Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Musical Theater

Those readers who have followed this blog for a while may remember my initial excitement, or sense of curiosity, about the Berlin Philharmonic's decision to make their concerts available to all via the Internet. Behind this obviously were the high-definition broadcasts of Metropolitan Opera to movie theaters worldwide. Against many skeptical opinions they turned out to be a successful venture as far as audiences' interest was concerned, although I don't know if the financial picture has been equally rosy.

An orchestral experience is quite different from an opera with its scenery and acting, even if the latter has left a lot to be desired. A gigantic soprano hardly resembles a gazelle, after all. The French, who always have possessed an eye for beauty, solved this problem by inserting attractive ballet numbers in the midst of singing. So far an orchestra concert has been a rather boring affair visually. A listener can bring a pair of binoculars but normally sees a frumpy and grumpy looking group on stage. Without such optical aid, an eagle-like vision is not common with seniors who form a bulk of an audience.

With televised concerts people have seen more than enough close-ups of certain principal players and the good-looking section players who fill the role of eye-candy. I'm not sure if this benefits the music which can be most enjoyable even if unseen, the case with recordings and radio broadcasts. All the concerts of the Berlin group I observed made me all too aware of which musicians took playing seriously and which ones preferred to fake. Too many close-ups made it difficult to pay attention to the music itself. This is the difference between a book and a movie: the former is captivating and the reader admires the author's clever and skillful choice of words. The film may follow the book closely but we really walk away remembering the plot, visual effects and faces of the actors but little else. A so-so book may be a box-office success; a television show is likely to be a hit if the script is dumb. In music the best-selling violinist is André Rieu, based on his successful specials on television and shows on large stages à la the Three Tenors. These performances in turn are popular to a great degree thanks to the attractive young ladies in his orchestra. Is he the best fiddler around? Hardly, but he produces a heck of a show. Music itself becomes secondary again.

So, I lost interest in Berlin's broadcasts, at least as a season subscriber. But of course I wouldn't get a season ticket to hear any orchestra or opera, or watch every play a theater decides to offer. A ballet would interest me only occasionally. In Berlin's case I was also bothered by the rotation of principals. The orchestra never informed potential listeners who would be playing the flute or which one of the many concertmasters would be on stage. Take my word: they may all play adequately but naturally some are better than others. Seniority also enters into the picture, just like it does in education. Sometimes best classes are given by young and enthusiastic adjuncts, whereas lectures by burnt-out professors, anxiously awaiting their retirement, can be boring and dreaded by students.

It is no secret that these are trying economic times for many people, and the arts are certainly not immune to this. Actually the downward spiral for classical music has been occuring for a long time and is unrelated to economics. When recitals became unfashionable decades ago, it caused no big fuss. Who cared if a violinist or pianist worked his tail off and had just a handful of listeners in the audience? I remember a Finnish singer, who at some point was a Wagnerian soprano in demand at the Met, having had to cancel her voice recital in a town in her homeland because only four tickets had been sold in advance, and this was a long time ago. Now that big organizations, orchestras, opera and ballet companies and theaters are in trouble, the press and other media are reacting. Expenses have skyrocketed and incomes plummeted, a bad mix. Much of the blame lies on unsustainable contracts, diminished giving and above all, fancy new venues. The latter is not unique to the arts: today's New York Times has an article about huge public debt from sports stadiums that no longer exist. Here in Seattle, the Kingdome, at one time home for three professional sports teams, was demolished ten years ago but still has a debt burden of $83 million which has to be paid back in 2016.

Orchestras which are staying in their true and trusted auditoriums are generally much better off than their counterparts in new structures. Thus the Boston Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra have an advantage to, let's say, the Philadelphia Orchestra which has seen an audience dwindle with their move to the Kimmel Hall, although the new building was supposed to do the opposite. Other orchestras in a similar situation initially saw an increase in attendance but a decade later a "been-there-seen-that" attitude has taken hold, especially if the hall is acoustically inferior. Typically when a new concert hall opens, the media praises it to high heavens and the problems that should have been obvious, surface much later. This is not much different from a doomed marriage: couples can find no fault in each other in the beginning but later wonder if they had a screw loose when they decided to get hitched.

The Philadelphia group is in a financial pickle, although not in as deep doo-doo as Detroit. During Eugene Ormandy's long tenure their sound was legendary, which today seems humorous since they used to perform in an "inferior" Academy of Music for a whole century. Counting on this reputation they have decided to market themselves, in the style of the Met, in movie theaters across the country. This could be a gross miscalculation. They have to guarantee a minimum to the theaters which may or may not have a sizable number of people attending. If the model proves successful (the Berlin Philharmoniker is expanding the web series to theaters as well), other orchestras will no doubt follow. To an ordinary listener all decent orchestras sound pretty much the same and competition then would be won by the group with the most attractive musicians making the most appealing "moves" during close-ups. I think this all is a ploy to claim that the number of the groups' listeners has grown exponentially. This figure might be useful when raising funds but, in my humble opinion, will not produce a large increase in income. The worst result from Philadelphia's and Berlin's success would be a decrease in attending performances of a local orchestra and resulting slow and painful death.

I'll continue to listen to music at home. I don't have to see Heifetz live (it is far too late for that) to enjoy his amazing performances of such concertos as Conus and Glazounov. None of today's glamorous babes or handsome young dudes is able to approach that level of fiddling, although seeing them twenty times larger than life on a screen might do the trick for some. Too bad the mandatory world premiere is like a preview in the theater; at home I can listen to exactly what I want.

André Rieu in South Africa