Classical Music from the Inside Out: Park Avenue Chamber Symphony


Conductor David Bernard. Credit: PACS Website.

Tous le Park Avenue cabbed down to the DiMenna Center at the cocktail hour last Saturday for a very unusual concert of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony was offering a chance to sit check by jowl with the performers, a rare immersion whose goal, as maestro David Bernard explained, was to give non-musicians an experience similar to that of the performer, and perhaps lure them into the concert hall again.

Before taking our seats, we were all asked if we’d been to a concert in the last month (in which case we received a blue bracelet), in the last year (yellow bracelet), or not in the last year (red), which we later had a chance to demonstrate with a show of hands. The color coding had me wonder if we would indeed be getting cocktails out of the bargain. Continue reading

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10 tips for Musical Entrepreneurs

It’s too late for year-end lists, so this one is more evergreen. If you feel that this is the year for you to launch your own ensemble, concert series, artistic project, etc., here are some basics to consider.

10) Have a year zero.
Wowed ‘em with a September recital that you want to spin into a series? Start to build your mailing list, talk to potential donors, look into grant deadlines, scout venues, and plan another program – for your fall debut the next calendar year. That’s about how long it will take to raise the revenue and the interest, and the timeline you need for foundation and government grants and some press. Take the time to plan as much as you can upfront, so you can focus on your productions – and on your second season.

9) Find a buddy.
The administrative details quickly add up, and you’ll need at least one business partner to get things done, talk through ideas, and get through setbacks. Want to launch a crowdsource campaign? Well, did you set up a YouTube account, apply for fiscal sponsorship, set up a business bank account, shoot and edit a video, round up perks for your donors….. you get the idea.

8) In fact, find a posse.
If you earn your living as a freelancer, any admin time you spend on a self-produced concert will not be compensated – at least not for a while – and is therefore a loss of income for you. Share leadership broadly, and keep a rotating cast of people cycling through the organization who can get things done as they are able.

7) Think temporary. At least at first.
It used to be that starting a charitable endeavor meant you were planning long-term. No more. With the number of new arts organizations vastly outpacing available dollars, the new drumbeat is to consolidate organizations that duplicate each other’s work and for donors to become more supportive of short-term, project-based initiatives. Make it a pop-up opera or concert series. If you have resounding success, you can go longer term. If you don’t, or get tired of the admin hassle, then it was a line on your resume and that was that.

6) How will this end?
Judy Blume’s relationship advice works for business too. Will this project live longer than you will? How and why? Will it eventually be merged into an organization with a similar mission (or could it now?) Thinking about where you’re going will help you figure out how to get there.

5) Pause before you stage.
Staging an opera (or anything else) requires more of everything – time, artists, space, and, therefore, money. Even if you have these resources lying around, seriously consider no more than one or two productions a year, until you can pay yourself to do it.

4) Solve other people’s problems.
In addition to starting a project that best suits your own strengths, look around your community and think about what is missing. Fractured Atlas took off because it provides a sleek, user-friendly interface for artist-led fundraising. Boston Opera Collaborative offers its paying members good performance opportunities. Groupmuse appears to be the Airbnb of concert series, connecting performers to audience members’ living rooms. What do these ventures have in common? They are products that many people want to buy.

3) Own the room.
If you are the one bringing artists together to perform, do not shy away from your role as a leader. People like leadership. It is reassuring to come to a gig knowing that certain decisions have been made and parameters established. Be the person with the deepest knowledge of the material you are working on, so you can answer questions with an informed opinion.

2) You are not crazy cat lady.
After years of looking to your teachers, conductors, directors, and even your own family to determine career choices, striking out on your own feels uniquely uncomfortable. Inviting an artist you respect to work on your yet-to-be-tested venture can bring out your every insecurity. But artists of all levels still have to fill their calendars, and everyone is their own worst critic. If you have the chutzpah to follow your entrepreneurial spark, allow yourself to bask in the fact that not everyone has that kind of courage.

1) How does it serve art?
Before anything else, have a really good answer to this one. How will Music – capital M – be better because you are doing this work? How will this expand everyone’s thinking about the music you will present? How will it welcome listeners and inspire other artists?

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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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