The Programmatic Lightness Of Being

It’s funny how the pandemic can make old conversation new again when viewed through the lens of hyper pragmaticism. The whole traditional vs. contemporary programming debate is a good example.

Recently, the New York Times published an interview with cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, who jointly run the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. In a nutshell, the couple makes it clear that traditional repertoire has more than enough artistic diversity to last a lifetime so there’s next to no need for programming works by contemporary composers. While I could pull a dozen quotes to analyze, this one captures much of the larger discussion.

“There is more variety and diversity in a single string quartet of Haydn,” Finckel said, “than you can find in about a hundred works of other composers.”

Let that sink in for a moment.

What seems different this time around from similar proclamations over the past three decades was the amount and depth of blowback.

Joshua Kosman wrote a fabulous response in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Finckel is like the proprietor of a hamburger joint that claims to offer a broad and varied menu because you can get a hamburger with ketchup or with mustard, or with ketchup and mustard, and with onions either on top or on the side. At some point you have to consider that there might be other things in the world than hamburgers.

Flip over to Twitter and you’ll find a bevy of articulate responses (be sure to go through the comment threads).

If nothing else, there’s a genuine opportunity for the field and its stakeholders to step out of the corner it painted itself into when it comes to programming. There’s never been a more affordable opportunity than we have today to correct racial and gender diversity while building healthier long-term relationships with a much broader audience base.

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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