The Best Reality T.V.Is In San Francisco

Along with several dozen other writers today, my topic will focus on the PBS special “Keeping Score”.  I had seriously considered skipping over the show as a topic but decided against it it was too good to pass over.

Unfortunately, I missed a little bit of the first part but what I saw was absolutely fantastic.  Why this isn’t on one of the three commercial networks is beyond me, it certainly should be.  The musicians of the San Francisco Symphony should be proud of what this show achieves.

I’ll get my one and only gripe out of the way first, I thought the one-on-one scenes with MTT where he talks about portions of the Tchaikovsky came across sounding somewhat condescending.  But that’s a very minor point in an otherwise fantastic production.

Since you’ll undoubtedly find a vast array of detailed articles about the program elsewhere, I’m going to skip right to my conclusions.  Here’s what was really important about the program:

  1. The program relied entirely on the music to send the message to the audience.  They didn’t mix it with math, science, or some other sort of connection in order to deliver the message that classical music is special.  Classical music sells itself, end of story.
  2. The program featured the individual musicians explaining what it is they do in Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony.  I noticed that in all of the “in-hall” family concert shots it appeared that the players were talking to the audience more than MTT.  That made it personal and special for everyone in the hall.
  3. The program included some of the non artistic staff, such as the stage manager.  This gave you a look at the bigger picture that is a symphony orchestra.
  4. The program gave you a wonderful behind the scenes look into the off stage artistic life of the players.  Seeing what it takes and hearing from them about their anxieties and concerns was a wonderful addition to the program.  It added the humanity to the music that most patrons often don’t realize.

The more I go over the program in my head the more I feel that this was really the type of top notch educational program that’s been lacking since Bernstein.  But then I hope this template doesn’t suffer the same fate as Bernstein’s no one else will utilize it. 

Pride and prejudice among artistic and administrative leaders often prevent many other ensembles from copying a quality artistic product that works.  But I hope that’s not going to be the case here; history doesn’t have to repeat itself.  If every orchestra across the country put on one show similar to this each season they would do more for developing an audience than they have in the past decade.

I’ll finish up with a few of my personal observations about the program and what I came away with after watching it:

  1. More than ever before I believe that scaling the price of tickets in concert halls is one of the most counter productive practices in the industry.  Each new camera angle showed me something unique and wonderful from a particular point of view that I would never see if I sat in a seat opposite that of the camera. But why should I as a patron have to pay more or less to obtain that experience if I want to sit in a different seat?  Each view was equally unique and special in its own way. It’s all a bunch of nonsense for orchestra administrators to artificially force people into believing that one seat is better than another.  What a waste, and on so many different levels.
  2. You can’t play a great piece of music like Tchaikovsky 4th in a small hall and make it work.
  3. I noticed the little things that went on behind the stage which demonstrate real professionalism, like the way the players were called to stage.  No one was running around outside the dressing rooms shouting “15 minuets”, they were using an intercom to gently remind the players of how much time they had remaining to move onstage (even using the word “please”).  No breaking anyone’s concentration or mental preparation, no sense of herding cattle, and all of those little things add up to a better performance.
  4. I kept wondering what the program would have been like with David Zinman in place of MTT the man is the orchestral version of “The Great Communicator” and I would have really liked to see how he would have done it.  Besides my small criticism above, I liked MTT in the program, but I just kept wondering .
  5. The San Francisco symphony has some really cool looking music stands.
  6. If I were in that orchestra, I would feel like I owned that program and that piece of music.  It wasn’t about MTT (although his name is in the title for god knows whatever reason) and I was glad to see it presented that way.
  7. As a viewer I enjoyed having the piece broken into easily digestible pieces that made eating the entire meal more enjoyable.
Did you watch the program?  If so, what did you see?  Send in an email and share your observations.


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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