it became famous. That way, the listener can say, “I know that!” If I explain the reference, well, they have nothing left to think about – I’ve made all the connections for them. Why would they want to listen? I’m having an argument with a marketing person who desperately wants me to mention Fantasia in a spot for Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.

EC: Sometimes things are just better on paper than they are when you actually go to the hall to hear them. The flip side is that sometimes I’ll create a program and I’ll look at it on paper, and maybe it looks like a dog’s breakfast. But then you come to hear it and people say, “Oh, okay. Yeah. It was all right.” So sometimes I have to work really, really hard to try to sell you on a program that I know is going to work.

I can remember another program – my first program – a program in which I believed very strongly. I was going out on a limb for it, and you and I were just beginning our relationship together with the Hartford Symphony, me as music director and you as marketing consultant. When I explained to you what I wanted to do on my opening program, September 2000, you just looked at me and said, “I love it. But it will take me five minutes to explain this to people.”

CRS: Yeah, it resisted the capacity to have a quick connection. But I was wrong. It sold very well.

EC: At the concert itself, I remember people in the orchestra and the audience were very moved by the idea of actually framing this very short work by the brilliant young British composer, Thomas Ades. It was a psalm setting for men’s voices and organ pedal. We had ‘cellos and basses play the organ pedal. This was the centerpiece; we began with Wagner’s Tristan, then did the Ades, and then went right into Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3. It worked harmonically because the Wagner ends with a question mark, which was then answered by the Thomas Ades piece, and then Beethoven returned to the question mark. And once again, we answered it. It just worked perfectly harmonically. We even had it work visually because the audience didn’t know the chorus was there because they were seated among the orchestra and they just stood up when it was time for them to sing.

CRS: Yeah. I was wrong. I think the fact that it was your first concert sent the message that your concerts would be very different from what audiences had been used to.

EC: I guess that was what I was banking on, too; you only get one chance to make a first impression.

CRS: I bet it wouldn’t have been as good in your third month. And it wouldn’t have been a great opening for your second season. I think what we’re taking a long time to say is that you as music director want to give the audience enormous credit, and I think it’s best if the marketing department does too. We assume you will know it, or at the very least, won’t be offended by not knowing it. And I think it gets back to the issue of trust we were talking about. There’s something in that ability to let people work a little bit to get the message and work a little bit to hear the music, once they’ve committed to buying the ticket. It’s intellectual athleticism.

EC: To go back to this letter from the guy who doesn’t want to hear any more of this Shostakovich, his last line was, “I’m signing on for another season anyway.” So I figure okay, even if he gripes about some of the things that we do, he’s still coming.

I really must credit the way Michael Tilson Thomas can put together a program with an Ives piece before a Mahler symphony and make the connection, even though it doesn’t look connected on the page.

Another thing that’s brilliant about Michael is the way he talks to the audience. I understand that not all conductors have his ability or inclination or even the desire to do this, but sometimes just 90 seconds of talk before playing a piece makes all the difference in how it’s accepted.

I don’t mean pre-concert talks, which are very important as long as they’re not lectures. It’s very important that they be talks, and that they invite the audience into the music without ever getting condescending or ever going into the professorial tone.

I mean just saying a few words from the podium. Michael Tilson Thomas is one of the absolutely most gifted people on the planet with this. He did a program on tour with the San Francisco Symphony here in Hartford recently. He did songs that he wrote, then Copland’s Orchestral Variations, which is not anything like Appalachian Spring or Hoedown – it’s a hard piece to play and a hard piece to listen to – and he concluded with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15, which is also a very quirky piece.

But before the Copland and then again later, before the Shostakovich, Michael said a few words and he had the violist play the theme of the Orchestral Variations before they played it. The violist didn’t know it was going to happen. He was quite spontaneous about it and, whether the audience liked the Copland or not, they felt invited into Copland’s world briefly. It just set it up.

And the same thing with the Shostakovich. I heard some teenage girls giggling next to me after he introduced the Shostakovich. They couldn’t wait for these spots that Michael introduced and talked about in a joking manner when clearly Shostakovich is having fun; where he’s poking fun at the whole tradition of the symphonic repertoire.

But Michael invited us into the sound of Shostakovich and it just made all the difference in the world. So when conductors can do this, it not only helps to bring the audience into the music, but it also breaks down that wall – that invisible wall that divides the orchestra from the audience.

CRS: And we marketing people also have to find ways to invite people in – ways that don’t cheapen the experience, yet are also effective.

Is there anything else you want to add?

EC: Well, I think another important thing to at least mention is the fact that we are in a more and more visual age, a visual society, and the orchestra is necessarily a very static thing to look at. Other than the conductor, who moves his or her arms up and down, left and right, there’s not a lot to see except bows going up and down. Given how fascinated we all are with what we see on the television, movie, and computer screens, it puts us a little more behind the eight ball. So if there’s a way…

CRS: I don’t buy it.

EC: You and I may well disagree on this point. But I wish there were a way for the audience to be more on top of the visual aspect of the concert. That’s why my favorite halls in the world are halls where the orchestra is surrounded by the audience, such as the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the new Disney hall in Los Angeles. When the audience surrounds the orchestra, the energy just comes off the stage and comes into the audience. It’s not just a matter of hearing the orchestra or even just being able to see the orchestra clearly, but it’s feeling all this energy. For me, it’s been life changing to hear board members come up to me after they’ve sat onstage with the orchestra at a dress rehearsal. They can’t believe what they just experienced. They thought they knew the orchestra well after coming to concerts for 30 or 40 years, and then they actually sit on the stage with us and they say, “Oh, my gosh! I can’t believe that’s what it’s actually like for you guys to play!”

CRS: I agree with you about surround halls. But I’m getting nervous about visual components being introduced into concerts because I don’t know that it’s making a difference.

EC: Well, since we do our concerts twice, maybe one night we could put up screens left and right to show close-ups of individual players. Have a musician work with the cameraman so the audience can get to see that second trombone player up close when he’s playing his solo in the Mozart Requiem or Scheherazade. This suddenly introduces another dramatic component where a listener is not just hearing the music, but is also watching this guy play it.

CRS: I guess. I don’t think there’s anything to look at. I kind of like that about a concert. I don’t know that our age is any less visual or any more visual than any other age was. There’d be an advantage to living in Europe in 1850 and seeing lots of green things around you and no cars and no tall buildings.

EC: But at that time, there weren’t doorbells and all these extraneous sounds like iPods.

CRS: That’s the whole point: the idea of a pure concert is so refreshing. A concert is now so unlike the rest of our world, which is something we could use to our advantage as marketers.

Concerts very much grew out of the society they were part of. Haydn’s orchestra was part of his world, not a retreat from it. What has changed is that we now have to go to a concert to escape the forces that relentlessly come at us.

EC: What concerns me is that the orchestra as an institution has changed a lot, dramatically even, in the last couple of decades. But as an ensemble, it hasn’t really changed at all in the last hundred years. It’s still the same.

CRS: Where the change in the previous hundred years was enormous.

EC: Exactly. The change from Mozart to Mahler was much more dramatic than the change from Mahler to today.

CRS: Right.

EC: And that’s a problem for us because there is so much more music today. In Mozart’s time or even in Wagner’s time, there wasn’t so much of a chasm between art music and popular music. Haydn used popular music in his symphonies.

CRS: Liszt also used popular music in some cases.

EC: But today, classical music is considered very, very elite. It’s not a very good name for it. I’m okay with its being an elite music, but I’m not okay with its being elitist.

CRS: Oh, I don’t know. I kind of hate to admit it, but we use elitism all the time as a sales tool – the same way that Mercedes Benz does. I think that every young couple who came to your Romeo and Juliet Valentine’s concert said, the week before, that they would never go to a concert. You created the point of entry.

EC: Well, I hope so. I guess, like you said, you just stay the course. You have to be patient.

CRS: The demand is always there; we just have to know how to get it. Activity plus timing equals results. Get the activity right, get the timing and message right, and you’ll have a positive result.

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