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The End of Season Opera Company Projections of Doom

Metropolitan_OperaI read an interesting approach to the annual “Let’s predict the death of Opera” reviews we get about this time each year.  This is a good piece of journalism by Weston Williams from The Christian Science Monitor.  You can read it here.

However, when you read visual sound-bytes contained therein from Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager such as, “The struggle for opera has to do with the transition from an aging audience to a new one” (you think?) or, my absolute favourite, “This is a public art form … and as long as we have the public, the art form will survive and thrive,” (hmm?) says Gelb, you need to wonder whether there is any critical risk assessment going on inside that man’s head?

Notwithstanding, both he and Douglas Clayton, general director of Chicago Opera Theater (COT) concur that “… what is essential for any opera company, whether it’s small, medium, or large, is to find cultural relevance … and connections in the community to inspire audiences to want to participate.”

So the very simple question arises: why doesn’t the Met do exactly that? Continue Reading →

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Orchestra Musicians Never Fail To Amaze Me

Kevin PurcellThis is a duplicate post I wrote for the Australian Discovery Orchestra website about a recent experience.

I had the great pleasure last weekend of working with an essentially ‘scratch’ orchestra comprised predominantly of musicians teaching instrumental music in Schools in Melbourne and regional areas; including some musicians from the ADO roster, all of whom gave so generously of their time.

The ADO, through Managing Director, Janine Hanrahan, and Artistic Administrator, Briony Buys, was asked to curate this concert for the inaugural Independent Schools Victoria (ISV) Arts Learning Festival. I was delighted to return to Melbourne to work with the orchestra on a program of music specifically composed for Children.

We really need to celebrate the capacity of orchestra musicians who live in Australia: their willingness to tackle difficult music – with far too little rehearsal time; an undaunted enthusiasm for the task of finding their musical way through a barrage of notes, rhythms, dynamics and endlessly shifting tempi and, ultimately, their conviction that they can “pull it off” when the moment really counts – the concert!

We underestimate and under-appreciate orchestra musicians generally.  I believe this is true in most places in the world with very few exceptions. What is asked of them – in terms of the minutely exacting technical and artistic expectations  – is a continuing feat of human dexterity and skill-level that belies any general understanding of what they individually and collectively accomplish in the process of making music. Continue Reading →

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Why No Symphony Orchestras Make Money

An interesting article from April 4 on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) web site by Alex McClintock recently caught my attention.

McClintock cites Robert Flanagan, a professor of Economics at Stanford University from his in-depth analyses of the economics of symphony orchestras entitled, ‘The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras’.  The book has been in print for several years.

The problem, although admittedly oblique, is that the author’s assertion that “….no symphony orchestra in the world would be financially viable on its own” is deduced primarily from business models that have been the mainstay of Orchestra administrative and governance policies for over a century – and largely focussed on U.S. orchestras to boot.

That is not to say that Flanagan’s book does not do a serviceable job at distilling many of the primary problems facing orchestras around the world as not-for-profit entities. It does it, in fact, very well.

My suspicion is that the conclusions drawn, not only by Flanagan but by many other commentators interested in this field, are all a little too neat and cosy; too tidy in reducing the reasons for the financial peril facing many of orchestra ensembles around the world.

The unpalatable fact is that many of these organizations have been so badly governed for so many years that the horse has not just proverbially bolted, but has aged and died of natural causes long after the gate was left unbolted. Continue Reading →

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A Definition of Music To Fall In Love With

Bologna_Music_Museum_QuoteWhen I was in Italy during January earlier this year doing research for a production of Tosca, we visited Bologna where there is a very cute musical instrument museum. Opened in 2004, it’s called the International Museum and Library of Music.

In fact the museum is spread over two locations, one in the old town centre, and the other half of the collection housed in the convent of San Giacomo Maggiore, which is also home to the G.B. Martini music conservatory.

I went there to see the original manuscript of Rossini’s opera, The Barber of Seville.  As it turns out, it is just a fair copy and not the original composer’s m.s., but still pretty interesting to see.

So the point of this post is not in itself about this wonderful little museum – although I did see instruments there that I have only ever read about or seen images in books – as it is about this philological statement on the importance of music at the entrance to the first gallery in the museum.

I don’t know who wrote it – interestingly the quote is not attributed in the museum either – but it is a wholly compelling statement as to the fundamental nature of music collections, archives and curation of Arti Musicali from the distant and near past.

Read it and I think you’ll be in agreement.

More soon,

Kevin

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Why I Love Music Theatre NOW

2nd_International_Music Theatre_Workshop_Cover_1987I was reading an E-blast from Music Theatre NOW based in Germany this morning.  I love these folk and their dedication “…to worldwide exchange in new opera and music theatre”. (They don’t mean Broadway-style Musicals by the way!)

The role of Music Theatre NOW is critical in the discourse of imagining and exploiting new types of theatre praxis. And if there was ever a time in the World where the right to imagine, design, and produce works of theatre free of censorship, political interference or acts of xenophobia – this must be it surely!

But what really got my attention was a digital re-issue of proceedings from the 2nd International Music Theatre Workshop in 1987. Within that publication this is what peaked my particular interest: Music Theatre in Australia from this time was represented in the workshop! Who knew? I certainly didn’t, but then we didn’t have the Internet in those days either, and information was harder to come by in all forms.

It makes fascinating reading, particularly for Theatre Arts practitioners in Australia to observe how far we haven’t come in 30 years!

The transcription of the interview in question speaks for itself so, unless you want to read the entire published proceedings here, just have a quick look from two screen grabs that highlight the Australian context. Continue Reading →

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How To Conduct [Insert Title]?

Worry_WortIntermittently I return to the subject of whether assertions made in treatises on orchestra conducting and conducting technique are valid. I return to the subject again today.

Recognising that there are quite a number of younger conductors who follow this blog (albeit intermittent of late) I think there is a responsibility to engage in discussion about things to do with conducting that weren’t readily available when I started out in this business.

One of the recurring issues is, “Is what you read in the ever expanding subject matter of orchestral conducting reliable?” The answer is more often ‘yes’ than otherwise, but there is a growing body of literature; mostly emanating from American college and university academic conductors, that raise some concerns.

One of the nasty truisms of academia – and especially so in the performing and creative Arts disciplines – remains the concept of ‘publish or perish’. Alternative methodologies and frameworks of Performance as Research (PaR) as it is referred to in the USA or PARIP (Practice in Research as Performance) elsewhere, and other exemplars of practice-based academic enquiry regrettably remain problematic for many universities, their associated research funding mechanisms and processes of academic promotion.

Consequently, as opposed to seeing how conducting orchestras and Opera as creative production can constitute intellectual enquiry through performances, we have seen the publication of a plethora of texts on conducting technique as ‘how to’ books over the last 5 – 10 years.  These tomes tend to reflect more associations of experience from within the hallowed halls of learning than performances with professional orchestras.

And herein lies the problem: professional orchestra players learn an ‘inside the orchestra’ vocabulary of execution which negates the need to observe or follow the pedantic approaches to conducting espoused in these texts.  It’s true too, that the development of this player-group vocabulary has arisen over the last hundred years of orchestral performance practice to negate the often seen shortcomings of the person at the front of the orchestra waving the stick! It’s not a question of the validity of this reality, it just is.

It would be far more useful if the ‘academic’ conducting fraternity could, and would, use PaR or PARIP methodologies as enquiry into what conducting gestures (as they see them) actually mean to professional players in terms of what they collectively see and, as a consequence of this, what they interpret the meaning of these gestures to be. This would provide much needed feedback to determine whether what is actually being taught to conductors actually reflects what orchestral players need. Continue Reading →

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