TAFTO 2008 Contribution: Charles T. Downey

Tafto2008authorgraphicdoCharles T. Downey has become a fixture of Washington D.C. based culture and music and rightly so as he’s plugged into just about every aspect of a major metropolitan area’s classical music scene. As moderator of ionarts.org, Charles is a major figure on the new media front but he also has a hand in traditional media as well. Add to that active work on the academic scene as a teacher of music and art history and work as a professional pianist, organist, and choral singer and you have the makings for one well-rounded cultural figurehead. Charles’ TAFTO contribution touches on a number of points that are near and dear to my cultural conscious and I’m certain you’ll enjoy what he has to say…


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Half of my job as a teacher is simply to put young ears and eyes in contact with classical music and art. In my experience, if you can do that with a modicum of knowledge and enthusiasm about the subject and then just get out of the way, the aesthetic experience does the work of conversion in most cases. Although the background can be handled in a classroom or in a conversation with a friend, the real magic has to happen live, with the visual sparkle of paint on canvas or the crackle of musicians in unified attack in the concert hall.

Taking a Friend to the Orchestra is not much different, and anyone who loves classical music and wants to continue attending concerts by a local symphony orchestra needs to evangelize. As a reviewer, I attend concerts with lots of friends and family, but I do set aside some time to take people along who have never been to a concert. In fact, I have done this before in a more public way, inviting a non-music blogger for a "ride-along" review, and in both cases the only hard part was making it work with another person’s busy schedule. Allow yourself some time, choose a concert that is not too esoteric but — and this is important — of very high quality, and then just let the experience unfold.

It is surprising that people can live in a city like Washington, D.C., and never have visited the Kennedy Center or another concert venue. People are far more likely to have missed out on classical music than on museums or other cultural fare. One of my own editors, a cultured and intelligent person, went to the Kennedy Center for the first time when I took her to hear Yo-Yo Ma. That brings me to my first point of advice: if possible, choose a concert with a performer a novice may actually know. No one is likely to turn down the chance to hear Yo-Yo Ma or Joshua Bell, and chances are that one will be predisposed to enjoy the experience if it seems at least a little familiar.

The second point of advice is, as mentioned above, to choose something of very high quality. Nothing against minor symphonic ensembles or community orchestras, but if you have only one chance to convince a person that Italian food is worthwhile, you would not take him to a lesser restaurant. Stack the deck in your favor, and present your friend with a real delicacy. Last April, in honor of TAFTO 2007, I co-authored a review of the truly extraordinary Australian Chamber Orchestra with a sports writer. His comments about the experience provide the template of what to watch for.

First, take into consideration your friend’s busy schedule when you choose the time of your concert: we went on a Friday night, and he was exhausted. Similarly, I recently attended an opera with a friend whose work day had not really ended when he rushed to the theater to meet me on a Wednesday night. He spent the first intermission on a conference call. Little wonder that audiences are predominantly gray-haired: retirees have less hectic schedules.

Second, your friend does not need much specialized discussion of what she is about to hear. In fact, somewhere in the back of his mind may be a certain discomfort or fear of unfamiliar territory. At a recent National Symphony Orchestra concert, to which I took a relative neophyte, the main feature of the program was Mahler’s sixth symphony. Without giving a long lecture, I simply explained that the big table at one side of the orchestra was where a percussionist was going to wallop the surface with an enormous sledgehammer. She looked really surprised but did not ask any more questions: when we got to the hammer-blows, she looked like she was about to jump out of her skin with excitement.

If you point out one thing about the piece, your friend may want to know more and could ask you questions. Just watch for that glazed look in her eyes: that is when to stop talking. She should not be overwhelmed before the music starts. Afterward, find a place to take your friend for a celebratory drink of his choice. That is where you can share your impressions and find out what each other liked and did not like, and make plans for the next concert. Don’t expect a miracle, because you are unlikely to create a new subscriber in one night’s worth of music. You will have opened up a possibility in your friend’s mind, however, and hopefully at least dispelled some worries and misconceptions about what symphony orchestras do and how easy it is to enjoy them.

– Charles T. Downey

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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 2008 Contribution: Charles T. Downey”

  1. Thanks for this. I have to disagree mildly about two points. First of all, it’s a wonderfully romantic notion that the “real magic” has to “happen live,” but my experience tells me otherwise. Growing up in a part of the country without access to much of a concert life, I experienced a lot of real magic via LPs. Listening to them is pretty much what got me into this life. Of course, there is something distinctively wonderful about live performance; I try to get live performers into my classes as much as possible. Still, recordings can be magical.

    I also am less convinced that the experience must be of the “very high quality” that you describe – that’s not to say that quality isn’t important, but the international stature thing is overrated. Of course, high quality doesn’t hurt, but I’ve had magical experiences hearing performances at a variety of levels. A while back, I heard the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra’s second-tier orchestra play Dvorak 8 and it was thrilling, in part because of the youth and enthusiasm of the performers. I recently heard someone raving about a community orchestra’s Beethoven 9. Frankly, there are some elements that define high quality which are more important to connoisseurs than to less experienced listeners, but connoisseurship can also be intimidating to the uninitiated; there’s every reason to learn to want the best, but the best music is often more durable than we give it credit for. No one should be subjected to disinterested or incompetent performers, so quality is important in that respect, but I also had some pivotal musical experiences years ago listening to the South Arkansas Symphony Orchestra perform, and they would likely not fit your definition of “very high quality.” (They certainly wouldn’t fit my definition, since they actually accepted me into their cello section and I was never much of a cellist!)

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