The four faces of the American orchestra

Today we take stock of symphony orchestras big and small across the US. It’s become fashionable to hate on them, to ignore their good work and declare them dead or passé. The kiss of death has been blown in their direction so often you’d think players would catch a chill.

All is not lost, though, and a new study points to some surprising strengths remaining for classical music. Today’s post, in four parts, looks at those strengths and the ways to build on them.

Part one: The state of US orchestras

Let’s start by taking a graceful swan dive into a properly-heated infinity pool of orchestral data.

In a new report the League of American Orchestras analyzed financial information on US orchestras from 2006 to 2014. You can find the report and analysis here in pdf form, but here’s a SparkNotes version.

1. Currently there are more than 1,200 orchestras in the US. They perform 28,000 annual concerts for a combined audience of 25 million people. They contribute $1.8 billion each year to the US economy.
2. Fixed orchestra subscriptions have remained static or slightly down, but single-ticket and flexible (choose-your-own subscrip) sales are up. People like choice! (But NB: subscriptions = more predictable revenue.)
3. Between 2010 and 2014, symphony attendance dropped 10.5 percent. During that same time, audiences for orchestra tours fell off by about half (ouch).
4. Donations stayed steady from 2006 to 2014.
5. From 2010 to 2014, the average donation by a non-trustee individual was less than $250.
6. Local governing bodies — cities, counties and states — channel much more money to the performing arts than the feds do. (Although they themselves may be flipping fed money, it’s unclear.)
7. Roughly half of every orchestra’s budget goes to player salaries & benefits. Fully 70 percent of money is plowed into performance production.

It’s not exactly boom times, but there’s room for optimism here. Let’s continue.

Continue reading “The four faces of the American orchestra”

Philip Glass on paying artists real cash money

Philip Glass has a straightforward response to the culture of free: it’s not working.

We swim in a sea of music. We have more art, books, shows, movies and ideas at our fingertips than the poor sap working the Library of Alexandria circulation desk could ever handle. If you’re bored these days it’s due to lack of effort, not availability.

There is a downside to all that free shit. Over at The Creative Independent, composer Philip Glass insists we’re wrong to assume artists should surrender their wares, gratis, for the common good. Continue reading “Philip Glass on paying artists real cash money”

Performance VR is a VeRy good practice idea


We all want to be the musician who’s cooler than a pack of menthols in all performance scenarios. Exposed orchestral solo? Easy. Recital? They play one every week, more if possible. Big concerto with a major orchestra? Why not. No matter what the details, everything comes out Newport smooth.

But public performance makes the rest of us mere mortals a little anxious. Continue reading “Performance VR is a VeRy good practice idea”

Free classical mixtape

I’m afraid I don’t know every Classical Dark Arts reader as well as I’d like. But if movies have taught me one thing it’s that a good mixtape is the best way to fast-track a friendship. The mixtape is something to pore over in a quiet moment, a way to unwind, a way to personalize the unfamiliar. So I’d like to offer a catalog of classical stuff I’m listening to. It’s a few notes longer than an hour, but the pieces are short (I see you, Millennials). >> Here you go.
Continue reading “Free classical mixtape”

Introducing ‘The CoffeeHouse Classical,’ a shiny new podcast for your commute

Credit Wikimedia Commons

Let’s face it: we’re all just biding time until Nadia Sirota’s Meet the Composer pod — the apex predator in the classical jungle — roars back to life. I’ve been skulking in MtC message boards. I played every episode backwards searching for hidden messages. I keep refreshing iTunes in case the next episode drops. There’s gotta be a better way to entertain ourselves, right?

Say hello to The CoffeeHouse Classical podcast. It’s brought to you by hosts Allison and Asa. Each installment looks at one movement from a well-known piece. It’s got terrific potential. I asked Asa and Allison a few questions via reddit. Here are their lightly-edited responses.

Let’s start with the basics. Who are you, and why did you decide to do a podcast? You two have a very easy chemistry, I take it that was developed on a previous project, right?

Together at Colorado State University we hosted a weekly radio show, also called the Coffee House, that we started almost as a joke. We thought it would be funny to play two hours of Gregorian Chant on the radio every Friday night, but then we actually followed through and created our Sunday morning classical and jazz show. I was graduating from CSU and moving out of state just when we were really starting to feel comfortable on the air and our show was taking off, so we thought, Why not keep this up in a format that will work long-distance?
Asa: Allison and I have known each other for four years during our music degree programs at Colorado State. In that time, we have collaborated on projects from our own nationally-performing quartet, to organizing local events to, of course, our radio show on CSU’s own KCSU radio station. After the success and knowledge gained from my own Star Wars podcast (Back to Dials), we decided to continue our radio show in a format that would be both workable for long distance and attractive for listeners of all levels of classical knowledge!

So far the emphasis has been on single movements — “Jupiter” from Holst’s The Planets, the third movement from Beethoven 7, etc. It’s refreshing because the listener doesn’t get overwhelmed right out of the gate. Is the plan to continue like this?

We do want to keep our shows on the shorter side to hopefully be more enjoyable for the listener. However, we do want to give a really good in-depth discussion of the pieces, so often single movements work best to get the length we’re looking for. We do have some “holiday specials” in the works that will go into much longer works over a few episodes!
Asa: Classical music, especially the “canon” works, can get very lengthy. Although each and every second of the works we choose is special, a listener can buy a CD of Holst if they want to listen to the entire Planets suite. In my mind, the show’s length is based roughly around my average morning commute – roughly 20 minutes. By selecting only certain movements, we can go into the depth we want to about the composer and the piece itself, while still allowing for a significant amount of unedited music to be played. I feel like this balance is crucial to achieving a palatable podcast for an audience that enjoys the classical genre, and trying to cram more in would be counterproductive.

Most of the episodes have been about “canon” works so far, and you have ably dug into the history behind the pieces and the composers. Will you be looking at works by living composers for future episodes?

We are looking at doing some more recent works, however the availability of information on these works does seem to be harder to find. One work that I’m particularly interested in for the show is Rainbow Body by Christopher Theofanidis.

Asa: Allison mentioned the availability of information – to clarify, we like to familiarize ourselves with the work by looking at an and analyzing the scores, and public domain works available on IMSLP make that easy. However, we both have access to our various university libraries (Colorado State and Michigan State) which can help us so much when doing our score research! I personally would love to have a living composer on the show to talk about their own music.

You guys bring a kind of eager, nerdy energy to the show, and you don’t shy away from theoretical and technical musical details. Was that a conscious decision, or are you just staying true to your inner musical nerds?

Allison: We actually modeled our format on an old NPR classical podcast What Makes It Great, that had a really vivacious zing to it. I personally really love music theory and analysis, and when I listen to music it’s the little details that thrill me and I really wanted our listeners to experience these things that might heighten their listening enjoyment! So, I guess it was really a conscious decision to stay true to ourselves!

Asa: I think if you don’t let your own excitement show on an informational program, you can’t infuse your audience with any sort of enthusiasm either! So for me, anyway, it was definitely a conscious decision based on our radio experience as well as my other podcast — at least, the decision to let my enthusiasm show through to create an upbeat show that, I hope, is fun to listen to! When it comes to music, I am a performer moreso than I am enthralled by the technical aspects, as Allison is, and my excitement comes from finding out why the composer might have done what they did and how their own passion is written into the page. And then, of course, from sharing my love of music! The two of us together, I think, make a fantastic team when we allow that excitement on the air.

Who do you see as some of your classical music podcasting peers, and are there any shows (e.g. Nadia Sirota’s Meet the Composer, Bill McGlaughlin’s Exploring Music) you’ve modeled your approach after? What can listeners expect in the immediate future?

Allison: As I mentioned before, we were trying to hash out a format we liked and came across the What Makes It Great show. What I really loved about that show was the use of musical examples during the analysis of pieces. What I’m thinking of as our show progresses is to have even more music included in the show as background while we’re speaking, to make it sound more like a complete production!

Asa: What Makes it Great was what we modeled most of our “sound” off of, however, the nuts and bolts (history and more in-depth discussion) was inspired by the Naxos Classical Music Spotlight podcast as well as the American Public Media production Composer’s Datebook, which I listen to every day! I can’t say that I have listened to either of the shows that you mentioned, but we take inspiration from wherever we can! In the immediate future, at least, we want to be able to feature the music as much as possible, as Allison mentioned. We’ll do our best to stick to an every-other-Sunday release schedule, and choose works that we both can get excited about!

You can subscribe to The CoffeeHouse Classical on iTunes, or visit their site directly to hear more. Asa & Allison can be found on Facebook, and they respond to email, too: coffeehouseclassical at gmail dot com. (This interview first appeared in the Classical Dark Arts mailer.)

Redditor messed around and got a classical triple double

  1. you have a passing interest in the game of basketball;
  2. you see remarkable parallels between the careers of Hakeem Olajuwan and Franz Liszt, Paganini and Dominique Wilkins;
  3. you enjoy weird write-ups some readers and editors would have zero faith in, at least at the outset;
then this post is definitely for you:

Classical music and fashion go hand-in-elbow-length-glove

The lighting is dusky and subdued. The clothes and staging are straight out of a BBC period drama. The audience chatters and cameras click with a rapidity that would be distracting were it not for the triumphant, churning Reliquary by British composer Ilan Eshkeri.

This is classical music in the 21st century: the soundtrack to a Burberry showReliquary is carefully, calculatedly dramatic. There’s no slack and certainly no dourness in the chamber piece. There is, after all, something to be sold here. Continue reading “Classical music and fashion go hand-in-elbow-length-glove”

The Ten Best Modern Classical Albums to Own on Vinyl

This week I got to had some fun over at Vinyl Me, Please. I looked at ten crucial classical releases to add to your record collection. With vinyl in the ascendance its vitally important you rep for great (modern) classical music.

Here’s the short list, with handy links to buy any and all:

  1. Hélène Grimaud, Water
  2. Uri Caine, Gustav Mahler, Primal Light
  3. Kronos Quartet, Bryce Dessner, Aheym
  4. SO Percussion, Bobby Previte, Terminals
  5. Colin Stetson, Henryk Górecki, Sorrow
  6. Nils Frahm, Solo
  7. Max Richter, Vivaldi, Recomposed
  8. Steve Reich, Four Organs / Phrase Patterns
  9. Marek Zebrowski, David Lynch, Polish Night Music
  10. Ólafur Arnalds, Alice Sara Ott, Chopin Project

Make sure to click over to the site to read my reasoning behind each pick.


Continue reading “The Ten Best Modern Classical Albums to Own on Vinyl”

WQXR shows us what a useful classical music app might look like

The vast majority of classical music apps are hot garbage. Every major symphony has one, as do classical radio stations. Most are designed by the same outfit (not going to name them, but I should). It’s a mystery who they’re designed for, or why they bothered in the first place.

That’s not the case with the WQXR app. Continue reading “WQXR shows us what a useful classical music app might look like”

The unparalled production of Jordi Savall, one of history’s great recording artists

pic via

I’ve written in the past about early-music composer, conductor and multi-instrumentalist Jordi Savall. The guy is a prolific artist who has helmed an envious number of ensembles like Hespèrion XXI, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, and Les Concert des Nations. It wasn’t until I had a closer look at Savall’s discography this week that I realized just how big his recorded output is. Continue reading “The unparalled production of Jordi Savall, one of history’s great recording artists”