You and Your Programming: an open letter

Dear Orchestra I Was Looking Forward To Seeing This Year,
(and also Famous Pianist I Don’t Really Know)

I’m flattered, but also a little annoyed.

In most cases, we are very glad to have your type come through. Living in Asia, we are some distance away from the big hotspots of classical music happenings, like Vienna, Berlin, New York, Chicago, Paris, London, and many many more. Not only are those places with world-famous ensembles, but many of them, and many others, have reputations for championing new music, promoting new composers, and broadening musical horizons.

And while Taipei isn’t necessarily one of those world-famous cities, I must say we have a veritable treasure trove of musical happenings in the city. Not only do we have two superb local orchestras, the National Symphony Orchestra (Taiwan Philharmonic) and the Taipei Symphony, but there’s also the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra down south (I know that sounds confusing). That aside, we are privileged to have big-ticket orchestras pretty regularly come through to perform in our local (beautiful) concert hall, including a surprisingly close relationship with the Berlin Philharmonic, who comes here every few years. As a result, in the past few years I’ve been able to see the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw, Munich Philharmonic, Philharmonia, Chicago Symphony, Royal Philharmonic, Vienna Radio Symphony, as well as remarkable individual performers, like Stephen Hough, Steven Isserlis, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Sir Neville Marriner (conducted our NSO), Eliahu Inbal (conducted TSO), Sabine Meyer, Yuja Wang (twice), Hilary Hahn, Håkan Hardenberger, Christian Lindberg, Reinhold Friedrich, and on and on. So I feel like we’re a pretty lucky bunch. And those are just the ones that I went to. There have been many more in years past, so we’re in this incredible little magical enclave so far away from Europe and the center of the action, but still get our access to world-class performers and orchestras like yourself, so thank you for keeping us in mind when you planned your trip halfway around the world, schlepping your luggage and instruments to brave the FAA and jet lag and foreign cuisine to perform for a distant audience. Some other World-Famous Folks who’ve come all this way recently didn’t think to do so, which is disappointing.

But there’s something you should remember, Dear Musicians, and that is that the music crowd, almost no matter where you go, is made up (very broadly speaking) of intelligent, relatively wealthy (unless they’re students!), and usually dedicated listeners, and be careful of the old ones: they have plenty of time on their hands.

What I mean to say is that you have competition. People here take their music seriously. Don’t think you can fly halfway around the world and drop in on our city and appease us with another Dvorak 9 or Chopin piano concerto (don’t get me started on those concertos). We know those pieces. Heard them before, probably many times. No offense, Chopin, but they’re the one-pot wonder, the set-it-and-leave-it cuisine of classical music, and it may be tasty, but I wouldn’t be pleased if I got a green bean casserole in a five-star restaurant.

I know, I know, maybe you haven’t graced us with your reading of Dvorak’s most famous symphony (even though 7 and 8 deserve their performances too), at least not in the past few years, and don’t get me wrong, it’s a huge success of a work. I enjoy it. But give us something we can really look forward to, something that shows some personality, sets you apart, maybe with a bit of daring, and not just a safe bet (Offenbach overture/Paganini concerto/Tchaikovsky 5, or whatever).

For you, Dear Orchestra I Was Looking Forward To Seeing This Year, did you stop to think how many times in the past 6-12 months the pieces on your program have been played in the very concert hall you’ll be performing in? Yours will be the third within a year, give or take. I know… to be honest, it’s hard to pass on Beethoven. Chicago played the fifth when they were here, and Berlin played 1, 2 and 9 (across two nights), this year alone, and our own NSO has like five Beethoven symphonies on their program this season. We love Beethoven.

But what audience do you really want to attract, the one who sees Beethoven 5 on the program and buys it because it’s a Western orchestra and will wet his pants when the duh-duh-duh-duhhhhh starts and never think of you again, the listener who couldn’t tell the difference between Schumann and Schuman, or the die-hard music aficionado who knows Your Conductor’s Mahler might not be the greatest but still wants the chance to experience it live? The latter is your true audience, the person who’s going to sit around years later with friends over some nice dinner somewhere and say “I heard Their Mahler 5, and it wasn’t my favorite, but there was something about it that I appreciated.” The former will get an autograph from you without even caring what your name is.

My point is this, to both of you, Famous Orchestra and Famous Pianist I Don’t Really Know:

  • Do your homework. Don’t give us leftovers or repeats if you can help it. That seems like a simple thing. I’d sure look to see if I was going to be serving up symphonic leftovers to my audience, and try to offer something new and exciting, which will help with…
  • Don’t be more concerned with ticket sales than musical integrity. Sure, there is a segment of society who doesn’t usually go to the symphony, but shows up, regardless of ticket prices, because You will be playing the Firebird again. The rest of us will wish you’d had the guts to do Shostakovich 4, or Bruckner 8, Mahler 10, or something not so monstrous, like a Dvorak symphony that isn’t 9, or a Nielsen, a Glazunov, a Scriabin, hell, even Prokofiev or Sibelius. I know you can’t get a full concert hall with Myaskovsky or Malcolm Arnold or Walter Piston, but they’d be great too.

Sure, some of those orchestras I mentioned above did play crowd-pleasers, but they played the hell out of them, and as we have established, it’s hard to turn down Beethoven. Vienna played 1, the Philharmonia played 3, Chicago played 5, Concertgebouw played 6, Vienna Radio Symphony played 7, Berlin played 2 and 9, … Beethoven is Beethoven, and you have to love it. Same for Mozart.

Both Vienna and Chicago played Prokofiev’s Classical, which I didn’t mind. But Vienna also programmed Hindemith’s Konzertmusik for Brass and String Orchestra, a phenomenal piece that was a joy to hear them play.

I guess what I’m trying to say is… give us inspired programming. We deserve it. I’ve heard the Rachmaninoff concertos plenty of times, and yes they’re lovely pieces, but they’re not really lovely enough to compel me to spend the kind of money on a ticket that I’d have to spend to cover the expense you incurred to get here.

For you, Dear Orchestra, a piece you’re performing for your visit is a piece that a world-class orchestra will be playing six weeks after you’ve packed up and left. Now, that sounds like you’ve beat them to it, except said world-class orchestra (whose conductor’s name begins with J and ends with –ansons) has already put their tickets on sale and sold out, and I have mine, but yours hadn’t gone on sale yet. And I’d much rather hear them play it.

It’s too late now, though, Dear Orchestra, and in the interest of full disclosure, I can’t go on the day you’ll be in town, otherwise I’d use Your Name Here. I even emailed your people many months ago to ask about said program, and got no response. And you, too, Famous Pianist. You’re coming to play two of the most famous concertos in the repertoire, back to back, in one evening. They’re even from the same country, same era, and they’re pieces that most of us have heard multiple times already. It’s at least the third time one of them will be played in that hall this year, and your tickets are too expensive to justify yet another reading of that work. I’m sure you’ll do a great job with it, and that goes for you too, Orchestra… But I’m also picky about my Beethoven, and I detest one of the other pieces on the program, which is my fault, not yours.

In short, I feel like I’m not alone in saying there is any number of pieces, for either of you, Orchestra and Pianist (who, if I hadn’t made myself clear, are separate events), that would make me willing to part with uncomfortable sums of my hard-earned money: basically anything Mahler, a Shostakovich symphony, either of the Schoenberg concertos, Sibelius 7, Bruckner 9, Robert Simpson (for sure), Prokofiev 5, Mendelssohn 3, the list goes on, but none of the works on your “oh, everybody loves this; It’ll be fine” program get me excited enough to want to leave the house.

Sorry, Orchestra. I was looking forward to you, and sorry Pianist, I don’t know who you are, but sitting through your program will be the musical equivalent of eating butter. Very good butter, I’m sure (organic, grass-fed, all the rest), and I wish you a full concert hall and much applause. But You, Orchestra, You should know better. I’m disappointed.

See you next time.

Maybe.

It depends.

fugueforthought

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