Thursday, March 21, 2013

Pop-star programming that kinda works

Earlier this week, I heard a relatively new, and wildly popular choral group - The Eric Whitacre Singers.  Eric (I have to assume he prefers being called by his first name) has Brad Pitt's looks, Ryan Seacrest's cheaky charm, a silicon valley left of centeredness, the swagger of a used car salesman, and great voices in his choir.  I don't mean for this blog to be a forum of concert reviews, so I will attempt to focus on the programmatic elements of the concert and Eric himself.  Because, surprise, it's all about the programming.

So let's start with Eric himself.  He writes some cool compositions, and I love his use of tone clusters to create chords that are "arresting" as one friend put it. It's refreshing to have crazy tone clusters in the midst of well-done melodic lines!  It's kinda new, kinda not, but for a modernist with a slight preference for tonality like me, it's beautiful.  More interesting is the text he chooses.  He picks some really interesting and not too popular poems for his compositions.

As I was looking around the audience, which was mainly between the ages of 15-30, I was struck at the accomplishments of this man:  Eric has been able to introduce obscure poetry, through relatively obscure choral music, and make it really accessible and popular.  How popular is he?  He has more than 5.5 million views on his youtube channel. Reminder - this is a choral conductor who writes modern classical music set to less than popular poetry.  He's doing something right!

He programs a decent concert.  He got some Bach and Monteverdi in to establish his credentials (although, I think many people would argue with the success of these two pieces).  He got some Corigliano in as a tribute to his mentor and a nod to the modern establishment.  And not surprisingly he put a lot of his own compositions in the mix.  Some were dark and brooding, some were horribly silly, one was just bad in my opinion - but it was all there.  He laid out himself in front of an audience and the authenticity in his music was there, even if it was missing in him (see used car salesman reference above).

It's easy to find a virtuoso to get up and play the great standards in a large concert hall, and I do really enjoy that! But it's not easy to find someone pushing genres (check out Eric's youtube chorus) and writing modernist music with pop-star flair.  He is pushing limits, making some mistakes, and all around creating new and interesting programming for a new audience.  Check him out if you haven't already.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Stick to Your Guns

I have been in conversations recently about the relationship between development and programming. From what I can tell, there seem to be two opposing perspectives and a middle ground betwixt.

The idealist perspective is that all programming should be determined by the organization / staff, and then fundraisers should be sought out to fund those specific programs. This ensures that the mission of your org is central to all programming, and makes sure the wealthy people don't start using arts orgs as their personal gig service.

The Mr. Burns perspective is that arts orgs should approach potential funders with the question "what kind of work do you want to support?" and then implement that work. This ensures that an organization can stay financially healthy, and meet the needs of its biggest supporters.

Neither model is perfect. One is lofty, the other is fiscally practical. As with many things, my preference exists in the middle. I'm a believer that arts orgs should stick to their mission. If they have a clear mission statement and target audience, then programming must address both of those things.

It's important also for arts orgs to listen to their audience. After all, should art not reflect society? I have to remind myself that our donors are also our audience. Just because they write a check doesn't mean we should listen to them any less than we would a general admission audience member.

If a board member or major donor has a new idea for a work, listen! These are people who spend their free time and money in the arts, so they likely have a good perspective. If that new idea indeed meets your mission, is able to reach your target audience, and has funding, it's a great candidate for new programming. That's not to say that the major donors will drive your programming - remember it is your mission that drives programming - but they can be great assets in educating your org and audience, in addition to writing a check.