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Super Sunday

Could classical music institutions benefit from direct competition?

by Drew McManus
February 5, 2006

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Super Sunday

Arguably, Super Bowl Sunday is one of the most anticipated sporting events of the year as it regularly attracts millions upon millions of viewers. Even those who don't like football are drawn into its pull by hosting anti-Super Bowl parties (would they have planned a party on the same day at the same time otherwise?).

There's no doubt that the competitive nature of athletics is one of its primary draws. So why can't classical music find a way to tap into the benefits from competition?

First of all, the subjective nature of classical music prohibits any real direct competition; there are no points to score and no universally agreed upon rules. Additionally, the standards by which classical music organizations, especially orchestras, measure their success are sometimes vague, such as maintaining "artistic excellence" and programming "great music".

Nevertheless, there are some clear-cut ways in which classical music organizations measure their success, even if they aren't readily noticeable or publicized. Furthermore, they have more in common with athletics than one might think.

For large ensembles, the musicians they attract to fill open positions is a critical benchmark of success. Although it's become popular for orchestral ensembles to list the cumulative number of musicians who arrive for auditions, the real gauge is whether or not an ensemble can entice (read, "steal") a player away from an ensemble of equal or greater artistic stature.

With the free agent system, athletic teams have a similar structure with which fans can use to determine the overall attractiveness of their organization. If a star player for an up-and-coming team turns down a lucrative contract with an opposing team which has a longer history of success, that's a good sign that up-and-coming team is really getting somewhere.

Within the orchestra world, if an orchestra which is not part of the traditional "Big 5" (New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago) can keep their top players in the fold then that's a good indication that they offer a competitive artistic product as their top-tier peers. Over the past few years, the orchestra world has witnessed some extraordinary events along these lines.

Recently, the San Francisco Symphony's piccolo player auditioned for, and won, the piccolo position in the Chicago Symphony. However, in the end, the musician decided to turn down the position in one of the world's eminent ensembles to remain with San Francisco, an orchestra which was considered by many to be an artistic outpost only a few decades ago.

In another "Big 5" ensemble, the Cleveland Orchestra, they awarded their principal trombone position to a musician from the Minnesota Orchestra. After a year of playing with Cleveland, the trombonist decided to return to Minnesota (made possible by the "leave of absence" clause found in most orchestra's collective bargaining agreements).

But what about head-to-head competition? It's doubtful that the world of classical music will witness these events among their large ensembles (although soloist competitions are quite common). The only thing to come close is the "Carnegie Effect"; a unique situation where large classical music ensembles travel to New York City to perform in Carnegie Hall in order to allow the music critics from the major New York newspapers to evaluate their ensemble.

It's common for these music critics to pass "judgment" on visiting ensembles and positive remarks are trumpeted by the visiting ensembles in press material for years to come. In an odd way, it's as though the visiting ensemble is trying to establish their "artistic excellence" through transference: if the music critics in the cultural capital of the U.S. think their local orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, is good and they think we're good, then we must be of equal stature to the New York Philharmonic. Thus, a game with no points is created.

In the end, some consider this process rather silly and as the lines of traditional and contemporary media are blurred, the influence of big city newspapers will wane. As such, classical music ensembles will undoubtedly begin to look for other methods to outwardly justify their artistic excellence. If we're all lucky, perhaps it will end up resembling something like Peter Schickele imagined nearly 40 years ago when he created his Beethoven 5th Symphony Sportscast (real audio player required).

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Frank Manheim from Fairfax VA 22033 writes:
February 7, 2006
Competition in classical music - sure it can work. Let competitions be judged by audiences and watch things happen.

The Musicprize, with an award of $25,000 for the top composition, was initiated about 5 years ago by British Businessman John McLaren. The first year's award collected no fewer than 1000 entries! The trick was that contending works were not just submitted as scores - readable only by professionals - but 50% of the choice was to be exercised by the online audience on hearing selections from the works in performance. The first years' winners elicited more enthusiasm than had been experienced in new classical works in years.

Interest in that award seems to have declined in the past couple of years, and if I were allowed to suggest a reason, it's because professionals still had too much control over outcomes. If McLaren were to announce a new contest judged exclusively by nonprofessionals - or professionals able to take off their academic hats - I believe there would be a new groundswell of excitement and the interest could be sustained.

I have only praise for the skill and dedication of professional musicians. It's a tough field and one that selects for people with valuable esthetic leanings. But the control of composition in the 20th Century by peer professionals has shunted the inheritors of the great classical music tradition of the 19th and earlier centuries into a railway siding that has no contact with musical travel by the larger music-loving public.

When I was program chairman of the Falmouth Music Association in Cape Cod, I once initiated a youth pops concert sponsored by the FMA. We offered a battle of the bands, where original compositions by groups would contend for an award. It was a great success and the kids asked for more - but these things require a lot of work to organize - and so we didn't make it into a tradition. In other contexts, we commissioned music from young people with extraordinary yields.

My prescription for an avenue of revival of classical music is to have local symphonies sponsor youth composition competitions with meaningful prizes - judged primarily by peers. Adults should serve only through organizational assistance. If kids who have not yet been brainwashed by academics into adopting prejudices and models of what is quality are freed up to demonstrate their inspiration, I believe that the adult world would be dazzled by the results, and, given the role of electronics today, new ideas could spread rapidly.

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