Live Blog: Behind-the-scenes conversation with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

What follows is a live blog from our chat with leaders from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Tuesday, February 14, 2012.

Participants included:

  • Deborah Rutter, President of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
  • Martha Gilmer, Vice President for Artistic Planning and Audience Development
  • Anna Clyne, Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
  • Stephen Lester, Bass, Chair of the Orchestra Committee
  • Lawrie Bloom, Clarinet

3:33 Clyne: Music can create a space where anyone can express and share themselves.

Rutter: CSO Music Director Riccardo Muti connected with young women in a juvenile detention center program. He performed opera arias with two singers, explaining the stories behind the music, stories of love, loss, and betr. He spoke to three dozen teenagers behind bars, speaking directly to connect them to the music he’s devoted his life to. He’s trying to show that this music reflects all of humanity.

Lester: CSO Music Director Riccardo Muti is very committed to the audience in Chicago. It’s very evident in what he does.

3:26 Rutter: CSO musicians and administration had training in fostering innovation. Prototyping is key. Experimentation is a big part of what the organization needs to do.

3:25 Gilmer: WXRT (a rock station in Chicago) and CSO present “Classical Encounters,” targeted at WXRT listeners. It includes informal conversation with a classically-trained WXRT DJ before the concert, drawing parallels that the audience will immediately get. For example, Bartok used “sampling,” of folk melodies, like Moby uses sampling.

3:18 Bloom: In collaboration, there is inherent risk.

3:13 Gilmer: The importance of taking risks cannot be underestimated. CSO has pursued collaborations with a rock radio station, dance companies and others. One key is to collaborate with organizations at the same artistic level.

3:11 Clyne: With contemporary music, there is no comparison point, usually, you haven’t heard the piece before performed by other orchestras. Working with the CSO, you know you are hearing the best possible presentation of the music.

3:09 Rutter: She doesn’t think there is money to be made in media. It’s about building an audience so that people come to your concerts. From her perspective, with media, the orchestra just needs to minimize its loss.

3:07 Rutter: The orchestra is an artistic organization, not a financial institution. If it was a financial institution, nothing of what they do would make sense. The goal is to create art. One must take the long view.

3:04 Gilmer: A tough question… let’s say you could have a Thursday night recording out on Friday morning, in the hands of people, via online distribution. How do you balance that with spending money on 6 months of editing and finishing? Balancing the speed/quality. How do you decide that?

3:03 Rutter: The financial balancing act is something an orchestra always has to deal with. There is always a tension with how much and what to do. She’s been having this conversation her entire career. The difference now is that people ask more broadly, “Does excellence really matter?” It hasn’t changed her opinion, but people now ask that.

3:00 Gilmer: The question is — how do you hold onto quality in the midst of change?

2:59 We’re back from a short break.

2:40 Bloom: There used to be Arts section in the newspaper. Now it’s Entertainment. He believes we need to preserve this music as an art. It causes some people to be reactive and others proactive.

2:38 What is the musician’s role in driving this? Lester: Musicians have eery interest in making sure the music is appreciated and understood by as many people as possible. Musicians also have a sense of pride and proprietorship in the music, they don’t want to see it twisted and contrived to be mass market product. They seem contradictory at first, but they actually complement each other. It’s a tension that goes back decades. Goes back along time, especially in the US.

2:35pm Lester: Great questions. And we’re the wrong people to ask (re: distribution). We are interested in the music played. The context it’s given in. That’s what we are interested in.

Rutter: The CSO Orchestral Explorers program for kids… a packet goes into the hall with printouts, a disc with recorded music… it feels so antiquated. It could be the 1950s. One example of something we struggle with technology-wise. For us, the question is should we invest in digitizing this? Would we have to change the materials? How are kids learning now?

2:29 In the end, what is the point of technology? Lester: It’s no secret the audience in the hall for classical music is mainly aging, white, wealthy people. Technology seems like an opportunity to reach out beyond that.

2:27 Lester: We’re trying to reach the broadest audience possible. Technology seems like an answer. But it’s expensive and hard to know the right thing to do. It was always, in the past, done for the orchestra (the recording industry, for example).

Rutter: The challenge is we don’t know how to keep up with technology. We have traditions built up over 100+ years, but we aren’t nimble enough yet to know how to share what we do as quickly as we can. We specialize in presenting live concerts. Figuring out the right way to get the word out through podcast, video, internet, is hard.

2:24 Rutter: It really is a societal change. People learn/know so much more before they do anything.

2:23 Bloom: Society has changed drastically. Not so many years ago, celebrity was put on a pedestal. People didn’t want to know us, they just wanted to hear us play. The mystique of the tuxedos. Now people want to know what musicians think.

2:20 Gilmer: There was a time when audiences complained about being spoken to from the stage. We would get letters. This has changed. Our audiences are curious and desiring to understand in context. People are so busy, they are no longer playing Brahms symphonies on the parlor piano.

2:17 Clyne: There really is a deep sense of trust in Chicago between conductor, orchestra and audience. As a contemporary composer, this is ideal. Leads to thrilling performances.

2:16 Rutter: At some point over the last years, there has been a re-building of trust with the audience. With contemporary music, the audience will try it, trusting that the orchestra/conductor/programming is all working together.

Bloom: Connection onstage with a conductor is clearly felt in the audience as well.

2:13 Lester: Beyond the Score program has been crucial to having audiences appreciate the concerts at a higher level. Going back a long time, the programming seemed to segment the music. When the audience is not connected to the music, musicians on stage notice, it’s not a warm feeling.

2:11 Rutter: Years ago, coming to Chicago, Rutter picked up on a certain distance between the stage and the audience, a lack of connection. Musicians were the most vocal in pointing it out. Growing up in LA, she felt the orchestra was there almost as a personal resource… that stayed with her. The orchestra needs to be a musical home for the community. It was important to bring that sense of community to Chicago.

1:53 Participants have arrived and are taking their seats.

1 Comment

  1. Jfcox says:

    Bassist Stephen Lester is very concerned that the musicians of the CSO “keep our basic standard of life.”

    Does he think about the subscribers and other patrons lost by this strike, the diminished respect for the musicians who put their personal life style above fiscal responsibility, and the sarcastic laughter of those who believe that if the second highest paid symphony musicians in the nation are unhappy, they should audition for Alan Gilbert?

    I am a season ticket holder and donor. I would like Mr. Lester to know that I drove 6 hours to Chicago (and 6 hours back) to see last Saturday’s concert. My husband flew from Texas to join me. We arrived about 10:00 p.m. on Friday night and left about 9:00 Sunday morning so we could both meet work responsibilities. Of course the purpose of this time and expense was to hear the concert which did not take place.

    But, of course, my little problems and expenses are nothing in comparison to Mr. Lester’s (and his wife’s) life style.

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