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Ivan Katz Headshot

An Outbreak of Idiocy at the Kimmel Center

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There are certain things that I am fated never to understand. I will likely go to my grave with an insufficient understanding of the Icelandic sagas, and the language of Wales will forever be a mystery to me. Similarly, I will never understand the way orchestra management is said to "think."

The Philadelphia Orchestra is without doubt one of the finest symphony orchestras in North America and, arguably, the world. It has had more than its fair share of turbulence lately, but the administrative tumult has had little effect on the capacity of the orchestra to make magnificent music on a regular basis. Next season will be the first with Charles Dutoit as chief conductor and artistic advisor.

According to a recent article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the orchestra "...has redesigned subscription packages and even the musical content itself, to cater to its various distinct constituencies." I needed to read that twice to make sure that The Inquirer was talking about an orchestra and not a Chicago ward boss.

Audiences, apparently, are now subjected to the same analysis used to explain political events in the Balkans. This is akin to saying "The Serbs want to hear Tchaikovsky, the Croats want Brahms, the Kosovars Aaron Copland, and the Bulgarians anything by a Canadian or a Finn."

The traditional manner of programming orchestral concerts has involved giving audiences a balanced diet of mixed cuisine. John Adams' The Chairman Dances appears on a program with a Mozart Piano Concerto and perhaps a Rachmaninoff symphony. A large, gaudy Vaughan-Williams work follows a Rossini overture and it in turn is followed by a Haydn Symphony. The general rule seems to be that giving the audience what it wants must be balanced in some respects by a desire to give the audience music that it needs to hear. You "sugar coat" the pill of Schnittke's music (widely deemed box office poison) by surrounding it with something comfortable and familiar -- like Brahms, Beethoven or Tchaikovsky.

The mighty Philadelphians, however, have heard the Siren Song of the consultants and have decided to go in a new direction. So one of America's most storied orchestras is now offering, in addition to the traditional subscription plans, a whole host of options. One can opt for the "Masterworks" series, described by The Inquirer as "warhorses" with the music "prefaced with spoken explanations from the stage" - presumably for those too lazy to read the program notes. The "Connoisseur" series is "the traditional night at the orchestra" without the spoken commentary. (As though tarting it up with a French name is going to make it a hotter commodity.) The "Odyssey" series is said to be "...a bit more adventurous, with live-image projections of the onstage action and postlude recitals after the concerts". Finally, there is the option of the "Celebration" series which has "...Saturday night gatherings with other listeners and musicians, along with live-image projections and spoke introductions."

Good grief. The whole concept of "live-image" projections fills me with the utmost dread. I attended one -- and only one -- concert in my entire life with "live image projections" and I found it repulsive. It is difficult to concentrate on the music -- which as I recall is supposed to be the whole point -- when looking at a massive screen showing a close up of the conductor perspiring freely or a similarly tight shot of the tube player looking as though he is about to pop his carotid artery. Somehow a basic concept has been lost: Anything that takes the focus off the music is a bad idea. Full stop.

And the notion that you cannot "sell" a subscription without a series of parties attached smells of desperation. How my understanding or appreciation of the music is to be enhanced by boozing it up pre- or post-performance with the oboe player is beyond me. And in terms of "spoken explanations from the stage", the obvious question is "Who is doing the explaining?" Conductors tend to be magnificent musicians and average orators, and planting the program annotator on the stage to provide a recapitulation of his/her program notes seems pointless. Or perhaps an actor will be engaged to portray Shostakovich.

It is axiomatic that the folks responsible for putting patrons in the seats will occasionally feel that they need to "sell the sizzle and not the steak" -- which is perfectly fine if you are selling an inferior grade of steak. But this is the Philadelphia Orchestra for heaven's sake!

The way to build a subscription audience - the backbone of any orchestra's survival - is not to Balkanize it. You make going to a concert an integral part of the audience member's life by providing a first class musical evening, intelligent programming, and by presenting guest artists that the audience wants to hear. Anything less cheats the audience and cheapens what should be the uplifting nature of the experience.