I've been off line now for quite some time, and have been busy assessing the new Paramount Theatre--determining its strengths and weaknesses and how it will affect our Orchestra and future programming (can you believe that as I type we are planning a rough draft of our 2015/2016 season?). As with everyone in our community, I am absolutely thrilled about the restoration of our magnificent home, and it underscores what I have been saying for years now: where you play determines what you play and has direct bearing on the quality of the organization performing within its walls.
When I come up with a program, the layperson often thinks that it's just me imposing my personal tastes on the Orchestra and audience. While I can't deny that my personal taste and personality finds its way into the programming, the fact is that ideas fulminate with an Artistic Task Force that represents a cross section of our constituency (musicians, educators, composers, long-time audience members, novices etc.). Once ideas are put to paper it's my job, together with CEO Robert Massey, to come up with pairings that are affordable, that will sell, and at the same time fulfill some of the artistic aspirations of our musicians.
The most powerful and banal factor that controls all of this is where you play. You can't do a Brahms Symphony in a ball park, an Iron Maiden concert in a church, or a Mahler Symphony on a tiny stage (well you could, but it would be foolish). Now that the Paramount Theatre has been upgraded with modern amenities, our area can enjoy professional ballet. They can finally see opera with the full forces and amenities intended by the composer. The Orchestra can do large scale works for chorus and orchestra that heretofore could not fit on the stage. Because of this wonderful new space, our Orchestra can do new and wonderful things, and thanks to excellent acoustics, people are re-discovering how good this Orchestra really is.
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This summer, I read many classic texts of Chinese philosophy, one of which was Sun Tzu's The Art of War
. One of the basic tenets of the book is how to ensure victory before a campaign even begins, such that the momentum of one's strategy and preparation makes the triumphant outcome inevitable. BRUCEMORCHESTRA
is far and away the most complex, multi-faceted event Orchestra Iowa produces each season. Often with complexity comes the increased potential for disaster, and yet 3 hours before the concert, I knew that one of the most special performances of my tenure was in the making, and that the actual execution of it was but a formality. Instead of being nervous, and pacing back-and-forth fretting about this detail or that, I had one of the most stress free, relaxing experiences of my career all because the outcome was pre-ordained by spectacular preparation and strategy. The weather was FANTASTIC (ok we can't control that, but when the heavens cooperate, we've won half the battle). The Brucemore grounds were impeccable as always complete with staff, crowd control measures, concessions, warm-up space, port-o-johns, parking/shuttling, and a myriad of other details I can't even imagine. Iowa Public Radio had their own preparations to make with their on-site live broadcast of the program, including organizing interviews with the various artists and leaders. Logistics went smoothly--stage, sound, lights, electrical generators, beer tent, stage extension with Marley floor for the Ballet, piano transport and tuning, choral risers, chairs, stands, and percussion cartage. And then the hours of individual practice by our superb soloist Alan Huckleberry, and the preparations of the Ballet and the 3 choruses involved (CR Concert Chorale, Coe College, Mount Mercy University). And how about BALLET QUAD CITIES! This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and stay tuned for our joint performances of the Nutcracker and Cinderella this season. And then there's the musical hustle and bustle--hire the personnel, order/rent the music, prepare the bowings, distribute it to the orchestra 2-3 weeks in advance, organize rehearsal space at Washington High School, and then come together the day before to rehearse on Saturday, with a run through Sunday morning. Oh yeah, did I mention marketing, sponsorship development and ticketing? When I come to think of it, the fact that piecing this together happened in a matter of 2 days, is nothing short of a miracle--more than enough margin for error that could make one curl up in the fetal position. But because the preparation was so thorough, and the musical selection and artistic quality spot on for the occasion, the actual performance was like blowing a leaf off the palm of my hand. WHAT A GREAT NIGHT!!!!
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Four years ago as this community was pulling itself out of the rubble posed by the flood, so many lives were tossed upside down and there was a great deal of uncertainty what the future would bring. There were days when it was not clear whether the orchestra would survive the ensuing years as we awaited the return of our concert hall. Indeed, this current season was the most in jeopardy as the full financial implications of the flood crested to full force. As I mentioned in concert, this community has distinguished itself these past few years by collectively making a concerted effort to reach out a helping hand to their neighbor so that all could rise above the tide. It has not been easy or perfect, but it revealed an admirable character and mettle that most around the country would find enviable. To this end, I am forever grateful to Coe College who, in the midst of their own flood related challenges, opened their hearts and home to us. Without the use of Sinclair Auditorium, there definitely would not be an orchestra today. We would not have had the opportunity to raise the roof and blow the rafters this past weekend with a thrilling Shostakovich 5. We would not have had the opportunity to touch the divine with a sublime performance of the St. John Passion. Our comedic collaboration with Hancher during our pops programs last season would not have happened, nor would Follies have been able to retain a semblance of a presence in the area. Some of the best partnerships and music making of my career happened during these past few years, so as we turn our sights to the Paramount Theatre, let us say farewell to Sinclair Auditorium with gratitude and pride.
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I've been awfully busy these days thinking about the state of the Symphony business of late. I've been asked by Coe College to participate as a lecturer in their Leadership Institute later on in May, and have been teaching a continuing ed. class through the University of Iowa Foundation about the history of symphonic music. Couple this with the dire news across the globe of declining audiences, fading interest in classical music, and failing arts institutions in general, I am struck by how unique and different we are in this small corner of the universe. Why? Part of the reason why we differ from most other orchestras is that our board, management and artistic leadership take a sober and unflinching view of the realities that we face, and the future challenges that are to come. Our organization spends more time contemplating the future than living in the past. When I arrived, the orchestra was in financial distress with aging and dwindling audiences (we were among the very typical statistics of our industry). Instead of repeating past practices hoping for better results, the flood forced us to reform our way of thinking, make some difficult decisions, and expand our region to perform beyond our usual borders to build additional audiences elsewhere (a long and incremental process). Serious attention to the relevancy of symphonic music to our community and society at-large, demanded the courage to make significant strategic change that is just now bearing fruit. Enter the Opus Concert Café and the return of a new and improved Paramount Theatre, in which we now enjoy a presenting partnership with VenuWorks.
I don't expect everyone to be an ardent fan of symphonic music, but it is an imperative for our survival that most in the area know that we exist and value our contribution to the quality of life in our area. Most importantly I want all to be comfortable walking through our doors on any given day, and not be intimidated or deflected by negative stereotypes of elitism. Our greatest danger is to become an island unto ourselves locked away from the lives of mainstream America. Today we have addressed this age old problem and are touching audiences who otherwise would not have known we existed. In its very brief history, the Opus Concert Café has featured chamber music, jazz, office parties, cabaret, and just this past weekend the New York comedy troupe "Upright Citizens Brigade." There's more where that came from. While it is premature to release what will be featured at the Paramount next season, I can tell you that Broadway, ballet, opera, and a variety of popular music, dance, theatre, and other entertainment presentations will be on the slate. Orchestra Iowa now has a direct hand in bringing ALL of these cultural events and more to our community. And therein lays the reason why we are so different than most if not all other orchestras in the nation. We are now a performance arts organization around which all activities support the financial health and artistic success of the symphony orchestra. Whether you come to a symphony concert or not, the mere act of attending an event at the Paramount Theatre or Opus Concert Café, is a meaningful show of support for the orchestra, and demonstrates that we are touching a vast diversity of audience that was once closed to us in the past. This is not your great-grandmothers orchestra anymore. Careful, next time you attend a rock concert at the Paramount Theatre (or country, or comedy, or Broadway et al.), likely it will have been brought to you in-part by Orchestra Iowa.
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