TAFTO 2007 Contribution – James W. Palermo

Take A Friend To Orchestra is all about finding ways to help people who enjoy classical music share the event with friends. And having spent my first summer living in Chicago and taking advantage of the Grant Park Music Festival, I can safely say that there isn’t a combination of location, ensemble, atmosphere, and price that is better suited for introducing friends to orchestra concerts. After all, how can you beat an entire summer of a world class orchestra performing in a Frank Gehry designed venue with views of Lake Michigan in the heart of downtown Chicago all free of charge?

The entire GPMF enterprise does what they do so well, they make it look easy. As such, it should come as no surprise that GPMF General Director James Palermo’s contribution is the ideal piece to launch TAFTO, 2007. Enjoy…

By: James W. Palermo

A few years ago it dawned on me that I was becoming apologetic about working in the arts. “Stuffy”, “out of touch”, “elitist”, you all know the claims. We hear them so often we can actually start to believe them. In our anti intellectual, populist society, the arts aren’t only marginalized, but really don’t exist at all for many people.

Then I read a quote attributed to the great soprano Leontyne Price about the value of the arts. I’ll never forget it:

“We should not have a tin cup out for something as important as the arts in this country, the richest in the world. Creative artists are always begging, but always being used when it’s time to show us at our best.”

When a President dies, at the funeral we feature the hottest opera star singing Amazing Grace. When the media wants to associate something with class or value, it invariably uses baroque or classical era music. If a marketer wants to conjure up grandeur or power, it’s Verdi’s Anvil Chorus or Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries.

So, I vowed to stop apologizing for loving and understanding classical music. Whenever I hear negative comments from friends or colleagues, I remind them that the music is enjoyable, revelatory and full of great things for anyone who is open enough to experience it without prejudice, regardless of social class or race.

I work for the most unusual organization of its kind in the United States – a free, municipally supported professional orchestra and chorus festival. As tough as it can be to make this kind of classical music hybrid function well, the payoff is extraordinary for the public. High quality music with no barriers, financial or otherwise — an ideal “point of entry” for anyone who’s never been to a symphony concert, and hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans can thank their City leadership for doing just that through the Grant Park Music Festival experience.

Many, many people have approached me over the years, relaying stories of their first exposure to classical music as a child at a Grant Park Music Festival concert, running around the lawn as their parents lounged on the grass. One couple came here on dates during medical school, because the price was right, and for 30 years since, they and their daughters have been regular concerts goers. Others come because it is close to home, but all come because of the music and the experience.

At the risk of sounding self-serving, I’ll use my organization as an example for Take a Friend to Orchestra, not only because of what I just said but because the experience of hearing great music in a barrier free, outdoor setting is magical, and that’s what people want – magic.

People want to be moved – moved by great music. It can transport us away from the here and now; it can exalt us. That’s why hearing music in a magnificent outdoor setting like Millennium Park with the cityscape in full view is indescribable.

People also want to be comfortable. We’ve heard of 18th and 19th century opera performances where people played cards in the box seats, eating sandwiches but paying special attention when a good aria came along.

I wonder, if our concert halls were equipped with comfortable stadium style seating and vendors walking the aisles selling food and drink, would we be any closer to connecting with a larger public?

When did classical music become so “precious?”

I don’t think people really have changed that much in the 200 years since and figure if we could make the concert experience a little less daunting and a little more inviting, the music would stand on its own.

After issuing an invitation, I’d ask my guests to meet me on the lawn early for a picnic. An hour or so of conversation before the music started would afford the opportunity to chat about what they’d be hearing. No musicological lectures here, just some fun, interesting anecdotes to help the music come alive.

I’m always surprised by what people who don’t normally go to concerts ask: Who is the guy standing in front of the orchestra before the conductor comes out? Why do they tune? How do I know when the concert is over? What should I wear? Why do the women bring purses on stage and keep them under their chairs?

It’s eye opening but also a perfect illustration of how some intelligent people are uninformed about what we do. People observe but don’t always know why things happen the way they do, so concentrating on the basics and allowing people a “safe space” in which to listen is key.

Some prefer to stay on the lawn while others like to take a seat up front, close to the action. Whatever they prefer is OK with me, since our super sonic digital sound system will deliver a premium product wherever they land.

A new attendee can expect fewer rules, no dress code (believe me, I’ve seen everything from shirtless street people to transvestites “dressed to the nines”), and a relaxed atmosphere that allows one to sample as they please. I often say that people sometimes “graze” at our concerts, moving in and out of the audience area depending on their schedules and level of interest. Not having a ticket gate gives people a sense of freedom and ease about attending concerts.

I don’t think anyone attending a classical concert for the first time needs to think about interpreting the music, thinking critically or really doing anything but enjoying the sounds washing over them. Many new attendees feel ignorant and inhibited in one way or another, so I’d just ask them what they did or didn’t like. I’d keep it simple and validate their right to have feelings, whatever they are.

People also make up their minds about coming back based on that initial sense of enjoyment, so for a first timer, I’d make sure their introduction to classical music promised a large dose of plain old fun. The program would have to be either something with immediate musical appeal or have some sort of social significance.

Thematic programs often allow people to grasp a concept that ties to the music, and if the music is enjoyable, can help them connect emotionally to the experience. A pair of Festival performances that immediately comes to mind included works by John Corigliano and Leonard Bernstein, closing with John Adams’ moving tribute to those who perished on 9/11, On the Transmigration of Souls. Watching 20,000 people over two nights reacting so positively and emotionally to contemporary American music was thrilling.

I love the standard repertory that doesn’t always find its way onto our concert series’ these days, considered by some to be old fashioned. You know what I mean, great old gems like Von Suppe overtures, Tchaikovsky’s March Slave, D’Indy’s Symphony on a French Mountain Air, etc. It’s amazing how many conductors are reticent to program this repertory, with so many people having been weaned on it over the years. I wonder if they think people won’t take them seriously.

Needless to say, orchestras love this stuff because it’s colorful, fun to play and really gets audiences going. So, I would create a program of old time favorites, like those mentioned above, naming it Take a Friend to the Orchestra. Lots of great music, none of it too long, featuring all the sections of the orchestra, and especially the tunes we all know and love. I’d market it to people who have never attended a classical concert, and invite those who do already come to…Take a Friend to the Orchestra.

You know, I think we’re onto something. Look for it summer 2008 in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Maybe all of the TAFTO contributors and their newly converted friends can join us in the park that night. I’ll be on the lawn with my chums. Just look for the large group picnicking and listening rapturously.

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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3 thoughts on “TAFTO 2007 Contribution – James W. Palermo”

  1. Is anybody out there old enough to remember the band shells located on the town square where, during the warmer months, one could hear band concerts? I grew up with this experience, both in the center of the town on the town square, and at the zoo(!). The zoo band featured a soprano, daughter of the conductor, and my sister and I had great fun imitating her by stuffing pillows under our dresses and singing, “Summertime.” We made fun of it all, but we loved the experience, and it was something which people not tuned into orchestra performance could enjoy in a non-threatening environment.
    In later years, the symphony performed on a barge in the river so that people could sit on the river bank to listen. But, then, of course, we still had music education for ALL children in the public schools.

  2. While I must not be /that/ old (or my memory is gone — either way, I don’t recall those band concerts :-), I do like the idea. The local symphony where I live usually has a Fourth of July concert. The past few years, it has been at the local Navy base. Families can tour ships, play on the large, grassy fields, and enjoy food during the day, and they can sit on the grass, listen to the orchestra, and watch the fireworks at night (as well as enjoying more food). It sounds a lot like what you describe. I’m sure they get some (maybe many) in the audience who aren’t season ticket buyers.

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