An End To Pretentiousness

pretentious.jpgThe Partial Observer published an article of mine yesterday which examines just how entrenched some exclusionary behaviors are in this business. That’s not to say these behaviors are initiated out of malice, but they exist as hurdles when reaching out to a community nevertheless. Take a moment to read the article and weigh in with your opinions: Is classical music to pretentious? Is that perception off base to begin with? Do you have any personal experiences with pretentious behavior inside the world of classical music?

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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7 thoughts on “An End To Pretentiousness”

  1. Drew
    You are right on! If you go one step further, some orchestras (including some that I have been invloved with) will include a document of how you can’t use your tickets when they send out season tickets at the beginning of each season! The exchange and tax write off policies are sometimes longer than the program notes! If I hear applause between movements, I usually acknowledge it, in fact two weekends ago Joyce Yang played two performances of Tchaikovsky 1 with us and on both nights after the 1st movement the audience didn’t just applaud, they stood! She took a bow and the 2nd and 3rd movements were like encores. Guess what, nobody died, nobody complained, she told me that she will never forget those performances and this week we had surge in ticket sales. Whenever I address this issue to anyone, I tell them that if you are sitting next to someone who is moved enough to applaud between movements, don’t give that knowing look of disdain, instead, at the first opportunity shake their hand introduce yourself and simply say, welcome we are so glad that wanted to try the concert experience, because chances are they are new to it, and the last thing we need is for them to be embarrassed and turned off, because then they will probably never return. Applause is never something I encourage or discourage, that way if or when it happens, I know it is genuine. Before the days of recording, most concerts for most people were like an evening of world premieres so applause between movements was commonplace. For the new people attending it is still like an evening of world premieres, and I don’t want that to change because I always want to perform to people who are there for the first time, with the hope that they keep returning…and applauding!

  2. I agree with Ron – I’d much rather have applause between movements than what happened to us at the Oregon Symphony last night. We finished Petrushka and after the last, declamatory chord, there was silence, then a smattering of applause. I don’t think the audience knew it was over, and once they realized it, they didn’t seem to care. I’d have almost preferred boos if they didn’t like it to the tepid applause we got then.

  3. Drew,
    I printed copies of the article and handed it out to my co-workers (telemarketers for the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra). We’re all avid concert-goers, although only a few have a music background. Just about everyone of us will clap when it feels right, even if it’s between movements. I personally like the old rituals, but during a smoking hot performance – like the Sinfonia concertante for violin, viola, and orch. during our recent Mozart Festival, or the Shostakovich piano concerto with Andrew Litton over in Dallas – it would be ridiculous to hold back. BTW, we loved the article and the discussion was a blast…

  4. Is classical music pretentious? As we used to say… Is the pope Catholic? Classical music, it’s musicians and handlers are getting more pretentious all the time. Here (in a town whose orchestra has been in the paper too much of late, for the wrong reasons), a musician proudly announced that his most embarrassing moment on stage was to share the stage with Shirley Jones and Robert Goulet in their Pops series. In addition they look down upon those series which are not “serious” enough and feel they should not be wasting their time playing lighter fare. Besides the fact that these singers are icons of American Musical theater (Miss Jones wasn’t just Mrs. Partridge), how boring is it to just be fed one genre of music for an entire season? Playing Beethoven, Mahler and Brahms all year does not make you better than others. It just means you are employed. The classical world has invented for itself a sort of “caste system” to elevate their own status to feel like the “rich people” they serve. In the real world people still ask if one can make a living being a musician! Is that all you do? they ask. I venture to guess it’s a defensive mechanism due to the fact that the majority of Americans do not care about music that is played over and over and over again for the last 200 years, and they know it. Classical music needs to get the proverbial stick out of it’s you know what!!

  5. I believe that the “rules” of classical music etiquette need to be re-examined and updated. While on one hand, applause between movements when so moved probably should not be discouraged, if we don’t educate our new listeners, they will assume that applauding between movements is to be expected. As a performer, I had the opportunity to sit in the audience for a piece that had a reduced orchestration, and was surprised by the number of listeners who automatically clapped between the first and second movement because they looked around and saw that others were doing so. If we don’t educate the audience, then we will eventually have applause between every movement–which is sometimes inappropriate and can be distracting.

    So, “New Rules”–any suggestions?

  6. I was chatting with a fellow musician about just this issue last week. He made an excellent point by recalling the eras when everyone clapped when they liked something and that only recently have we limited applause to the end of the piece. And, of course at that concert we had much applause between movements. It was ok and it gives the musicians a little more time to swab, empty spit valves, drink water or warm up their instrument. I’m trying to change my attitude about this and see it as a complement, not an indicator of how culturally educated our audience is.

    Where I feel we should be a little pretentious is in our attire, especially for the evening concerts. Let’s be honest, many musicians are pretty scruffy in their day clothes. Some have hairstyles from the 70’s, some think they are running to a gig with ZZ Top next and wear band uniforms at recording sessions and some just need an emergency visit from the Fab 5. One of my friends actually wrote to Oprah and asked her to make over our orchestra, things were looking so bad. A tux or set of tails makes a huge difference and when you dress up for a performance you appear to enjoy or at least respect what you do (besides offsetting the bad hair styles). There has been mention that the tuxes/tails uniform make the orchestra seem unapproachable and pretentious but we’re sitting on a stage! How can that not put us at a distance? Do ballet companies, Broadway shows or acting troupes try an make themselves less pretentious? NO. It’s a performance.

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