Music Marketing Madness!

Music Nerd Andy, who keep tabs on the classical scene in St. Louis and environs, passed along an offer from his home team, the St. Louis Symphony, along with this comment:

Why can we sell Mahler tickets at a fraction of retail cost? Because we’re CRAAAAAAZY!!!!!

(I’m sorry to say that this offer went out yesterday, and thus is no longer valid! My apologies to St. Louis area readers! I encourage you to go to the symphony anyway, if you possibly can, whether it’s to hear Mahler, Mussorgsky, or Idina Menzel.)

I have mixed feelings about this kind of marketing in the context of classical music. I know that presenting organizations have to do what they can to attract and retain audiences, and I’m all for coming up with light-hearted and engaging marketing campaigns as an essential part of that. But when you start stealing from your local car dealership’s playbook, it might be time to brew a cup of tea and do a little soul-searching. We have a stodgy, uptight reputation to uphold, after all!

I don’t mean to pick on St. Louis exclusively, of course. For a while now, I’ve felt that every time a music organization employs a cutesy tag line like “Too Hot To Handel” or “Go for Baroque,” they should have to pay a fine, with the proceeds going toward music education in the public schools or something. What’s that you say? Respectable and successful musicians are using those very phrases with impunity? Well, alrighty then – more power to ’em!

Anyway, I’m hardly one to talk. I think I feel an inspiration coming on… I’ve got it: Monster Truck Opera! The curtain opens, a baritone steps onto the stage and sings, “Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!

In all seriousness – well, almost all –  I must give a tip of the nerd glasses to the SLSO’s publicity genies for including a “More Cowbell!” reference in the campaign, along with this tasty tidbit of music history:

Did you know that preceding Christopher Walken & Will Farrell’s hilarious “More Cowbell” skit on Saturday Night Live, Mahler specifically scored music for the cowbell in his Sixth Symphony to evoke the pastoral imagery of the Alps?

It’s true, you know… and it’s a bit I wish I’d thought of myself!

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Naked and Singing, Making Life Worthwhile

Boston Symphony Orchesra featuring Bryn Terfel: Music of Richard Wagner, Saturday, October 1, 2010
Cantata Singers Chamber Series: Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sunday, October 2, 2010

I didn’t expect to find much of a common thread between the two concerts I attended this past weekend, other than the fact that singing was involved. The contrasts were clear: the outsize grandiosity of the Wagnerian orchestra (Eight horns! Four harps!) versus the intimate chamber setting of the Vaughan Williams; dramatic bombast versus pastoral loveliness; mythic deities versus Vagabonds and Merry Wives; nineteenth century versus twentieth; German versus English.

And yet, these two programs illustrated what it means to love and live in music in profound and uncannily unified ways.

The weekend featured performances by singers at varying points on the music-professional spectrum, from international opera superstar Bryn Terfel, to local stars drawn from the Cantata Singers choral roster, who are active in music education and media in addition to their own impressive resumes as soloists. It was fascinating to see how each singer tackled the soul-rattling challenge of standing onstage in front of an audience with nothing but their voices to shield them from scrutiny.

Of course, every kind of musical performer puts themselves out there, but we often have props to mediate the nakedness of the experience. Instrumentalists have a hunk of wood or metal to hang onto, and plenty to do with their hands – heck, pianists and organists like me have large pieces of furniture to hide behind. But singers just have a body, and it can be surprisingly difficult to figure out what to do with the crazy thing, especially when singing from memory, unamplified, with no folder, music stand, or microphone to serve as a musical worry stone. What’s more, pesky composers will often write long stretches of accompaniment where the singer is silent, and has to figure out what to do while standing there waiting for either their next entrance or the merciful end of the piece.

Bryn Terfel (photo: Brian Tarr)

Mr. Terfel had the particular challenge of standing through music that would accompany stage action in a full production. Watching him really brought home to me how singers have to be one hundred percent present and at home in their bodies from head to toe to fingertips. If you’ve ever had to stand in front of a group of people for any reason, you probably know how difficult this is; in such a state of heightened self-consciousness, we automatically adopt postures and movements that telegraph our anxiety and discomfort; it actually takes quite a bit of discipline and practice just to look natural. Mr. Terfel had complete mastery of this skill, and I found his performance thrilling. I always love it when an opera singer (or any singer, actually) can act in addition to singing.

In contrast to his commanding presence while in character, McDoc and I both noticed that he shifted to an unassuming graciousness once the music was over, always turning to face the instrumentalists as Maestro Levine acknowledged sections and individuals. He almost seemed reluctant to fully bask in the audience’s rapturous response, and to return to the stage as the ovations continued. McDoc, being more of a class-agitating rabble rouser than I am, attributes this to Terfel’s background as a farmer’s son. But we both agreed that when he started singing, it was clear he was doing what he was born to do.

Brian Church and Cantata Singers Ensemble (photo: Miss Music Nerd)

The Vaughan Williams program on Sunday showcased the soloists of Cantata Singers in a wonderful variety of expressive modes. I don’t think a savvy music lover could be faulted for expecting a Vaughan Williams song recital to be a lovely yet fairly monochrome parade of one singer after another presenting two or three shades of nostalgia and melancholy. But on this occasion, we were instead treated to a dazzling palette, touching upon so many fundamental elements of human experience.

Baritones David Kravitz and Alan McLellan conveyed the longing for home in “Linden Lea” and the Songs of Travel; the alternating joy and heartache of love were amply represented, notably by soprano Lisa Lynch in “Goodbye” from Along the Field, and mezzo-soprano Carola Emrich-Fisher in “Tired” from Four Last Songs. The pitfalls of enmity and avarice were searingly conveyed by soprano Angelynne Hinson in “The Song of Vanity Fair,” from Pilgrim’s Progress, and tenor Jason Sabol in “A Poison Tree” from Ten Blake Songs.

Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford discover they have received identical love letters from John Falstaff (photo: Miss Music Nerd)

I was pleasantly surprised by the dose of gently farcical comedy, administered in two excerpts from the opera Sir John in Love: “When Daisies Pied” and “Thine Own True Knight.” The scenes were charmingly acted by Majie Zeller, Sara Wyse-Wenger and Ms. Emrich-Fisher. And on the other end of the expressive spectrum was the uplifting and redemptive spirituality of the Five Mystical Songs, with baritone Brian Church supported by vocal ensemble.

The first page of Cantata Singers’ season program book (an edifying document worth the price of admission in itself) features a quote from Vaughan Williams that includes these words:

Why Do We Make Music? …we do not compose, sing, or play music for any useful purpose. It is not so with the other arts: Milton had to use the medium of words whether he was writing Paradise Lost or making out his laundry list; Velásquez had to paint both for his Venus and to cover up the dirty marks on his front door. But music is just music, and that is, to my mind, its great glory.

I confess that I sometimes feel jaded, skeptical and world-weary; I wonder if this rather ridiculous profession of music is at all useful or worthwhile, or if it’s just a luxury, an expensive hobby that doesn’t feed the hungry or cure the sick. (Just ask McDoc about my existential angst – he deserves a medal for putting up with it!) But when I manage to get my butt on the piano bench or in a concert seat and shut off my monkey mind for a while, I’m re-converted. The soul has to be fed, too, and it’s a musician’s job to do so, both for ourselves and our audiences – everyone for whom life wouldn’t make sense without it.

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Miss Music Nerd’s Fall Arts Preview: A Far Cry from Boston!

Fall really is upon us, Music Nerds! One minute I was enjoying my Labor Day vacay, and next thing I knew, the concert season was in full swing! For me, it started last night with the [plain] song, in a program being repeated Saturday and Sunday (details here).

photo: Yoon S. Byun

It continues tomorrow afternoon with A Far Cry. Fortunately for you, dear readers, you have three chances to hear this concert as well. However, I strongly recommend tomorrow’s performance, not only because it will be your chance to meet Miss Music Nerd in person, but also because the venue has marvelous acoustics and the tickets are only $10! (Said venue is the church where I am Minister of Music, so yeah, I’m biased!)

A Far Cry: “Primordial Darkness”
September 18 2010 4pm
JP Concerts, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Jamaica Plain

September 19 2010 1:30pm
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

September 24 2010 8pm
Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston

A Far Cry is an exciting young string orchestra, now in its fourth season. They perform conductor-less, with the performers standing up (except the cellos!), which lends an intimacy and excitement to the playing that is very compelling. Or as they put it, “seeking the freedom and flexibility of a string quartet as well as the power and beauty of an orchestra.” In addition to their Boston area performance and outreach activities, they have recently begun taking it on the road, as an article in today’s Boston Globe relates.

The theme for their fourth season is “History of the Night,” and this first concert is titled “Primordial Darkness.” In keeping with that theme, they will play Mozart’s Serenata Notturna in D major. Here’s the full program lineup:

Xenakis: Analogique A et B
Mozart: Serenata Notturna in D major
Cornell: New Fantasias
Purcell: Suite from “The Old Bachelor”
Bartók: Divertimento for String Orchestra

The piece by Boston composer Richard Cornell was commissioned by and written for A Far Cry, so I’m very excited to hear it. I believe it is one of the pieces, along with the Xenakis, requiring the sound system the group is bringing in – I got a sneak peek today when I stopped by the venue to open the door!

So get ready to rock out in a classical kind of way, and tell ’em Miss Music Nerd sent you!

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Project Tchaikovsky: Music and Fashion, Together Again! (What Am I Gonna Wear?!)

Confession time: for a professional classical musician, I don’t have a very impressive CD collection. When fellow music nerds start discussing questions of who made the best recording of such-and-such a piece, my first impulse is to change the subject as quickly as possible: “My, a lot of weather we’re having, isn’t it?”

So what’s my excuse? Well, none really… But when pressed, I’ll say that I prefer hearing classical music live. It’s true — nothing compares to a live performance. But the real reason? Very little room in the budget. You see, chances are that when I have money to spend, I’ll spend it on clothes. Yeah, that’s right, I’m a girl! So sue me! 😉

That being the case, when I found out about an event this coming Thursday at the Boston Symphony that combined classical music and fashion design, I knew I had to be there. Stay tuned for the nerd’s-eye view!

You’ve heard of Project Runway — maybe you’ve even watched it! (But if you want to pretend you’re the kind of Serious Person who doesn’t watch TV, except for classical music performances broadcast on PBS, I won’t tell anyone! 😉 ) The name of the BSO’s Project Tchaikovsky event riffs on the name of the reality show. But It’s only one evening, not a series, so there won’t be a process of elimination spurring a lot of tearful set departures. There will be a runway show, followed by the selection of a winner by a panel of judges, including an orchestra member and the director of the Chanel boutique in Boston.

Oh, and before that, a concert of classical music performed by the Boston Symphony, by the way! The concert will, of course, feature Tchaikovsky’s music: his Symphony No. 2, Little Russian. I’m excited about the other pieces on the program, too: Concert Românesc by György Ligeti (one of my fave composers) and the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich.

The contestants are design students from Boston area schools, and the winner will get a write-up in Boston Magazine, among other goodies. Pretty cool!

You can see sketches of the competing designs here. Now, I’m not sure why you learn how to draw models as if they’re in the skinny part of a fun-house mirror when you go to design school — maybe I’ll ask when I interview the designers on Thursday. But primarily, I’ll be excited to learn how the music relates to the designs. The advance word is demure about discussing that, though I did find a mention of Tchaikovsky’s music being played at high volume during classes. As one who wants to see classical music get a wider audience, I applaud! 🙂

Now I just have to figure out what I’m gonna wear! I don’t think I’ve been this preoccupied about picking an outfit since right before the GRAMMYS®! 😉

If you’re in the Boston area, you can preview the designs and hear the concert on Tuesday, April 13 or Thursday, April 15. The runway show and announcement of the winner is April 15 only! For information and tickets, click here.

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Mighty Winds… and Brass!

Photobucket If you saw sparks flying over Boston’s Back Bay last night, it might have been the result of the energy and excitement generated by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project during their performance in Jordan Hall. BMOP’s primary mission is to commission, perform and record new orchestral work. They also perform 20th century “classics” with great gusto.

BMOP plays Stravinsky

BMOP plays Stravinsky

The first piece on the program was an example of that. I had heard Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments on recording before, and I don’t remember being tremendously excited about it. Hearing it live last night was a whole ‘nother story. It was wondrous to hear the wide pallette of colors that resulted from different combinations within the wind ensemble, and I was entranced by a sinuous duet between flute and clarinet that was featured prominently.

Composer Harold Meltzer thanks pianist Ursula Oppens

Composer Harold Meltzer thanks pianist Ursula Oppens

Harold Meltzer’s Privacy, a concerto for piano and wind ensemble, was marked by a dramatic, sometimes tense interplay between the soloist (GRAMMY®-nominated pianist Ursula Oppens) and the ensemble. Starting out with intense rhythmic drive, the piece wound down toward the end, as the ensemble instruments gradually dropped out and left the piano alone, thus illustrating the work’s title. This was the most recent piece on the program, by the way, and I learned from the composer that BMOP is making a recording of it this weekend.

PRISM quartet

PRISM quartet

But the two pieces on the second half of the program really blew the roof off. Wayne Peterson’s And The Winds Shall Blow was a wall of saxophone sound, courtesy of the PRISM sax quartet, which played a starring role in the piece. (Am I bad for snickering at that title, tho? 😉 Actually, it sounds somehow poetic or biblical to me, but it wasn’t explained in the program notes.) Recoil, by Joseph Schwantner was aggressive and rhythmic, but also featured an ethereal section where the players sang in wordless harmony. It was an effective way to draw the listener in before ending with a muscular crescendo.

McDoc and I hit a pizza joint afterwards, where we talked about the perennial challenge of generating audience enthusiasm for contemporary music concerts. It’s about more than just making the music “accessible,” which may or may not be a dirty word, depending on who you talk to. McDoc’s opinion, as a music lover but not a music pro, is that a potential audience member for new music needs to know that the experience won’t just be something to endure (I’m reminded of the time I took a friend to a performance of Pierrot Lunaire, which he referred to ever after as “that German appendectomy you made me sit through.” 😀 ) There has to be something compelling about it; it can’t just be eating your musical vegetables. I think the kind of energy and commitment BMOP evinces make it a full meal — dessert, coffee and all! 🙂

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BMOP “Band in Boston” Rocks the House Tonight!

Here’s where I’ll be tonight, hearing a program of 20th- and 21st-century works presented by local new music powerhouse, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, or BMOP, as the cool kids say!

The Program:

  • Igor Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments
  • Wayne Peterson: And The Winds Shall Blow, for Saxophone Quartet, Winds, and Percussion
    PRISM Quartet
  • Percy Grainger: The Power of Rome and the Christian Heart
  • Harold Meltzer: Privacy, A Concerto for Piano with Winds, Brass, and Percussion
    Ursula Oppens, piano
  • Joseph Schwantner Recoil

Ursula Oppens is a rock star in the world of contemporary classical music, not to mention a GRAMMY® nominee for Oppens Plays Carter her recording of solo piano music by Elliott Carter, classical composition’s still-spry elder statesman, at 101 years young!

I’ll report back on this concert after the fact… Though I’m not sure how soon, as my every waking moment is now being spent getting ready for GRAMMY Week!

By the way, the Miss Music Nerd Hollywood Fund has reached 43% of goal as of this writing! Can you help me make it to 100, kinda like Elliott? Thanks so much 😀

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