Defending the Minnesota Orchestra’s Season Announcement

Greg Sandow has written an article critiquing the current crop of season announcements springing up all over the orchestral world. But although he purports to critique all orchestras generally, nearly all of his criticism is aimed specifically at the Minnesota Orchestra.

Echoing the opening sentence in this piece, I don’t mean to pick on Greg Sandow. Or on anyone. But this article rubs me the wrong way. The irony is that while Sandow sees the Minnesota Orchestra’s press announcement as emblematic of everything wrong in orchestral marketing, I find Sandow’s article emblematic of everything wrong with arts writing in general.

I don’t really speak for the Minnesota Orchestra, but I’d like to make a few observations.

* * *

“I don’t mean to pick on the Minnesota Orchestra.”

It is curious—Sandow sees this as an industry-wide problem, but essentially uses the Minnesota Orchestra as his one and only example of Everything That’s Going Wrong. In this he parallels the case of Drew McManus over at Adaptistration, who has argued repeatedly that the discrepancy in the pay between full-time orchestra players and substitute players is a huge, industry-wide problem… but has focused exclusively on the Minnesota Orchestra (and particularly on its new labor agreement) as the one and only example of Everything That’s Going Wrong.

One wonders if there aren’t any other examples to illustrate these industry-wide failures.

I want to point out that the Minnesota Orchestra is in a unique position. The 16-month labor dispute threw many things into chaos, and while the healing/rebuilding has progressed remarkably, it is very much still going on. I don’t believe that it should get a pass on everything it does, or that it should even be graded on a curve, but it does mean I put things into perspective; the Orchestra’s fundraising, marketing, programming and other such activies are still working themselves out.

The funny thing is that up until recently, the Minnesota Orchestra had been hailed as a shining example of how orchestras recover from hard times—particularly for its efforts to rebuild ties to the community and restore its high level of artistry. Well, I guess the honeymoon is over.

But still, given all that’s happened, isn’t there any other organization in the country that would be a better, cleaner example of what Sandow is talking about?

“Who might read this? Hmm…maybe a media person, someone who doesn’t yet care about classical music, but who’s in a position to give the BSO some publicity? Will this make her care?”

I find it fascinating that an arts writer would simply criticize without making a suggestion about how the marketing copy could be better or providing a positive example of what he envisions. Rather than just saying, “that’s silly,” why doesn’t Sandow—a writer—put his money where his mouth is and rewrite the sentence to show what he thinks is good? I did such things many times when I was criticizing the press coverage of the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute here on my blog. I think that by doing so, Sandow would not only add weight to his argument, but would also be more fair. I mean, having worked in arts marketing for many years, I know that everyone thinks they can do better. Talk is cheap. Show us.

“They’d also, you’d think, be something the programs (or other things the orchestra did) would highlight, maybe by putting music from a theme together on a single program, or on back to back programs. Or by having panel discussions, concerts of related chamber music, whatever.”

This illustrates another danger of arts writing—being so removed from your subject that you don’t know what you’re writing about.

The Minnesota Orchestra does this already. It is doing so now, and will do so in the future.

Mr. Sandow has apparently missed the fact that many times there are chamber concerts immediately following the concerts (usually held in the more intimate Target Atrium), and their material is usually tied to the main performance so that they seem like an epilogue to the concert, or at least a continuation of the concert’s main theme. These have been popular with audience members and musicians alike, as it allows everyone to experience a different type of music than the Orchestra usually performs. They are listed in the Orchestra’ press release… perhaps Sandow overlooked them.

Likewise, there have been panel discussions, such as those with faith leaders around the “Spring and Spirit” concerts. Or with noted Sibelius scholars for the Sibelius concerts. Or with the Artistic Director of the Guthrie Theater for the Shakespeare series.

Also for the Shakespeare-themed concerts, costumed actors in the lobby recreated famous scenes from the plays that inspired the orchestral music.

Being that next season’s concerts are more than a year away, these auxiliary activities are not fully detailed yet—but based on the last year, I’m sure they will be announced with plenty of time for interested audience members to circle the dates in their brightest red, as Sandow archly suggests.

“If you want a spiritual theme that means something, you might program spiritual works that are very different from each other. Messiah, a Haydn mass, the Poulenc Gloria, and Stravinsky’s Canticum Sacrum. And why not Bernstein’s Mass? Five very different kinds of spirituality.”

For me, Sandow’s suggestions for “innovative programming” are a cautionary lesson—what one person finds innovative, another may well believe is trite. While Sandow thinks that the works he suggests are all very different, and suggest five very different kinds of spirituality, I could point out the obvious and state that they are all Christian forms of spirituality, hailing from European traditions. And, most were written in the mid-twentieth century. So how are they diverse? What about Bruch’s Kol Nidre, Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, or some other work that explores Jewish spirituality? Or Holst’s Cloud Messenger or some other work inspired by Hindu sacred texts? Or a piece inspired by Islam… or any of a countless number of non-Christian traditions?  Or a spiritual work not tied to religion at all?

I’d also like to point out that the Minnesota Orchestra just did do such a series—a multi-concert “Spring and Spirit” series that included Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture and other works.

“Or by selling special tickets to hear all five, or by holding discussions. Work with a local chorus, which might sing Palestrina.”

For what its worth, the Minnesota Orchestra did do something like this over the past season, in partnership with the Minnesota Chorale—there was a jointly-produced series that packaged five linked performances together.  I believe there are plans to do so again. I thought the separate brochure the Orchestra produced to promote this series was quite attractive.

Perhaps it’s becoming clear as to why I find Sandow’s article not just condescending, but ill-informed.

“And even the Brandenburgs could be more of a theme. Add concerti grossi by other Baroque composers. Corelli, whoever. Now the dash, the verve, the sheer invention that Bach brought to the form would stand out boldly.”

Sandow’s idea of innovative programming is to pair the Brandeburgs with some other random Baroque concertos? Well… I guess I find that rather obvious, unless I’m missing something. Also, such concerts would bear a close connection to the programming of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra—another fine ensemble just on the other side of the Mississippi.

“I’d guess they were added after the programming was complete, by someone who wanted to make it more interesting than much of it really is.”

Let me point out that the Orchestra’s press release is designed to encourage discussion and questions from the community—to that end, it prominently lists the contact number for the head of public relations on the actual press release. I’m curious as to why Sandow didn’t simply ask, rather than “guess” as he made his conclusions. Again, the whole purpose of this release is to generate chatter. If Sandow had called… someone would have answered him. Plus, he would be able to quote the Orchestra directly about what it was thinking and its rationale, rather than to just tut-tut its efforts without giving it a chance to respond.

Also from this comment, I wonder if Sandow is irritated about the musical selections themselves… or simply the way they’re bundled.  Those are different complaints.

* * *

In the end, let me say that criticizing the Minnesota Orchestra’s new season is fair game. I know some of my readers have taken issue with this or that aspect of it. Perfectly fine.

But this article rubs me the wrong way. Essentially Sandow doesn’t have any direct knowledge of the Orchestra’s season or its various activities, causing him to criticize the Orchestra for not doing things… when they already are doing those things. Also, he is happy to throw bricks, but doesn’t offer (in my estimation) better solutions. I’m curious… what does he want a press release to say?

In the end, this feels like nothing more than a cheap shot.

To your point, Mr. Sandow… yes, I think we can do better.

Xochipilli

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4 thoughts on “Defending the Minnesota Orchestra’s Season Announcement

  1. Sandow could do a lot better as well. Will he? Ah, but I guess one has to pay to get his expertise. And you are so right about things being added as they are fine-tuned. There was a wonderful exhibit by The Museum of Russian Art one weekend during the Russian music month last fall – that wasn’t in the season announcement for obvious reasons.

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  2. Right on, Scott. I usually enjoy Greg’s writing and have had some stimulating give and take with him over the years. This just made NO sense.

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