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SFM Does it Right

These days the classical music world is filled with half-baked concepts and vague ideas regarding “community engagement”, a “new model”, “special projects”, and lots of other windy catchphrases. I recently had the opportunity to participate in a series at Carnegie Hall that has proven these concepts are not only possible, but on a grand scale. Spring for Music was a home run.

The Milwaukee Symphony was one of six orchestras selected to perform on the series, which ran from May 7-12. The concept is simple, yet innovative in a variety of ways: different orchestras are selected every year based primarily on programming, and tickets are priced to make the series easily accessible.

Here are three reasons this series is so successful:

– The music is the focus, not star power or clever PR. Orchestras are challenged to create compelling programming that is unique, but still a showcase for the group. The MSO triumphed in this area (in my humble opinion), thanks to our Music Director Edo de Waart. We played a program centered around a French-Asian theme, suffused with an ever-present relationship between student and teacher. Works of Messiaen, Debussy, and Qigang Chen were performed (Chen was Messiaen’s last student), each relating to one another in countless ways. It was a stunning concert (if I do say so), and immensely satisfying to play it in such a great hall. And it isn’t every day I get a dressing room that has a letter from Brahms on the wall.

– The series is affordable. All tickets are $25, no matter where you sit. When’s the last time you got a box at Carnegie for $25?

– Orchestras are given the opportunity to engage their own communities in virtually every way possible. The trip to Carnegie becomes not only a matter of civic pride, but also an opportunity for fundraising and focusing on the orchestra’s unique contributions to a particular city. For us the runup was over a year or so- we played to a huge crowd, supplemented by about 600 people who made the trip from Milwaukee.

Special thanks to everyone at SFM- it was truly an honor to participate. Congratulations to next year’s orchestras– you’ll have a great time.

Couldn’t attend? You can listen to the entire concert and see a photo gallery here, NYT review here.

Were you at SFM this year? Leave a comment below.

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3 Responses to SFM Does it Right

  1. Andrew Buelow May 21, 2012 at 8:26 am #

    Dear Frank:

    Congratulations on the MSO’s recent trip to Carnegie, and it is heartwarming to hear of this successful and “engaging” project.

    As you know, I’m executive director of the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra and am working hard at such concepts as increasing “community engagement” and developing a “new model.” As such, I pay very close attention, or as close as my workload allows, to what is happening elsewhere. I’m aware of a lot of talk and dialogue about this coming from the League of American Orchestras, ICSOM, leaders like retired LAO president Henry Fogel, Bruce Coppock, and others. I’m also aware that many professional orchestral musicians such as yourself express a good deal of skepticism about all this. In a recent issue of “Symphony” magazine, the ICSOM president basically said “let’s not even talk about ‘a new model.'” I wrote to him to ask why but he never replied.

    Because we’re friends and because I have a lot of respect for you it might be interesting to trade thoughts about this issue in our respective blogs. We work for very different orchestras in very different roles. I believe very strongly that most orchestras need to increase community engagement, and at least in the case of my own orchestra, we are exploring new funding models and new ways of making the institution more sustainable. It seems to me that this is something professional musicians should be applauding and participating in, and I’m finding it hard to understand the pervasive sense of opposition. I’m sure a lot of the ideas out there are indeed half baked. Maybe working together musicians, boards and management can bake the other half.

    • Frank Almond May 22, 2012 at 9:04 am #

      Hi Andy-
      Great to hear from you, thanks for writing. I don’t know any informed orchestral musicians who are instinctively opposed to serious dialogue regarding alternative models for just about every aspect of the business. In fact, there seems to be general agreement that we have no choice but to move in different directions, given the challenges at hand almost everywhere. The MSO is working feverishly in this regard, with active participation from a good portion of the orchestra.

      But at this point a certain skepticism isn’t surprising, and is probably healthy. Over the past few years “new models” and “community engagement” have often been euphemisms for strategies that are generalized and simplistic, with the essential goal of reducing salaries and increasing workloads without any further coherent objectives. In the current climate, this can easily be construed (correctly or not), as an attempt to have the musicians bear the brunt of all the “new” thinking, rather than have a comprehensive, well-planned design that incorporates management, musicians, and the communities themselves.

      I’m not suggesting this is easy to do, but there are some shining examples. I thought SFM was one.

      • Andrew Buelow May 24, 2012 at 12:04 am #

        Frank, thanks for the reply. One of my favorite blogs is “Jumper” by Diane Ragsdale, which you can find at ArtsJournal. Her focus tends to be more on theater and opera, but I find a lot of her insights intriguing. She recently blogged about her struggles as a recent expatriot in the Netherlands, particularly with learning Dutch. One remark might be apropos: “It’s relatively easy to fake change, innovation, and transformation on paper and I note that we often stammer about as we try to talk thoughtfully and without a bunch of jargon about what we’re really trying to do these days in the arts vis-à-vis the changing world. Moreover, it’s tempting to default back to business-as-usual when initial attempts to change our processes are frustrating to us and to our stakeholders.”

        My own experience now is in running a much smaller orchestra than MSO, and even there I’m finding it is much easier to envision and talk about change than to actually make it happen. “This is hard, sometimes grueling, work,” notes Ragsdale; “and the returns are often small at the start.” How true that is.

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