Performance enhancement*

Sep 17, 2008 at 2:16 am




*An unflinchingly positive report having little to do with the musicians playing all of this music or the Maestro directing them.

By the time this article has reached your hands, the Louisville Orchestra will have kicked off its new season. As usual, the opening festivities reveal an approach of immersion, integration and intensity that has always been part of the orchestra’s profile. The grand band will have played its opening Fanfara concert with a guest soloist (the immensely talented double bassist Edgar Meyer will be performing two concerti, one of which he penned himself), preceded by a week of performances and appearances throughout the city by soloists and chamber groups. The main event will have featured Music Director Jorge Mester at the podium, a man whose love for the LO of yore informed his recent return. It will be a proper send-off for what should be an essential season. 

The Louisville Orchestra: Photo by O’Neil Arnold courtesy of the Louisville Orchestra
The Louisville Orchestra: Photo by O’Neil Arnold courtesy of the Louisville Orchestra

After nosing around the LO’s Artspace headquarters on West Broadway between Third and Fourth a couple weeks ago, I sense a new excitement in an organization that narrowly escaped demise a few years ago. A look at this year’s calendar reveals one Roman candle after another, a blend of visionary modern repertoire and steadfast classical epics. Because it is 2008, and there isn’t an orchestra in the country that can pay the bills with just the aforementioned fare, the LO’s board of directors has secured some showstoppers in the booster-shot Pops series. There are children’s concerts, meet-and-greets, informal luncheons with guest soloists, even a concerto for pipa (look it up; you’ll probably buy a ticket). There are numerous occasions to catch members of the LO playing in your neighborhood. 

I am, of course, biased. I am a composer of modern concert music whose life has been enriched by orchestras, especially the LO. Few things in life are quite as exhilarating as hearing a live orchestra. For some, it’s cliff-jumping, skydiving, hang gliding or running from large-horned animals. Although I have done none of those, I have been served many of my thrills at the lead of a baton. 

Although the LO, as well as any large community-based or metropolitan orchestra in America, can no longer pay the bills with the programming of solely “classical” music, the current administration is keeping the standard classical repertoire alive with a combination of education, modern sensibility and community outreach. Considering the fact that only one-third of the LO’s ticket revenue comes from the “classics,” resourcefulness in the way of Pops programming — next year they’re bringing Air Supply and The Pointer Sisters, for example — helps keep its substantial legacy alive. 

Jerry Hiler is making a documentary film about the rise of the Louisville Orchestra, slated to premiere in September 2009. A soft-spoken fan of classical music, Hiler, who lives in San Francisco, first stumbled upon LO recordings in the 1960s. 

“I’m just a listener,” he says. “The LO came to my attention as a young man around 1960, when they’d put their singles in record stores. There was something suspicious about them because they only recorded new composers and new music.”

It wasn’t until the ’90s that Hiler began to amass a collection of records from the LO’s First Edition series. He figured Louisvillians knew little about the LO’s history, dating back to the 1930s, when Mayor Charles Farnsley was in charge and Robert Whitney led the orchestra. 

“At that point in history (the early 1940s), Louisville was a temple of culture due to its leaders,” Hiler says. “There was a wonderful sense of community and support for the orchestra that may never be able to happen again.” 

It was Farnsley’s idea to create the Fund for the Arts in 1949, and the model has since been adopted by most major American cities. Whitney received a $500,000 Rockefeller Foundation grant via the Fund in 1953 and, upon the mayor’s suggestion, commissioned more than 40 new works a year over the next four years. The subsequent recordings formed the basis of the orchestra’s world-renowned First Edition record label. They also established the LO as a standard-bearer of new American orchestral works. 

First Edition had global reach. Hiler’s documentary reveals anecdotes of the broadcasts of those recordings via Radio Free Europe — they were used to illustrate life in a pleasant town in Middle America. The LO’s reputation was so great, the U.S. State Department picked the city as a stop on a brief tour by a group of famous Russian composers, including such heavyweights as Shostakovich and Kabalevsky, in 1953. 

Hiler’s documentary sheds light on the educational component of the orchestra as well. In one scene, thousands of kids are shipped by the busload to Memorial Auditorium for the LO’s MakingMUSIC series. These outreach concerts included activities where kids would write a melody and return the following week to hear it orchestrated. Whitney convinced people to move to Louisville by publicizing the fact that LO members — who had to freelance because playing was part-time work — were teaching in local high schools. Because of their presence in public schools, musicians could entice children to attend concerts and give private lessons on their instruments. Hiler’s documentary also points out that the famous Young People’s concerts, lead by Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1972 and broadcast on CBS, were modeled after Whitney’s MakingMUSIC series. 

In the late 1940s, children were bused from all over the city at certain times to attend the MakingMUSIC program. When an oversight occurred and busloads of both white and black students arrived at a concert simultaneously, Whitney had to decide how to handle the situation. He insisted all the children attend the concert and, for it, broke the law of segregation. His ardent supporter, Farnsley, met his decision with immediate approval. 

Asked whether he believes the LO’s educational and artistic status could’ve been matched at that point in time, Hiler’s answers recall a bygone era. 

“I don’t know the status of classical music today. When you would go to the movies in the ’40s, there were characters that were composers and conductors in movies,” he says. “You don’t see that anymore in our popular culture. Boys had heroes that were associated with themes from classical music, like ‘The Lone Ranger’ and the ‘William Tell Overture.’”

Enthusiasm for the orchestra mimicked what was going on in people’s homes. “It was also a time that people made music in their own home, so there was an appreciation of what the orchestra was doing,” he says. “In the later years, people started buying records and stopped going to concerts. It was a deluge of passivity in the way people entertained.”

If, as Hiler says, the halcyon days of the LO were a result of their adventurous programming of contemporary classical music and educational outreach, how does the LO of 2008 compare? 

Despite a dark period a few years ago that included potential bankruptcies, sometimes-bitter contract negotiations and ultimately a new administration, the organization has regrouped with some fresh faces wielding the proverbial baton in ways that recall its more daring era. 

Deborah Moore arrived as the LO’s director of education four years ago: Photo by Amy Berg
Deborah Moore arrived as the LO’s director of education four years ago: Photo by Amy Berg

Deborah Moore is an energetic optimist who arrived as the LO’s director of education four years ago. 

A classical percussionist trained at both the Oberlin and Cincinnati university conservatories, Moore won an audition to play in a group called Tales & Scales in the mid-90s. It commissioned music for kids written by successful composers and would perform these pieces in classrooms and concert halls all over the country. As the years progressed, Moore found herself increasingly approached by teachers wanting advice on how stir up interest in music in their classrooms. 

Two years into her job here, Moore — whose title has come to include a community outreach component — concluded that the community was unaware of the degree to which the LO was involved in daily life. 

“As education director, I knew we were down and dirty in the public schools every day,” she says. “But that’s not a public thing. Most people think of a performing arts organization as someone you go see and then you go home. Most people don’t see a performing arts organization as the community resource that it might truly be.”

In the realm of community engagement, the LO recently partnered with Metro Parks to provide after-school concerts and workshops at local community centers. These “Rhythms and Rhymes” workshops focus on drumming, rhyming and beats. The weeklong residencies culminate in the students opening for the LO, a throwback to the early days of MakingMUSIC concerts. 

Other examples of community engagement include free pre-concert conversations, and the increasingly popular “Magic of Music” series. This series, started by LO board member Sue Russell, took place in the comfort of private homes as informal meet-and-greets between patrons, conductors and guest artists. The program was handed over to Moore upon her arrival, and has subsequently more than doubled in size; the concerts now occur in dining halls. For a nominal fee, patrons eat lunch while listening to anecdotes and impromptu performances by the featured musical guests.

Overall, the LO’s educational and community outreach programs serve 30,000 kids annually. Every fourth- and fifth-grader in Jefferson County Public Schools can attend MakingMUSIC concerts for free. In the past four years, attendance for the flagship program has increased from 16,000 to 20,000 students per year. The Arts and Humanities concert for middle- and high-school students, which is presented bilingually and features Latin American music, has seen an increase in attendance from 700 to more than 3,000 students in the last three years.  

“We do a lot with reading comprehension in music. Our staff will go into a school and take a sonnet by Antonio Vivaldi, and the kids will create music for it,” she says. “In the process, we are using reading comprehension strategies, such as visualizing what’s happening in the poem and coordinating them with musical decisions such as timbre (tone quality) and tempo and dynamics. They are learning specific musical skills, and in the end we have a performance to go along with the poem.”

The Kentucky Center for the Arts and JCPS recently tapped Moore to run a three-week teaching seminar for arts and humanities teachers on how to integrate music into their lesson plans. Moore says she receives an increasing number of e-mails from teachers for concert and event recommendations for their students.

Moore’s educational acumen and enthusiasm obviously have had a positive effect on the LO’s presence outside Whitney Hall, but she’s demure about the spotlight.

“Our CEO has really made the difference,” she says. “The board and our CEO have been incredibly supportive of furthering our educational goals.”

Louisville orchestra CEO Brad Broecker: Photo by Amy Berg
Louisville orchestra CEO Brad Broecker: Photo by Amy Berg

Bradley Broecker loves a spectacle

For more than 20 years, Broecker was part owner of a national production company called Broadway Across America, which supplied touring musical entertainment to 52 markets. A few years ago, Broecker retired, sold his portion of the company and filled his calendar working for the Heuser Hearing Institute and the Louisville Deaf-Oral School. When the LO’s leadership left a few years ago, a board member at the Fund for the Arts approached Broecker to steer the wayward ship. He agreed to take the post temporarily and, of course, has remained. 

Given his involvement in Broadway productions, Broecker’s background is quite different from that of the typical orchestra CEO. But the fact that he is a native Louisvillian, has a flair for theatrical promotion, is a musician himself (double bass and tuba, thank you) and has proven he can successfully run an arts organization is solidifying his company as more asset than gamble. And when former beloved Maestro Jorge Mester contacted the LO two years ago to see what he could do to help the troubled troupe, Broecker asked him to resume the post he’d left in 1979. The move was widely considered something of a masterstroke. 

With Mester back at his post, Broecker had a formidable partner in programming and developing a new spirit for the orchestra. A confident, charming, congenial man, Broecker explains his choice of Mester thusly: “We felt that the orchestra needed some discipline, hard work, a leader that would try and improve the players’ ability to play, and to program music that would challenge the players as well as give gratification to the audience.” 

Mester started by researching the orchestra’s repertoire since 1948, then making a list of all of the things they should have played but hadn’t. Immensely pleased with this, Broecker has encouraged Mester to be more daring. “I’m Jorge’s enabler,” he says, laughing. “I sense his passion for things, and I do my best to try and allow them to happen.”

Proof of this came during Mester’s first season, when he asked Broecker if he could replace a piece programmed by the outgoing music director with something more dynamic. The end result was the Louisville premiere of Philip Glass’ “Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra.” 

“This piece required two timpanists and 14 timpanis across the stage. It had never been played in Louisville and had the novelty of being a percussion concerto,” Broecker says. “It was that kind of excitement that I feed on and he allows me to feed on and enable him to be able to program things like that.”

Each Classics concert contains some sort of fasten-your-seatbelts fare absent from the orchestra in recent years. There is an increased focus on modern music, an approach that earned the LO its stripes in the first place. There are still plenty of highlights from the standard repertoire to please patrons that prefer their classical music to be classical, but even Mozart is being presented with a new twist designed for the more visual listener: Closed-circuit monitors in the hall show close-ups and panoramic shots of the performers as they are playing live. 

The crossover concerts (Pops series) will also provide plenty of dazzle. Singer/songwriter/pianist Ben Folds will surely attract listeners that may have never heard the orchestra. Other attractions include a night of Led Zeppelin, Sheena Easton and ABBAmania. 

These are some of the innovations Broecker believes will help keep the interest of concertgoers who need that extra little bit of modern media with their powdered wigs. 

I recently heard a re-broadcast on WUOL-90.5 FM of the LO playing a Tchaikovsky Tone Poem last season. Having tuned in shortly after the piece began, I kept trying to guess if it was Cleveland, Chicago, Boston or Philly playing. When the DJ came on after to reveal it was our local band, I felt a strong sense of pride. 

But it also occurred to me that I was lucky to hear a broadcast from last season at all. The LO was considering Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 2003. Around this time, Joe Pusateri, president of developer Elite Homes and an arts patron, became president of the orchestra’s board of directors. His fund-raising prowess and personal donations helped the LO weather the storm for a few more years. Then in 2006, the LO faced the possibility of bankruptcy once again. Projections for the following three seasons indicated a yearly operating deficit of $850,000 for an orchestra with a $7 million budget. The musicians — members of the Local 11-637 of the American Federation of Musicians — and the administration had reached a stalemate over compensation. 

The administration and players agreed on a new five-year contract in March 2006; it took effect Sept. 1 of that year. By cutting vacation time, reducing insurance benefits and including additional performances of educational concerts for which they were previously paid extra, the new proposal allowed all 71 performers to work full-time and save the orchestra $1.9 million. At the time, the average salary for an LO musician was $39,000. 

Difficulties remain. Subscribing to the orchestra is cost-prohibitive for much of the population. Prices for the 2008-09 Classics 10-concert season cost anywhere from $680 for cream-of-the-crop seats to $230 for bring-the-binoculars (by comparison, the primo seats for a 10-concert series by the Chicago Symphony are $1,870, although their operating budget is a gargantuan $58 million a year). 

Heather O’Mara, media relations manager for the orchestra: Photo by Amy Berg
Heather O’Mara, media relations manager for the orchestra: Photo by Amy Berg

“If we could sell $10 tickets to Beethoven concerts and fill all of the seats, we would,” says Heather O’Mara, media relations manager for the orchestra. O’Mara maintains that the LO is facing the same issues orchestras around the country are regarding dwindling subscription sales. As a result, the orchestra now relies heavily on single-ticket buyers.

For the 2007-8 season, total ticket sales brought in $1,733,164. Roughly one quarter came from the Classics and Coffee Classics series. Obviously, the Pops concerts and other education-based programming bring in the lion’s share. The bigger picture is that only one-third of the orchestra’s operating budget comes from ticket sales, the remainder from grants and donations.

“We don’t have the ability or the money to go back to the earliest heyday of the orchestra,” O’Mara says. “We have to find our new audience any way we can; that’s why we have Ben Folds coming (for the Pops series) and the Wow series. We still have all of the education programs in place in hopes of reaching the younger kids.” 

Most orchestras are feeling the bite. The Columbus Symphony, for instance, suspended its season this spring for lack of funding. As well, the Pittsburgh Symphony — one of the country’s foremost bands in a mid-size city — was forced to declare bankruptcy recently. 

As a composer of modern concert music, I constantly wrestle with the fact that the music I write is relegated to obscurity. After all, the majority of the performance opportunities I receive are in university concert halls, an environment that can be intimidating and stifling to the uninitiated. I am further puzzled when people who don’t usually attend these concerts tell me they find my music listenable. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean they’ll be at my next premiere. I have learned that their absence is not to be taken personally. Instead, it is mostly a result of education and exposure. In “This is Your Brain on Music,” author and composer Daniel Levitin suggests that the music you are enamored with as an adolescent will resonate most for the rest of your life. When I was a teenager, I played in rock bands and listened to the Beatles and Sonic Youth, which I still do today. But it wasn’t until I began studying music intensely at the age of 17 that I realized how powerful the classical orchestral oeuvre could be, and it was the LO concerts I attended that made me a convert.

Maestro Jorge Mester returned to the Louisville Orchestra two years ago.: Photo by O’Neil Arnold courtesy of the Louisville Orchestra
Maestro Jorge Mester returned to the Louisville Orchestra two years ago.: Photo by O’Neil Arnold courtesy of the Louisville Orchestra

Is the classical repertoire “better” or “more important” than other genres of music? It doesn’t matter. Any mind paid the classical vs. pop argument is, to me, like arguing over dialects of the same language. But in 2008, classical music is exactly that: classical. It’s from a different time and place, and its market difficulty is a direct parallel to the general lack of mainstream education about it or awareness of it. 

By the same token, comparing the current Louisville Orchestra with the 1940s version is like putting a Studebaker against a Prius or the Wright Brothers to Boeing. Although their function is essentially the same, time and place dictate how they must appeal to the market. Today, the LO must play all different genres of music to support the classical repertoire financially. That’s a cold, hard fact. And as a composer who is supposed to be open to all forms of expression (at least I think I should be), it doesn’t matter to me whether people choose to hear the LO play Beach Boys arrangements or Bartok concerti. The hope is that people are seduced by the live orchestra experience, and maybe they’ll decide to go back for more — instead of the football game or the latest George Clooney movie. Or maybe even along with it. 

Alex Ross, music critic at The New Yorker, recently released a book on the last century of music called “The Rest is Noise.” One particularly compelling anecdote was of a meeting between George Gershwin and Alban Berg. Gershwin was quite nervous about their meeting; after all, his music contained popular elements and Berg was considered to be of the elite, a modernist. When Berg asked Gershwin why he seemed nervous, Gershwin professed his fear that Berg did not take him seriously as a composer. 

“Music is music,” Berg replied.