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Fresh Ideas
14 May 2012
Inside the Classics

My last post on how I had nothing to write about generated a few interesting questions that I responded to in the comments, but it also included a couple of reader ideas that I think are worth getting into more deeply. First up, here’s Simon:

A friend of mine was just grumbling about Minnesota sports teams and their inability to do anything athletic. As a self proclaimed music nerd I took the opportunity to tell him that the money which seemed to be burning a hole in his pocket could easily be spent on our local world class orchestra instead of on… assured and unremitting disappointment. What followed was a conversation about why the arts struggle while sports teams – even the substandard – thrive:

His understanding is that American’s love black and white. Good vs. Evil. He said he loved to be able to look up at the score board with pride or even grief. To be able to lie in bed that night with at least one thing definite. Final. Undeniable. Clear. In essence, he thought anyway, that this is one of the most important things that people are buying when they buy tickets to sporting events. It has even spread into the world of music. Look at the millions of people who tune in to watch American Idol and the myriad spin-offs.

So the question that my friend eventually posed to me – the question I’d like to forward on to all of you – is this: Would setting up something similar to American Idol in the world of symphonies be blasphemous? Or would it be an incredibly effective marketing plan? Perhaps both…? Maybe neither…? It wouldn’t have to be televised. Some sort of in-house keypad voting would do. and I don’t mean to suggest voting off members of the orchestra either. Voting on pieces of music might be just as exciting (as a composer myself, even that is more than a little intimidating). I’m also interested in scenarios that would work. Scenarios that wouldn’t. Or the craziest The Voice version of Orchestra Hall that someone can think up.

Now, the American Idol thing, we’ve actually already done. In fact, we did it more than once – for a couple of consecutive Sommerfests, we held a competition for young musicians (I want to say there were two divisions, with one for 13-and-unders and the other for 14-18-year-olds) in which the kids’ personalities, as well as their musical abilities, were on display, and the audience in attendance at the final round got to vote on the winner. Without any marketing data to work off of, I’m not sure how successful it was from a ticket sales standpoint. From an artistic standpoint, the outcome seemed a lot like most traditional competitions: the winners weren’t always necessarily the ones I would have chosen (in particular, there was one dazzling young pianist in the junior division who got absolutely robbed of the top spot two years in a row,) but they were immensely talented young musicians. The final vote did frequently seem to come down to which contestant had managed to talk the highest percentage of her/his classmates into attending, but whatever. The whole thing had an air of fun to it, it was built around serious classical repertoire, and from my perspective, there seemed to be less of that life-or-death air that surrounds so many classical competitions.

We’ve also done the whole “vote on which piece we play” thing. This had to be done online and well in advance of course: the orchestra’s work schedule is crazy busy as it is, and we don’t have time to even consider rehearsing material that probably won’t be performed. But in a young people’s concert that I hosted several years ago, we invited the kids who would be attending to vote for their choice of three movie scores to be the final piece on a program all about movie music. We offered them Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Pirates of the Caribbean. Our education director, Jim Bartsch, and I both figured Star Wars was a shoo-in, proving that neither Jim nor I has kids; it was Captain Jack Sparrow in a landslide. (We wound up shoehorning Star Wars in anyway – after the orchestra finished Pirates of the Caribbean, Jim’s brother, Tom, who is very tall and a huge Star Wars geek appeared in the house dressed in a very serious Darth Vader costume, threatened me with a light saber, and demanded that his music be played immediately. The kids ate it up with a spoon.)

Speaking of movie music, regular commenter Michael had something to say on that subject:

Are movie scores the new symphonies?

I feel like there’s no way to answer this without making somebody justifiably angry. If I say no, I’m an elitist jerk, and I’m also disrespecting serious composers like Nico Muhly, Philip Glass, and Danny Elfman. (Kidding, kidding.) If I say yes, I’m implying that the bar for what constitutes serious art music has been lowered so far that we might as well ask John Tesh to be our opening night soloist next season.

I think what I’d like to do instead is twist Michael’s question around a bit, and say that I do think that one of the most exciting developments in the music world today is the ease with which music and film can be brought together, by literally anyone with a laptop. It’s resulting in some amazing collaborations that simply wouldn’t have been possible in an earlier time. I’ve posted this video before, but I never get tired of watching it, and it’s a perfect example of the sort of collaboration that’s become possible in the age of YouTube.


Plan of the City.
A film by Max Frankel. Music by Judd Greenstein, as performed by the NOW Ensemble, who also appear in the film.

Commenter Michael had another interesting idea, as well, and I’ll dig into that in the next couple of days…

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