Please Make the Arts Family Friendly

Dear Arts Presenters,

Allow me to introduce myself. I am your ideal audience member. I am in the throes of early parenthood, when I am more open to purchasing new experiences and products than during any other life event. When I come to a show, I don’t just buy one ticket, I buy three or four. Then I stop for a snack in your lobby and a toy in your gift shop.

True, arts participation has declined for my age range. But now I’m looking for meaningful experiences that are adult enough for me to enjoy yet laid-back enough for my kids. Something that doesn’t involve screens. Something that wears the cloak of tradition, that shows my kids what kinds of great things people can accomplish.

That’s where you come in. You can make me – and my kids – lifelong concertgoers and donors if you get us in the habit of looking to you for programming.

You’re doing a pretty good job already! I can catch Orly Shaham and her wonderful Baby Got Bach – but she’s in town only twice a year. The NYPhil, Chamber Music Society, and American Ballet Theatre and more offer a few children’s concerts throughout the year. But because I can never just walk in to these one-off events, I will rarely choose them over the zoo or a museum.

Where is the musical equivalent of the MOMA Art Lab, where I can drop in and color with my kid after a visit to the galleries? Where is the dance version of the Natural History Museum’s Discovery Room, where she can assemble a dinosaur skeleton? Where is theater’s answer to the “meet the animal” camps and classes at the zoos?

Here’s what I’m looking for. Continue reading

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Bargemusic chugs along

Mark Peskanov, Executive and Artistic Director. Photo: Bargemusic

Mark Peskanov, Executive and Artistic Director. Photo: Bargemusic

“I have one question,” a man was saying to Ursula Oppens. “How do they get the piano off the boat?”

“It stays here!” She replied with a smile. “It was born here.”

This kind of genial exchange between artist and audience characterizes intermission at Bargemusic. Performers sit in the boat’s highly visible wings and latecomers risk being poked with a violinist’s bow as he warms up.

Inside the warm wood-paneled room, soundproofed even from the ferry’s blasts, New York’s floating concert hall feels like a visit to times past. Once a lonely cultural outpost on a dying waterfront, Bargemusic – on an actual barge – is now dwarfed by the crowds flocking to Brooklyn Bridge Park or strolling to the water after a visit to the booming DUMBO neighborhood. Will the novelty eventually wear off and the local market demand something new?

Not for now. At 200+ concerts throughout the year, Bargemusic is one of New York’s busiest presenters. The grand piano dominating the performing space limits the repertoire to chamber music, but Artistic Director Mark Peskanov has no trouble filling the calendar with a great variety of artists and music, old and new. I was particularly delighted to notice that he hosts free family concerts every Saturday at 4, all year long. Who else offers that many chances for kids to hear professionals up close?

Peskanov was in performance with Oppens on Friday evening for a program of Beethoven violin sonatas. Peskanov has the tarnished gold of an old-school violinist. Bright, assertive, and at times favoring expression over technique, it’s a tone that calls to mind less the slick soloists of the mp3 generation and more the rough-edged virtuosos of the golden age. Indeed, Peskanov cites Isaac Stern and Rostroprovich as his early proponents.

Oppens, on the other hand, tended toward a mellow cloud of gentle accompaniment, in contrast to the sparkle she brings to contemporary repertoire. Her Beethoven still has all the breath and beauty of the nano-phrases of Nancarrow, and it was welcome to hear her versatility. The first half of the program – Sonata No. 1 and No. 5 the “Spring” – had all the humor and playfulness they needed, even if Oppens and Peskanov didn’t exactly disappear into one another’s tone. It was like watching a conversation between two friends who don’t always agree.

The brilliant, theatrical and perhaps better-rehearsed Sonata No. 7 finished the program, to the toe-tapping delight of the audience. Gone was the gentle Alberti bass of the earlier sonatas, and the assertive qualities of both performers had listeners on the edge of their seats. The duo played the final movement as their encore, because the only thing better than Beethoven is more Beethoven.

Viva Bargemusic! Long may she sway!

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Orlando at Whitebox

Orlando cast

Orlando in performance. Photo: Ian Douglas

Three years into parenthood, I still yearn for more opportunities to take in live music – ideally with baby in tow. Mostly for my own enjoyment, but also to introduce it to my child. To teach her that this is important, and to demonstrate the stillness, consideration of others, and focused listening that are part of the concert experience.

Attending daytime rehearsals appears to be the solution to this quest. There must be a thousand going on each day in New York, though they are rarely open to the public. What if a generation of families got in the habit of attending performing arts rehearsals, so that evening concert going, when the children were old enough, would be the next logical step?

At the same time, the rehearsal period is a production’s highest sunk cost, with not one ticket sale to offset a dime. What if you threw open the gates to rehearsals, showing the world what the process is like and perhaps recruiting some new donors or ticket-buyers? I’ve fantasized that this is my path to the Nobel: monetizing the fallow rehearsal times while spawning vast new audiences.

With Orlando, Whitebox art space and stage director R. B. Schlather attempted this experiment, though family-friendliness was likely an unintentional effect. The results demonstrate the limits to the idea, and reinforce the fact that, alas, this is yet another offering that would require more money than it would earn. Continue reading

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Entrepreneurialism for Musicians

man face with musical hair and gearsWith its announcement of a new center for entrepreneurialism, Juilliard joins the ranks of other elite conservatories empowering their students as the arts leaders of tomorrow. These efforts will be important to performers of all types, as declining arts participation, business mismanagement and shifting cultural focus continue to shrink their opportunities along the traditional audition-and-competition path. 

This focus on entrepreneurialism is not peculiar to conservatories. In 2015, everyone is an entrepreneur. From TaskRabbit to Uber to Fivrr, the gig economy is growing as full-time employment becomes harder to find. Moreover, music students must be entrepreneurs whether they like it or not: the career is never linear, and each performer must find the best application of her talents. While being your own boss is not without pitfalls, empowering students to create their own performance opportunities holds the promise for the holy grail of classical music: some of these musical entrepreneurs may yet create the artistically meaningful, sustainable paradigm that we all seek.

As conservatories develop their curricula to match the new ways of leading a career in music, here are three factors that all entrepreneurs should consider at the outset, or will eventually wish they had. Continue reading

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Want it, need it, wish it were better

The wonderful Brooklyn Arts Exchange has announced the application for their space grant for parenting artists with kids under 4. Two lucky winners – one choreographer, one theater/performance artist – will receive 50 hours of rehearsal space at BAX HQ as well as $300 toward childcare. The caregiver can even bring the tot to the BAX PlaySpace, free of charge. 50 hours is a lot of hours to develop a work, and depending on the space, might have a four-figure value.

This, of course, is wonderful, but it doesn’t go far enough. Here are the issues:

  1. $300 is better than no hundred dollars, especially if it’s for the early part of the artistic process that is rarely compensated. But at $15 an hour for a nanny (the rate I’m most frequently quoted), the grant only pays for 20 hours of childcare. Recipients would be on their own for the rest, in addition to travel time.
  2. Like most grants, it is for creative artists, not interpretive artists. This has long been the case, even as interpretive artists routinely create their own opportunities. Any singer or instrumentalist who wishes to present an existing work will quickly find that grants to individual artists are largely intended for the creation of new work. Of course, new work is important to all the performing arts, but for musicians who want to perform non-commissioned work – even if they have a neat idea for a concert or two – funding is harder to come by.
  3. With limited space and financial resources, this grant has to be limited in scope. But still, if only two additional artists could receive this kind of grant, they in turn could hire even more artists, thereby broadening the scope.
  4. Maybe it’s different in dance and theater, but to me, 50 hours is enough for several productions. To put it another way, I couldn’t pay musicians enough to rehearse 50 hours for one program. But that amount of time is not unusual for the administrative work that goes into it: scheduling rehearsal time, planning and designing a communications campaign, press outreach, logistics, and fundraising, which requires as much work as all these responsibilities combined. Perhaps most helpful to a parenting artist would be a staff person to take on just a few of these tasks. In some ways, that’s the impossible stuff to fit in. My kid could potentially watch me rehearse, but she would get mighty bored watching me format photos for MailChimp. 

This is not an attack on BAX – I would move to Park Slope just to be close to it – but, respectfully, a wake up call to funders. If musicians are to respond to the call for performer-led initiatives, they will need the supportive infrastructure to do so.  

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Bostridge’s Winter Journey

Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! So sayeth the marquee above the shadow box stage in Butterworth Hall at 92Y. But there was no singing in the hall on Superbowl Sunday evening. Jeremy Denk was there to talk to Ian Bostridge about his new book on Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise, and audience members would have to do their music listening at home.

Still, the quiet focus in the room made me wonder if everyone was steeped in Winterreise-induced wistfulness. The piece – perhaps the world’s gloomiest – tends to do that to you. ‘Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession’ is Bostridge’s exploration of Winterreise, one essay for each of the 24 songs in the 75-minute masterpiece. Bostridge’s observations are not simply interesting on their own terms, but put into words what makes Winterreise such an emotional standout. Here are some comments from the evening that made me want to read the book: Continue reading

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On Talking to the Audience

Don’t do it. Or at least, don’t do it the way we’ve been doing it.

That was my thought as I watched Alan Gilbert sweat through another awkward attempt at “audience engagement” last Thursday night at the Phil. Talking to the audience before a concert is supposed to be how we break the ice from the standard concert format, the rituals of which must surely baffle newcomers. The Entrance of the Concertmaster. The Smattering of Applause. The Playing of a Single Note. The Entrance of the Conductor to Great Applause. The Nod. The Turn of the Back. The Music Begins.

For those of us trying to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who hasn’t been to many concerts, we keep thinking that they surely would like some explanation of what’s to come (in case it wasn’t enough to have read the publicity that got them to buy a ticket to begin with, the program notes, and possibly listening to the whole thing online). Or perhaps that our newbie – and maybe even some longtime subscribers – would feel personally touched if maestro humanized himself by saying a few words, instead of simply presenting his fanny in silence.

So what we get is the spectacle of the poor schlub in tails, fumbling with a mike and scrawled notes, trying to illuminate a masterwork in 40 words or less. It turns out, talking about music is about as easy as writing about it.

The resulting comments tend to fall into the following categories, all of which were painfully demonstrated at the concert:

News Peg Continue reading

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