Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Evolving Icon

As I search for lost time in Frantic: the Memoir, I'm brought back to the years as a youngster growing up in the Boston area in the 60s and 70s. A highlight for me were Sunday afternoon concerts at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and of course, evening performances of the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops at Symphony Hall. It was through those experiences that I came to love music. The Pops reached out to all age groups, and made any performance an event not to be missed. To read how the Pops in its 125th season, is facing a decline in ticket sales, and looking for a way to evolve, as are the Cincinnati and Pittsburgh Symphony Pops, sadly reflects the current issues facing all arts organizations today.

Mark Volpe, managing director who oversees the Pops, Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Tanglewood, blames the struggles largely on the economy. But there are reasons beyond the economy for the decline. In the golden era of the Pops there was no Internet or cable TV to compete with. The orchestra could expect a core audience, no matter who was headlining the show. When the organization recently added "Pops on the Edge" a rock-themed programming, which brought rockers My Morning Jacket, Cowboy Junkies, and Guster, they alienated the older crowd. It's like damned if you do, and damned if you don't.
 "This is not your grandmother's Boston Pops," says Tony Beadle, who managed the organization from 1999-2006.

When I grew up, Arthur Fiedler was the legendary conductor of the Boston Pops. He turned the orchestra into the most popular symphony in the world, and advertised himself as a people's maestro. The Pops barely marketed but had an automatic audience, always. Arthur Fiedler turned another of his dreams into reality when he created open-air summer symphony concerts, free to the public, known as the Esplanade Concerts.

It's interesting and scary to be a classical artist of this time period, knowing that even the lighter concert series are suffering from lack of audience support and interest. Many of my colleagues seem distressed at the thought of their own children pursuing music as a career. What does the future hold? Will ticket sales go forward when the economy rebounds? And how should organizations market to the younger crowd while retaining older subsribers? The answers to these questions are anybody's guess.

I think some of the most prophetic words were spoken in 1974 by Harry Ellis Dickson, longtime associate conductor of the Boston Pops, in his revised book, "Gentlemen, More Dolce Please!" (Incidentally, Dickson plays a prominent role in my memoir, Frantic. I well remember how he was revered in the community for his wit and candor). As I leaf through Harry Ellis Dickson's books for second and third readings, I find them relevant for today:

"By the year 2000 all of us will probably have become so sophisticated and so saturated with music that all emotion will have been drained out of our systems. Concert-going will be an exercise in brain-function, nothing more. Perhaps it will afford a kind of satisfaction we don't quite understand today, but I'm glad I won't be around to "enjoy" it...
In the future we will continue to hurl invective at everything new and unfamiliar as we have done since before Beethoven's time. The good will remain, in whatever form, and the bad will be discarded in spite of ourselves."

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