A Fascinating Article About a Fascinating Blog

Arts Journal recently linked to an article in the Washington Post written by Philip Kennicott.  The article focuses on Sam Bergman’s Road Trip blog here on Arts Journal that chronicles the recent Minnesota Orchestra’s tour of Europe.  If you haven’t read either the Washington Post article or the blog, you should.

In Philip’s article, he summarizes one of the core problems with orchestral management in two simple paragraphs (as opposed the hoard of words I usually end up using):

“Bergman’s blog has emerged as accidental but excellent under-the-radar publicity for a sector of the music industry — the orchestra world — that takes a notoriously top-down, control-freak approach to its public image. Orchestras are often locked in a dated and low-energy relationship with their public: using old media, and only to promote their concerts, their conductor and sometimes their soloists. Innovative use of Web technology, even something so simple as a good blog, is a rarity. And efforts to see inside orchestra life are shut down or hampered by old-guard PR executives nervous about stories they can’t control, or aren’t clearly focused on filling seats.
When it comes to educating the public about the inner workings of musicians’ lives — beyond the predictable human-interest stories, pablum about the glories of music, and reassurances that the local orchestra is the best of all possible orchestras — orchestra leaders have essentially failed But Bergman found a voice that spoke articulately from inside a world that has become all too reticent, nervous and polished in its nonmusical communication with the public. That his blog, which made the facts of a musician’s life fascinating, should be so successful suggests that the professional orchestral world has become so self-absorbed that it no longer knows what is interesting about its own microcosm.”

Philip couldn’t be more accurate with this assessment of what’s wrong with the way orchestra management presents the music to its audience.  Art is a reflection of life and when you remove that human quality form the experience all you’re left with is a cold, sterile museum piece that’s only comfortable behind an inch of glass and a velvet rope. 

People, no – patrons, want to be involved in the orchestral experience.  How close they sit to the stage or teaching them when to clap doesn’t cut it.  In my own experience as a private music teacher, I’ve encountered hundreds of adult students.  In each of those cases I’ve presented the classical music world to them in the same fashion as does Sam, and it has precisely the effect that Philip observes.

These issues are at the core of the fundamental changes that desperately need to take place in order for classical music, and orchestras in particular, to reach its true potential. Patrons need to have access to this aspect of the orchestral world, they need to see the humanity and be allowed to feel like they can relate on a level beyond merely listening.  It’s also at the central theme of an orchestra docent program I’m currently working on with Stirling Newberry, a remarkably bright and perceptive classical music patron.  But I’ll save all of that for a future article.

What’s your opinion?  Do you think learning about the orchestra the way Sam presented in his blog made you more or less interested in orchestras?  Do you agree with Philip’s observations?  Write an email and let me know.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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