Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Moneyball–the musical

Greg Sandow started an interesting conversational thread when he raised – in an interview with The Australian (here), the prospect that orchestras composed of young musicians might make up for a lack of polish with extra pizzazz.  He’s expounded on this in various blogs (here, here and here) and elaborated on what he feels is a forgotten discipline, that of assessing the quality of an orchestra. 

He highlights four key issues:

        • technical excellence (balance, intonation, ensemble)
        • the strength of each section, and of each principal
        • how well the orchestra plays various musical styles
        • whether the orchestra plays with edge of the seat excitement, with melting passion, with visible and audible commitment

I thought it was interesting that Sandow has omitted to raise the issue of audience engagement. This in turn raises another interesting question…what is the point of an orchestra?  They have a number of important functions, from preserving our musical and cultural traditions, to educating us, to providing a vehicle for modern composers to show their stuff.  But when it’s all said and done, they are also here to entertain us , and there’s an objective that’s extremely easy to measure: ticket sales.

One of the problems of getting overly focussed on ticket sales and broad audience appeal is that its only a matter of time before you reach the point of skating rinks and light-classics-on-ice, the kind made famous by Voldemort.  However, surely audience numbers and audience engagement need to be factored into an audience assessment process.

Sandow uses plenty of baseball analogies in his pieces, and here’s another one.  Moneyball, a book by financial journalist and former Salomon Brothers trader Michael Lewis, is the story of a low-budget team (Oakland) building a winning record by buying cheap players who actually contribute to winning games (e.g. via a high on-base percentage) rather than expensive players who only appeared to be contributing to winning games (e.g. by home run production or stolen bases or golden glove defensive skills).  This was made possible by a very precise mathematical understanding of the things in baseball which are well correlated with winning, compared with things which appear to be important but aren’t in fact all that well correlated with winning.  So on this point perhaps Sandow is right – maybe we don’t really understand what makes a successful orchestra, and simply assume that artistic excellence, coupled with a few established international soloist, will do the trick.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Living Australian

The ASO ticked a couple of boxes this weekend by adding Carl Vine’s Microsymphony to a program including the Brahms Violin Concerto and Shostakovich Symphony No. 1. 

As I’ve noted here previously (also here), orchestras around the country don’t do enough to promote the work of a) living composers, and b) Australian composers, and Vine obviously satisfies both tests.  That said, the ASO doesn’t fare too badly on either score, with their 2011 program featuring 24% of pieces written by living composers, and 20% by Australian composers (contrast the Sydney SO – 8% and 6% respectively).

Microsymphony went over very well with the audience, as did the Shostakovich, but the star turn of the night was of course the Brahms Violin Concerto with Tasmin Little at the controls of her Stradivarius.  This was a tremendous performance, as you’d probably expect, but what I didn’t expect was that she’d take half an hour out prior to the start of the concert to give the pre-match address, along with violinist Lachlan Bramble.  I go along to these talks every chance I get, and have heard a range of

ASO musos, academics and teachers expounding on the music we’re about to hear, but I don’t think I can recall a single occasion when the soloist has taken part.  I’m sure they have a lot on their minds prior to a performance, and there’s an obvious language barrier in some cases, but surely more could follow this example and do a bit more to engage with their audiences.

In her talk Tasmin mentioned her Naked Violin project, which provides free downloads of a number of violin works (including Bach and Ysaye) along with some commentary.  It’s well worth a look.  This is her contribution to spreading classical music to the masses, using digital channels and not charging a cent for it.  As she said in her talk, she’s keen to prove that classical music doesn’t have to have such a narrow focus on people who are white, middle class and middle aged or older.  A bit ironic as her audience was entirely composed of that demographic, but you can understand what she’s driving at.