posted by James Reel
If you're wondering what I've been doing instead of blogging, one of the distractions has been a four-week course over which I'm presiding for the Arizona Senior Academy at Academy Village. It's called, grandly and half-facetiously, "The Decline and Fall of the Romantic Empire." Two classes down, two to go. Here's the scoop on the next installment.
posted by James Reel
The Boston public broadcasting station WGBH, which should be familiar to you as the source of a lot of what's been on PBS over the years, has taken over the public-radio program distributor PRI (Public Radio International), with which you'll be familiar if you listen to much on KUAZ, 89.1. The only reason I bring up this news, of interest mainly to broadcast insiders, is to help some of you figure out exactly what Classical 90.5 is and is not.
PRI, based in Minneapolis with a corporate genealogy that traces back to Minnesota Public Radio, is a completely separate entity from NPR, and in many ways NPR's competitor, producing or distributing most of the news/talk shows you hear on KUAZ that are not Morning Edition or All Things Considered. NPR, in turn, is distinct from PBS, which is a television network/cooperative. There's no such thing as a PBS radio station. And by the way, Classical 90.5 barely registers an NPR presence; the only NPR material you hear on the classical station is the set of five newscasts each weekday and some on the weekends. A Prairie Home Companion, once distributed by PRI, has been for several years a property of American Public Media (APM), the content distribution arm of Minnesota Public Radio (MPR); most of the evening orchestral series are distributed by WFMT, a commercial classical radio station and syndicator in Chicago.
Even though some people used "Coke" some decades ago in reference to all soft drinks, you really shouldn't call Pepsi "Coke," and you shouldn't confuse NPR with PRI or WFMT or, above all, PBS. The safest shorthand way to refer to everything we do here at Arizona Public Media is "public broadcasting" (even though this Internet stuff doesn't really count as "broadcasting").
Now, if you're wondering what PRI does with classical music, take a look at and listen to this report on efforts to re-create the court orchestras at Versailles in the time of King Louis XIV.
posted by James Reel
There's a grave-robber on the loose, raiding tombs and stealing the teeth of famous composers, apparently in preparation for opening some sort of dental museum, according to this report from an Austrian newspaper. This sort of thing is not new (aside from the perpetrator's boasting online); the body parts of historical celebrities often have an afterlife of their own. In the 1980s I saw in an English museum what looked like a little scrap of black leather that purported to be Napoleon's penis; this could not have been true, for the emperor's pride is apparently held elsewhere. More reliable are the storied adventures of certain composers' partial remains, including Chopin's heart and Haydn's head. One composer himself was notoriously fond of fondling relics of great men; Anton Bruckner, a very strange man to begin with, had tendencies that stopped a few steps short of necrophilia.
posted by James Reel
Here's a valuable post from Slate's culture blog reminding us how bogus much reporting on science can be. Actually, the post is about how bogus scientific studies of music can be--remember how the popular "Mozart Effect" was pretty thoroughly debunked?--but the core issue comes down to sloppy science reporting in the popular media. Too often, we read in the newspaper some shorthand report on an as-yet unreplicated study that overstates or oversimplifies the preliminary findings. Then, there's no follow-up reporting when further studies support, amplify or disprove the original findings. So every month we see some article about a new study showing that some common substance causes cancer, and then there's another article about another study showing that some obscure berry will add 50 years to our lives. My advice: Watch the reliable science-specialist media for further information. And always be cautious about studies that purport to explain how music works. I'm not saying it's impossible to figure out, but the explanations tend to be facile reasoning by people who don't really know anything about music.
posted by James Reel
Here's an article from the New York Times about how radio producers are hoping to fill the gaps left by the anticipated departure of some very popular, very long-running shows like Car Talk and A Prairie Home Companion. The trouble is, those programs aren't really going away, even if the hosts do. The Car Talk guys are retiring after a 35-year run, but their old programs are going to be cannibalized and restitched for broadcast into the foreseeable future (they will continue to run locally on KUAZ). Garrison Keillor blows hot and cold on the idea of retiring from A Prairie Home Companion, and although he's not talking about retirement right now, he has said that he's on the lookout for a replacement host so the show won't die with him. Well, good luck with that. When Keillor ran away to Denmark with his high-school sweetheart in the 1980s, he left the show behind, and it was refashioned into something only slightly different with a new host, Noah Adams. It didn't quite work, and so we were then subjected to what seemed like centuries of PHC reruns until Keillor relented, revived a version of his show from a New York base, realized that wasn't quite right, and went back to the old PHC format in Minnesota. So it's pretty clear that if Keillor leaves someday, a new host won't be able to carry the show, which revolves around Keillor's personality, and we will once again be subjected to endless reruns. Same thing happened with Saint Paul Sunday: The series ended production, but repeated the final year's broadcasts for the next five years. We finally dumped the thing around the fourth rerun cycle, and now the reruns are finally being mothballed nationally.
I'm sure there are people who will gladly listen to rebroadcasts of these popular shows again and again for years to come. But I don't think endless reruns will serve the larger audience, and they will only make public radio seem increasingly hidebound and averse to innovation. The solution seems easy: Archive the old shows online, so people can have free and easy access to them forever. Then do something new on-air--don't muddle through with a hapless new host trying to maintain the old format, but create completely new programs. Some will fail. But a few decades ago, a lot of people scoffed at the idea that the peculiar A Prairie Home Companion could ever achieve a national following. We just have to keep trying new things until the public finds something it loves.
But one thing is certain: The next Prairie Home Companion will have to be completely different from Prairie Home Companion.
posted by James Reel
It's gotten to be an old story, but every month there's a new iteration of it: An orchestra is about to drown itself in red ink, because attendance is flat or declining, and revenue from ticket sales and especially grants and donations is declining. The usual short-term solution: Cut the musicians' pay, cull some back-row players from the strings, don't fill a couple of vacant front-office positions, cut the number of concerts, cut, cut, cut. The latest major ensemble facing these decisions is the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. It will not be the last.
But at the same time, some orchestras that have already teetered at the precipice of bankruptcy are beginning to revive. The Philadelphia Orchestra may emerge from bankruptcy as early as next month, mainly through cuts, financial restructuring and getting some debt forgiven. More innovative efforts seem to be saving the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. There, too, musicians have taken pay cuts, but the new administrator is rebuilding the board, recruiting new high-dollar donors, and trying to increase ticket revenue by getting component groups of the orchestra out of their concert-hall fortress and sending them out to various small-scale venues around the Denver region.
Also under new management, the Tucson Symphony is very gradually making a comeback, although it's hardly back up to the pay levels (let alone attendance levels) of five to 10 years ago. Typically, the article I linked to doesn't bother to mention exactly what the musicians are making before or after their 3.5-percent raise next season, but the last I heard, not too many years ago, was that rank-and-file musicians were earning less than $15,000 a year.
As are so many other orchestras, the TSO has been saving money by not filling some onstage vacancies and cutting the number of concerts (some but not all of which will be restored in the coming seasons), and doing more aggressive fundraising. Like the Colorado Symphony, it will also be getting out of its acoustically challenged home hall a little more, doing a couple of pops concerts at the Fox Theater, which is about half the size of the TCC Music Hall.
But most of the performances announced for next season follow the traditional model: a series of full-orchestra classical concerts, a series of full-orchestra pops concerts, a series of chamber-orchestra concerts, and a smattering of full-orchestra special events with the likes of Joshua Bell and Calexico (not at the same time, although that could be interesting), all except for the Fox shows in the TSO's usual performance venues.
In other words, it's pretty much a defense of the status quo. (And yes, pops concerts with superannuated bands like Queen are orchestral status quo across the nation these days.) Aren't there more creative ways to revive the TSO?
Well, how could the TSO afford real innovation? The economy is still limping, which means that private and corporate donors will continue to be tight-fisted in the near future. A bigger problem, even in good financial times, is that Tucson is home to hardly any big corporate headquarters, and the few that are here tend to focus their charitable programs on things that are not the arts. Nor are they inclined to feed their executives into local arts boards along with the annual $10,000 to $20,000 a board member is expected to provide, one way or another.
Phoenix, on the other hand, is comparatively corporation-rich. That's why Arizona Opera, founded and for decades based in Tucson, is now a Phoenix-based entity that merely ships its productions down here. Could the TSO somehow draw funding from Phoenix? Maricopa County is already saturated with arts groups, so why would the fat cats up there feed money to a Tucson group?
Because the Tucson group could be part of a consolidated statewide organization.
Back in the 1980s, leaders at the Phoenix Symphony were talking about becoming the state's official orchestra and taking over concerts in Tucson. That was a short-lived bit of muscle-flexing and crypto-bullying; before long that orchestra was on the brink of disaster itself, overextended in its Phoenix commitments alone. But it's worth thinking about how such a scheme might be made to work today, and in a way that keeps TSO musicians employed.
In the 1980s, Ernest Fleischmann, the longtime benevolent (sometimes not-so-benevolent) dictator of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was trying to sell the arts world on his idea that professional orchestras in major metropolitan areas should consolidate into pools of about 150 musicians, from which would emerge several sub-entities: a full, hundred-some piece orchestra that would give fewer but more-rehearsed concerts; a chamber orchestra or two; a professional period-instrument ensemble; a group of contemporary-music specialists; various chamber ensembles ... almost all of which would travel around the region to many different venues. The Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna Volksoper Orchestra draw from such a pool of musicians, although the players aren't under contract for those other ancillary groups. And, notably, Fleischmann himself never managed to accomplish anything quite like this during his decades in Los Angeles.
Could it work here? Almost all the musicians who play in the Phoenix Symphony, Tucson Symphony and Arizona Opera Orchestra would be folded into a single entity, sometimes converging for massive undertakings like the Berlioz Requiem but usually split into various components, serving the entire state. There would be a single administration, which would save a lot of money right there, and funding could be drawn from all over the place, not just this or that city.
If it were done correctly, it could be more cost-efficient, it could provide more steady and perhaps better-paying work to professional musicians who currently aren't always used to their best advantage, and it could increase the diversity of professional music-making not just in Tucson and Phoenix but also in the state's underserved (and unserved) communities.
And if it were not done correctly, it could be a spectacular, grisly disaster.
Is it worth consideration?