Not So Much Critical Fun This Time Around

Well, the folks at Planet Jackson Hole published the final two articles they contracted me to write while I’m staying in Jackson Hole. The first article they printed only had minor editorial changes but these two recent articles are only sketches of what was originally submitted (but for some reason they put my name on them). It’s too bad because the originals were much better than what they eventually published. In the interest of sharing what should have been published here are both of the original works.

Concert Review
Why on earth would you want to attend the same concert twice? In order to figure out the answer I attended both performances of the GTMF concerts on July 8 & 9 featuring conductor and Music Advisor Peter Oundjian. The program consisted of Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, Martinu’s Symphony No. 6, and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.

Both evenings started off by attending the preconcert chat delivered by GTMF trombonist, Roger Oyster. Roger is an engaging personality and did a wonderful job building a link between the evening’s music and the 40 patrons who attended the talk each evening. In order to build a sense of anticipation and familiarity with the Martinu, a piece which no one was familiar with, he employed a very creative mechanism; he fed them. In particular, Roger offered everyone a homemade serving of panna cotta, a creamy Italian dessert which Roger described as being “familiar but different”, which is exactly how he said everyone would interpret the Martinu. The preconcert crowd ate it up, literally and figuratively.

Although the preconcert chat was similar both evenings, the concert itself was quite different. Saturday’s performance was filled with much more energy and the orchestra played with greater precision. In many instances, there were enough differences between the performances you could almost believe they had performed different selections.

For example, Friday’s performance had some uneasiness between sections; some of the syncopated rhythms between the string sections didn’t sound comfortable. However, some of the same passages were played with much more confidence and precision on Saturday.

Another big difference was how well the audience received the unknown work on the program, Martinu’s 6th Symphony. After Saturday’s enthusiastic performance, the crowd responded with a great deal of applause and standing ovations, whereas after Friday’s lackluster performance the audience’s response was lackluster. Part of that difference may have been due to the fact that the attendance to Friday’s performance was much smaller than on Saturday. Furthermore, Oundjian took the time to share his insights with the Martinu before Saturday’s performance but Friday’s performance featured no such luxury.

The orchestra continues to deliver some of the most expressive and powerful wind and brass playing of any summer festival orchestra, their performance in both the Martinu and the Berlioz was top notch. Although I prefer a different interpretation for the Berlioz, the audience’s response was passionate both evenings. My only disappointment was that the conductor passed over several members of the woodwinds, especially the clarinets, for solo acknowledgement after the Berlioz at each performance.

I did feel that the orchestra was not playing up to its full potential. Nevertheless, the amount of improvement between these two concerts indicates that the ensemble will certainly be delivering its world class product throughout the remainder of the season.

Was the concert worth attending twice? Absolutely, listening to my Eric Clapton recordings is as enjoyable as attending multiple performances of the same concert. However, the “unknown” element intertwined with live performances always provides for a unique and exciting results.

Concert Preview
“Why bother going to classical music concerts? They just play the same old tired music over and over again.”

If you’re a classical music enthusiast and simply looked at the program for the GTMF concerts on July 15 & 16 (both begin at 8:00pm in Walk Festival Hall, Teton Village), you might think the same thing; Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration, Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C Major, and Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Each of these selections is a chestnut in the orchestral repertoire, a real war horse, and is subject to uninspired, mechanical performances.

In my capacity as a classical musician and arts management consultant I hear these sorts of questions and concerns from existing and potential patrons across the country all the time. They all dance around a central theme; is classical music relevant in today’s society.

The upcoming concerts featuring conductor Donald Runnicles and cellist Lynn Harrell aren’t immune to that same type of scrutiny; why bother? Depending on whether or not you already participate in live orchestral music, the answer is different.

The experienced classical music enthusiast usually decides whether or not to attend based on what the orchestra is playing and if they like the featured performers.

In the case of Lynn Harrell he’s a cellist’s cellist; he’s certainly been around the block a few times and knows more ways to establish a personal connection with each individual in the audience through his music than most people even know exist. Although the Haydn Cello Concerto is a such a well worn outfit in the closet of orchestral repertoire (I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard it) I can guarantee that after Lynn’s performance you’ll want to hear him play it all over again; he wears the piece like it’s a new suit each and every time.

That concept leads right into Strauss’ Death and Transfigurations. This work is a compelling piece of music about reflection which is loaded with intense passion, think of it like a combination between a big-budget-special-effects-laden Spielberg film and a gripping real life story such as the events of 9/11. Bring a pair of binoculars to the concert and watch the musicians, you’ll see something undeniable in their faces.

Fortunately, conductor Donald Runnicles is a musician with fervent beliefs and will be an excellent interpreter through this piece. He maintains a singular position among his contemporaries, he is the conductor for the three distinct mediums of classical music ensembles; he’s the principal guest conductor for the Atlanta Symphony (a major symphonic orchestra), the principal conductor for Orchestra of St. Luke’s (a shining example of what a chamber orchestra should be), and the music director for the San Francisco Opera (one of the premier opera companies in the world).

Elgar’s Enigma Variations maintains a special place in classical music repertoire. It’s a piece of music about friends as they are seen through the eyes of the composer and it’s a wonderfully suited selection for Jackson Hole. Although most people already know the GTMF orchestra is comprised of the finest musicians across the they may not know that most of them have forged very strong friendships which began right here in Jackson Hole.

For some musicians, coming to Jackson Hole is much more than just a summer job to get out of the city. It’s a place where they can create great music in the company of colleagues who are also friends. In a way, they perform the Enigma Variations at each and every concert; they create music filtered through the varying artistic souls of their friends on stage and throughout the audience.

But what about all the classical music newbies out there? I see you scratching your head and wondering why you’ve bothered to read so much of this concert preview. You still don’t know why classical music should be relevant enough to make you want to attend one of these concerts. The best advice I can offer is go with friends or family; try to find someone to help build a bridge to the event and offer some sort of connection. Although the music is experienced individually it’s enhanced in the company of friends.

The wonderful aspect of classical music is there is no single way to experience it. Is classical music different than other forms of music? Of course it is, but that doesn’t mean you can’t discover it has a wonderful connection to your life on a multitude of levels.

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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