“Faulty Reasoning”

The 6/12/2010 edition of the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “The Zero Option; Do regional orchestras still make artistic sense?” by renowned culture journalist Terry Teachout. I was planning on writing something about it but instead, I decided it would be better to reprint one of the reader comments to Teachout’s article…

The comment’s author is Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra principal tuba, Craig Knox and is reprinted with his permission.

If a reader is not careful, he may be so distracted by the inaccuracies contained in this column that he will miss entirely the faulty reasoning on which the article is based. While claiming he “is not calling for the disbanding of the Pasadena Symphony or any other regional orchestra”, Terry Teachout does just that, saying he “would dump the [Podunk] orchestra in a heartbeat”. It is hard to take comfort in Mr. Teachout’s assertion that he is a “devout believer in the power and permanence of Western classical music” who is simply trying to help by attempting to “cast new light on an old problem”; with concerned supporters like Mr. Teachout, small orchestras hardly need worry about their sworn enemies.

Teachout begins by brandishing the Knight Foundation’s recommendation that some orchestras may need to “re-examine how they define their constituencies and how they select, package and deliver their musical products”. Somehow, he then “translates” this into a recommendation of “Less Schubert, more ‘Star Wars'”. A cursory examination of the Knight report shows no such absurd simplification. In fact, many of the examples cited in the report are of ensembles (such as the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the New World Symphony) which partner with other arts institutions – such a local art museums – to present topical programs in unusual locations. Luckily, Mr. Teachout would preserve the art museums, so presumably those initiatives will be able to continue.

Teachout then betrays his bias as a drama critic, saying that while the justification for small theater companies is “self-evident”, small orchestras can enjoy no such privilege. He bases this claim soley on the fact that theater companies such as Palm Beach Dramaworks mount “first-class productions of a sophisticated repertory”, including “challenging shows” by Ionesco. “Most” regional orchestras, he says matter-of-factly, offer a “predictable mix of ultrafamiliar classics and soufflé-light pops”. Performances by the local theater, he says, “cannot be duplicated by any other means”, while the familiar classics of the local orchestra can just as easily be heard on iTunes. Thinking about this for more than a few seconds, one wonders if Mr. Teachout has heard of the DVD player (or the VCR before that, or “Masterpiece Theater” before that for god sakes). Why is it that Teachout so glibly replaces live music performance with recordings, but submits as “self-evident” the fact that drama cannot in any way be duplicated outside of the theater? Even accepting Teachout’s theory, however, there is still the matter of the facts. On what does he base the claim that most regional orchestras play unadventurous programs? On the Pasadena Symphony 2010-11 schedule, which he points out contains such tired standards as Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The fact that their season also contains a work by Philip Glass and a concerto for kanun (about as novel a concerto offering as you can get) notwithstanding, the tiniest bit of research would unearth small regional orchestra schedules throughout the country which are rich with performances of “sophisticated” works. A simple google-search reveals that the 2010-11 season of the Santa Rosa Symphony – a similarly-sized organization a few hundred miles to the north of Pasadena – includes works by Berio, Berg and Gubaidulina (all of those every bit as “challenging” as Ionesco), as well as the commission of a world-premiere work by Aubert Lemeland.

I realize that Teachout’s article is a “thought experiment”, but its premise is as poorly thought out and supported as someone asking: given the availability of quality music criticism in, say, the New York Times, do we really need comment on the state of American music from the drama critics of financial papers? The pity is that American classical music institutions – small and large – are indeed challenged in these times and do need to adapt, and there is a need for intelligent and informed discussion.

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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24 thoughts on ““Faulty Reasoning”

  1. No doubt Mr. Teachout’s points ring loud with annoying simplifications to those of us who deal with classical music on a daily basis (and Mr. Knox responds to each point very well), but i see the meaning of it all. He’s obviously calling for a major shift, by orchestras, to performances by living composers.

    In fact, I wonder how a small orchestra, or any orchestra for that matter, would fare if entire seasons were devoted to the music of living composers, such as Golijov or Tan Dun? I honestly can’t predict if these orchestras would ‘go under’, or enjoy a pleasantly unexpected renaissance as a reward for daring artistic commitment?

  2. I don’t know. I think he’s just simplistically calling for a switch to the music of people who will make him seem trendy to anyone who spots him in the audience, only he’s dressing it up to make it seem more deeply reasoned. If he likes it (local theater), it’s hip, cool, and good for your teeth. If he doesn’t (local classical music), it’s square, boring, and will curve your spine. I don’t see much else in his article beyond that.

  3. Even when taking into consideration the high-tech, state-of-the-art innovations of Met Opera HD broadcasts or the Berlin Digital Concert Hall – both fantastic in their own right – there are still major elements missing.

    With the Met broadcasts in a movie theater there is great video coverage – probably better than any seat in the house – and crisp HD sound, yet the smell and sound of munching popcorn does take away from the experience a bit. In general too there is an intangible energy that is somehow missing.

    With the Digital Concert Hall the live experience is very cool, but the dynamic range is very flat. Everything hovers around mezzo-forte – no dynamics ‘pop.’

    This aside, both arenas offer convenient venues that I would otherwise never see.

    I honestly don’t see either of these as a viable replacement for live entertainment, but in our increasingly cocooned society these things are in very high demand and have great popular appeal. Who wants to go downtown, park the car, etc. etc. when one can flip on the computer and just watch?

    Yes, the fidelity and experience is not as good, but for years now we have become accustomed to the lesser quality of MP3s and internet streaming video. People prefer and demand the immediacy of ‘on-demand’ over a high-quality, more superior product.

    It is a growing trend that absolutely cannot be ignored.

    In that regard, I think Teachout makes a tough, but very legitimate point. If given a choice between effort or convenience, people will tend to chose the latter – regardless of quality.

  4. “In that regard, I think Teachout makes a tough, but very legitimate point. If given a choice between effort or convenience, people will tend to chose the latter – regardless of quality.”

    It’s not quite the point he’s making, though. He is all over the inconvenience of live entertainment — when it’s live theater. For some reason, live classical music is the only thing he thinks can be replaced by an mp3 and a car radio.

    The one thing he doesn’t click onto is the way the new media (Internet, etc.) spur a blurring between production and consumption. People don’t just watch — they want to DO because they can see others do it. Crappy Internet video doesn’t replace anything in terms of passive consumption. It spurs active consumption and creation. If anything, it makes MORE people want to make music — and where else are they going to make it but with friends? That’s where the small orchestras came from, not outsiders bringing culture to Podunk, but the Podunkians wanting to do it themselves.

    It’s not a matter of people preferring the convenience of passively consuming something on demand. I’d say that on-demand viewing together with downloadable movies and DVDs/Blu-Ray go a long way to giving people instant gratification together with high quality. But what the crappy streaming video does is allow the audience to get up and make their own. It creates an active audience, and not a passive one. Teachout doesn’t seem to get that — most people don’t.

  5. What a brilliant commentary – rare to find a retort that is both articulate and lol in making mincemeat of an article bent on being provocative. Of course, we also humbly appreciate recognition of our long standing tradition of adventurous programming that has led to community support for 82 years, making us the second oldest professional orchestra in CA.

  6. @Janis – great points all around. Perhaps I read more into Teachout’s article, but along the lines of new media you make some excellent points. That MTT YouTube symphony is an excellent case and point.

  7. I agree with this deft retort to the Teachout travesty. My only quarrel is with the author’s apparent agreement with Teachout’s assumption that, for “regional” orchestras at least, it’s important to play “sophisticated” or “challenging” works. As a non-musician concert-goer, I am of the firm opinion that for many “regional” orchestras (such as our own Honolulu Symphony), the classics of the late 18th and the 19th centuries — including a reasonable dose of the sort of thing Arthur Fiedler used to program with the Boston Pops (e.g., “light” classics, not only Star Wars) — are the road to salvation. The object should be to greatly expand the audience, and with it the donor base, by appealing to people who know little or nothing about classical music, perhaps even think it’s intimidating, but who hear and enjoy it all the time in movies, on radio/TV, in ads, etc. and would really enjoy live performances of such easily accessible fare. Clearly, any effort to expand the audience this way would require imaginative and energetic marketing, but if we want to save our nation’s orchestras, I believe the way to go is through Tchaikovsky, not Schoenberg.

  8. If I’m not mistaken, the numbers from the NEA’s most recent Public Participation in the Arts survey are just as bad for the museums and live theater troupes Teachout prefers over coffee-table books and DVD’s as they are for the orchestras so easily replaced for him by the iPod. This clearly indicates a macro-level shift in societal behavior. It would be far more useful to analyze this trend and propose solutions, rather than assigning blame for supposed wrongdoing. (The dinosaurs didn’t die out because they screwed up.)

    I’d also like to observe that with Beethoven 7, Teachout has made just about the poorest possible choice of an “ultrafamiliar classic” to use as an example of uninteresting programming. As I write, my ears are still ringing from the thunderous ovations that particular warhorse received tonight from a sold-out audience at Symphony Center, in response to a thrilling performance by the Chicago Symphony and Maestro Haitink. The composition made its usual strong case for being the most exciting piece ever written. It may very well be that some music critics, administrators and professional musicians are tired of Beethoven 7 (if so, I hope their souls heal someday), but the people buying tickets and paying the bills are emphatically not.

  9. “It may very well be that some music critics, administrators and professional musicians are tired of Beethoven 7 (if so, I hope their souls heal someday), but the people buying tickets and paying the bills are emphatically not.”

    There’s a big contradiction in the arguments of a lot of the critics and saviors of classical music that your comment illuminates, just in general. They claim to want to make classical music more accessible and relevant to the “ordinary” people, but they want to fix this problem by programming the most esoteric, inaccessible music beloved by the most removed academics. Nagahappin.

  10. Interesting. That made me think of an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry gets put in a position where he has to admit that his position in an argument is influenced by nothing else than whether or not the result is in his best interests. Here’s a clip of that scene. Go to the 2:00 mark for the big revelation.

  11. A redefinition of the word “audience” is I think at the core of the whole dropping attendance problem. (Although everyone has their magic ingredient that would solve the problem.) People nowdays expect to be far more active and participatory in their entertainment. I sure do; I came of age in the era of fanfiction and vidding, and I know women with heads full of grey hair who are even more strongly participatory, so it’s not just the young. It that the entire world (thanks in large part to the net) now expects to reach into their favorite pastimes and play with them in more active ways than any audience has assumed can be done. Fan culture has become more than the preserve of a few science fiction geeks. EVERYONE is now a part of participatory fan culture.

    That’s not a challenge that will be met by keeping to the same “they sit in the chairs and shut up and listen to US” method of delivery, no matter how “cool,” “edgy,” “ethnic,” or “modern” the music being presented is. Mozart is just fine for engaging people, and frankly more people like that music — but the orchestra in question had better find a way to get the audiences asses on stage, and not in a half-assed “little kids waving plastic pipes over their heads” way. They need to take audience creativity seriously as a real resource to be mined.

    What it boils down to is that, if people are just sitting passively and watching someone ELSE do something, it will not be relevant to them — no matter whether it’s Bach or Messaien. Period. The music is not what’s irrelevant; the EXPERIENCE is. When I — whether I’m a tween or a tween’s Star Wars-loving mother — can open Adobe Premiere and make a music vid of my favorite movie, write fiction about my favorite TV show and share it globally, or practice High School Musical dances with my friends in a parking lot … what the hell do I want to sit in a chair and watch someone else do something for? (And again, that is not a youth thing — many of the most participatory fans I know are women in their 60s who invented this stuff.)

  12. The irony is that people like Teachout are the ones who will say, “why do musicians deserve so much money when there are people who would do it for free?”

  13. Sadly, Mr. Teachout has missed one important effect that his writing will have. It may start with small regional orchestras, but in the end his beloved theatre will also be hit. These ideas are what led to the trimming back of high school music and theatre programs. Small orchestras are just the beginning of an effect which will trickle down throughout the arts, and over time slowly erode an already fragile cultural ecosystem. Mr. Teachout’s elitist attitudes will be his undoing.

    Even if the Pasadena orchestra does not perform at the same level as the Los Angeles Phil they do offer something for local residents who cannot afford LA Phil. ticket prices, or are not geographically able to go. That is why they are called regional orchestras, they serve a region.

  14. “They need to take audience creativity seriously as a real resource to be mined”

    That’s a nice bromide, but it’s utterly meaningless and I note that you don’t actually propose what form that should take, just that it should be. What are those people you exhort to be on stage supposed to do? If they do more than stand stock still and make not so much as a peep, then they are utterly irrelevant to the performance.

    I feel very strongly about this: I should NEVER be aware that there are other audience members around me *while the music is playing*. The reason is simple: so much of the orchestral literature contains wide dynamic contrasts and it drives me crazy that people always seem to wait until it’s a solo flute part to cough loudly or open their candy wrapper or, worst of all, decide that that’s the perfect time to tell their neighbor about their work day. That has happened more than I care to remember, by the way.

    Going to a symphony orchestra concert is NOT an interactive experience and it never will be, it simply isn’t built for it, thank FSM.

    “what the hell do I want to sit in a chair and watch someone else do something for?”

    Ugh, the Me Me Me Me culture in a nutshell. Tell me, do you watch TV *at all*? Go to a movie theater *at all*? A play? A lecture? Because if you do, your point is invalid, you’re just parading your bias like Mr. Teachout’s theater bias.

    The snide reason, of course, is that your video or story or dancing is probably crap and there’s far too much of that already to wade through without you adding to it, but the not-snide reason is that none of those things can duplicate the visceral thrill of watching and hearing a large orchestra and chorus of human beings meld in to one organic whole as they pour their hearts out at the end of the “Gurrelieder” or a Mahler symphony, just to name two examples.

  15. It’s been done. The BSO Rusty Musician thing is one great example. Other orchestras (Berlin in NY a while back) had dancers from area schools on stage, and not the super-spceialized performing arts schools, either.

    Anything but orchestra is crap? Anyone interested in a more participatory experience with an orchestra is crap? Dude, I’m not here to worship anyone, and if that’s what some orchestras want, then they belong on the scrap heap of history.

  16. “Anything but orchestra is crap?”

    No, I wrote that *your* video/writing/dancing is probably crap, just as I’d say *my* home-studio attempts at Beatles/Byrds/REM jangly guitar rock are crap, just like most art at any level is crap, utterly forgettable.

    It would be impossible for me to care less whether you or anyone else likes orchestral music or the orchestra-going experience, but to rail against what it has been since at least the time of Mahler (Wagner, really) and always *fundamentally* will be –an audience sitting quietly in a purpose-built space while the orchestra plays– seems futile and more than a little delusional. The stuff you mention is just marketing fluff.

    The Rusty Musicians project sounds very interesting, but that’s a specialized portion of the audience, what does that have to do with the other 99.9% of the audience? They’re still just –wait for it– sitting there quietly watching other people play.

    That’s great that those kids got to dance “The Rite of Spring” with the BPO accompanying. And? They’re not going to be on stage dancing to the Rachmaninov 3rd piano concerto or “The Planets” or the Brahms 4th or any other non-dance piece.

    Those are stunts, one-offs, they simply wouldn’t work for a typical concert. There’s always a vague sense of desperation about them for me, and also cynicism because I’m pretty certain that the BPO doesn’t *really* give a damn about those kids future dance careers, just whether they’re going to buy expensive subscription packages when they’re 40.

    “Anyone interested in a more participatory experience with an orchestra is crap?”

    No, they’re simply looking in the wrong place for such an experience, it isn’t the local planetarium or Museum of Natural History that specializes in such things. I’d dearly love to pitch at Anaheim Stadium for the Angels, but that’s not going to happen either.

    I simply don’t get the Boomer/post-Boomer obsession with being the center of the universe in every experience. (I’m 50 btw). I’m also really baffled as to why orchestras are held to a different standard than sports, plays, movies or caged ultimate fighting, to use a few examples.

    Why is an orchestra expected to be “participatory” when it blatantly is not built for it but any sports fan I’ve ever met would look at you like you were clinically insane if you proposed that the Colts starting quarterback job be that way? Terry Teachout would give birth to kittens before he’d approve of me, a 50 year-old office manager with no stage experience whatsoever, getting up on stage and attempting Hamlet at Yale Rep, and rightly so.

    Why is it that people have no problem just sitting there watching a tennis match at Wimbledon –Isner v. Mahut, wow– while being quiet while the ball is in play or sitting there quietly at a play or a movie but the very idea of doing so at Carnegie Hall is so freakin’ horrifying?

    Fine, you can cheer and clap and chant at a ballgame but that’s still passive spectatorship and wholly inappropriate for listening to classical music. Are you proposing more “participation” at plays and sports and movies? How on earth would that be accomplished?

    “Dude, I’m not here to worship anyone, and if that’s what some orchestras want, then they belong on the scrap heap of history”

    Says you, comrade Trotsky. Who’s asking you to worship anyone? That’s *your* perception of what’s being asked of you as an audience member, *your* own issues. I don’t worship anyone except my Dad and I certainly don’t worship arts organizations or conductors or whoever.

    How about just appreciating the skill a virtuoso piano pianist playing the Grieg Concerto exhibits? How about appreciating someone like Pierre Boulez conducting Debussy in a way as to make the music sound brand new?

    All any classical musician I’ve ever met wants is for people to be quiet and attentive: not fidget like a 4 year-old, not talk or go through their purse/coat pockets looking for a cough drop while the music is playing, to not loudly rustle the pages of their program that they somehow insist on reading during the music and to really listen, not just hear, but *really listen* to what they’re doing and if you like what they’ve done, show your appreciation once the conductor lowers their baton.

    Apparently, that’s simply beyond the pale for some people.

  17. “Hey folks, this is a good discussion but keep the tone civil”

    It was the “Comrade Trotsky” jibe, wasn’t it? 🙂

    My point has two parts and is simple. I’d like Janis or anyone else to explain

    a) how a symphony orchestra can be “participatory” WITHOUT one-off stunts like children dancing to Stravinsky, which is specific to that piece anyway, does not translate to the vast majority of the repertoire and still mostly involves people sitting quietly listening/watching

    and

    b) why the double standard that the symphony be “participatory” and “interactive” when no such requests are made of Broadway musicals, serious plays, tennis matches or any number of things?

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