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.

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