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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

How do you measure success?

If one were to only consider the metrics of presenting and producing an event of contemporary music in the current cultural climate, one would think that the number of warm bodies in the audience is the most important measurement to review.  Make no mistake, audience turnout is a factor, the reception of the performers important, and revenue from ticket sales ideally should be at least adequate enough to cover basic expenses.  But there is much more to think about, including our own personal integrity as artists.

I would like to express a less held opinion about what makes a great new music event.  Metrics does not tell the whole story, at least in the arts.  Some of the most memorable (and culturally significant) concerts I’ve attended over the decades were not necessarily crowd-pleasers or standing-room only events.  Success in the arts is not always measured by outcomes expressed numerically.
It seems to me that a number of arts organizations today have given in too easily to the cult of metrics as a measurement of performance, opting for quantitative rather than qualitative analysis.  While new music ensembles are searching for new works that draw in the crowds, I have grown quite disappointed in the quality of some of the music presented in recent years.  And while this is admittedly a subjective opinion coming from someone who happens to be an opinionated and biased composer, I’d like to objectify my views here if possible.

Here are just two examples of bothersome trends that have emerged…
1) There is an annoying tendency to make new classical music palatable and hip by bashing the tradition it evolved out of.  The trend has become so pervasive that both talent and arts organizations have gone to the extreme of rejecting their own product (and core values) as toxic.  A case in point is that some ensembles are now leaning toward exclusively performing music drawn from the traditions of folk, rock, pop, jazz and world-music. This method of approach is typical of an overall populist movement aimed at diminishing the rich tradition and history of European classical music in exchange for a quick and transitory nod of approval from the general public. Not only is this a tactic that will not work in the long term, it’s simply a mistake to think it will become a viable trend for music ensembles and orchestras that have a core repertory and history.  Vernacular and folk music can stand on its own, and it always has.

2) Another silly fad that humors me is the notion that whatever comes from New York City is representative of the pinnacle of arts and culture.  Speaking as a former New Yorker, this is simply a myth.  In fact, I’ve discovered there is much talent in the local community, and it is too often over-looked.  Frankly, as someone who has attended concert venues all over the world in major cities and local villages, I find that locally-grown vegetables and talent is usually the most nourishing.  The risk is that smaller communities have an inclination to be self-conscious and provincial, and as a result over-compensate by importing “big name” talent in the hopes of feeling world-class.  I would hope that most communities harbor a sophisticated audience and that they can be trusted to make a distinction between what is simply new and interesting versus what arts-administrators and curators tell them they should like.  I don’t care for the recommendations of self-appointed, self-proclaimed, professional cultural-filters.  I prefer my arts raw and uncooked.

In general I find myself becoming more dissatisfied with the quality of the product itself at new music concerts – not the idea of a new music event per se - but dissatisfaction with pieces that seem to be simplistic and shallow compositionally.  Increasingly I come away with an impression that most of the works are similar - utilizing the same palette of pretty sounds and toe-tapping rhythms rather than an emphasis on the more abstract attributes of structure, form, pitch-organization, and fresh ideas.

An example of what I would call a success story is exemplified by a number of seasons recently etched into the noble history of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  For the first years in which James Levine was BSO Music Director (starting in 2005), he commissioned works that may have caused heartburn for a few BSO’s artistic administrators.  His commissions included challenging but important works by “modernist” composers Elliott Carter, Charles Wuorinen, and Milton Babbitt, just to name a few.  Levine also explored the rich repertory of 20th century works heard less often today, such as a concert version of Schoenberg’s 12-tone opera Moses und Aron.  His programming was adventurous and courageous, while at the same time unabashedly challenging for audiences.  Yet, his legacy with the BSO and the history that was made during Levine’s tenure is unquestionable.  The music he selected wasn’t always popular, but audiences bought tickets, came to Symphony Hall, and they listened.

Another example of an artistic success story stems from the period 1971-77 when Pierre Boulez was Music Director of the New York Philharmonic.  It is hard to describe the excitement his presence brought to the cultural life of NYC during those years.  I witnessed it firsthand.  Not only did he challenge his audiences, but he angered and alienated the old-guard establishment – including the classical music critics of the NY Times (e.g. Harold C. Schoenberg).  Yet, Boulez forged ahead with an intensity and conviction about his art that we seldom observe today. His impressive legacy with the NY Philharmonic is something that will live on.  Time has proved him right, and any misgivings about his programming, empty seats in Philharmonic Hall, or bad concert reviews that occurred during his tenure are now but a mere footnote in history.
There is good news.  Without a doubt, the level of musicianship and performance in the musical field today has skyrocketed over the past decades – both qualitatively and quantitatively.  Performance standards have improved significantly.  But with more options for the public there is also more competition for the ears, hearts, and minds of intelligent listeners (not to mention their credit cards).  Challenges will always exist, as will niche markets. Contemporary classical concert music is not for everybody, and this fundamental fact should be understood and acknowledged.  It comes with the territory.
In the perfect world we should reach for, and aspire to, music that is much more than a quick sensory fix and a frivolous night out on the town.  New music is rich and broad.  It reaches out to encompass the unique assortment of standard instrumental ensembles that evolved from a long-standing tradition of classical music.  Symphony orchestras and string quartets don’t need to be reinvented.  They already exist.
I don’t think that tradition deserves to be “trashed” in order to recreate something new and original simply to entice the vaporous interest of a transitory and evolving audience.  Nurturing the long-established musical communities and traditions that already exist is not only the best, but only prescription for sustained, long-term growth.  If you can’t beat the establishment, join them.
If you program, create, and perform great, challenging new music; people will come to hear it.   You may not sell-out the house, or even break-even, but your dedicated fans will follow your journey and hang in there with you for the long-haul.  If you desire mega-audiences worthy of rock-stars or the fame that’s often associated with it, it’s unlikely to occur in this remote outpost of the business.  Follow the genre of music that you really love the most and in time an audience will find you and truly appreciate what you do and how you do it.
Integrity.  It’s that simple. 
In summary:
It may sound counter-intuitive, but the prescription for artistic success and sustained, long-term growth in the field of contemporary classical concert music is to embrace the “core values” of the past, not “trash” them.  Long-standing traditions of classical music have worked for generations and continue to provide context for consumers in search of meaningful experiences in the digital age.  What makes contemporary music attractive is its complexity, the challenges it places on musicians and audiences, and the fact that every listener is asked to invest themselves in the process of understanding the work.  New music should be: rich, experimental, confrontational.  Success is this field should not simply be measured by the number of filled seats, but by the impact that music has on the continuous evolution of our culture.


  1. As Charles Rosen once said, "[A] work that ten people love passionately is more important than one that ten thousand do not mind hearing."
    I think Rosen would agree with your reflections on the notion of "success" in today's world of art music.

  2. THANK YOU Boom! Your blog ( is one of the best music-related blogs on the Interweb. It's always a pleasure to read your thoughtful and intelligent posts.

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