Live Blog: A chat with the Boston Symphony Orchestra

What follows is a live blog from our chat with leaders from the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday, December 7, 2011. Participants included:

Mark Volpe, Managing Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Anthony Fogg, Artistic Administrator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Sommerville, Principal Horn of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Music Director of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in Canada
Ludovic Morlot, Music Director of the Seattle Symphony and former Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra
John Harbison, composer and chair of the composition program at the Tanglewood Music Center

5:04: Sommerville: there already is a lot of technology on stage, dating from all periods (violins, french horns, electric guitar). We use it not because it’s the newest, but because it’s the best. Any technology has to serve the unique atmosphere and experience of the live concert experience–the silence, the community.

5:00: Volpe: Driving people to the live experience is how we want to use media. If there is revenue to be shared along the way, they’ll do that.

4:54: Volpe: on technology… business model is yet to come, but already Tanglewood uses robotic cameras to broadcast concerts outside. 140,000 people subscribe to the BSO podcasts on iTunes. BSO is lucky to have MIT Media Lab involvement. One challenge is always working through the rights: players, publishers, artists. There’s a comparison to baseball and the fear that TV would ruin the audience for the live game.

4:54: Volpe: BSO uses very targeted offers to get over price barrier for younger audiences. Morlot: Seattle Symphony offers free tickets for ages 8-18 when accompanied by full price adult ticket, for all subscription concerts. Harbison: it’s a huge deal, get young people in there to hear the sound for the first time.

4:51: Volpe: the one thing he worries about is that there are 2 or 3 generations now who are not as musically literate as previous generations. BSO works with sponsors to get instruments back in the schools. Arts advocates failed in letting arts education leave the schools.

4:47: Sommerville: we all see the trends about the greying audience. With all the choices one has, it seems everything is becoming more segmented. It could be that’s our niche. People come to different things at different parts of their lives.

4:43: Volpe: Everyday he focuses on… how do you cut through the noise? How do you continue to have the BSO be an institution that defines Boston in an ever more cluttered marketplace? The orchestras that falter have lost that position.

4:37: Volpe: For a Music Director, you’re looking for someone who will inspire the orchestra and the audience, engage with the community in the broadest sense. You also need someone who will make a commitment to the city, even though the best conductors now work on five continents.

4:29: Morlot: Artists must be versatile to create a versatile audience. Morlot programmed Frank Zappa and Beethoven on his first subscription concert. His hope is to inspire people to have a first experience with the orchestra and after that people will hopefully come back.

4:23: Volpe thinks every day about how best to leverage the BSO brand, the 133-year legacy, all the BSO’s resources in new media.

4:22: Fogg: most creative part of my job? Balancing the budget. No really, it’s finding that opportunity or circumstance to allow an artist to do something they’ve always wanted to do.

4:18: Sommerville: BSO players have gotten more nimble over the last 13 years, since he started. Conservatory training now is broader. Musicians are exposed to more performance styles. New players in the BSO bring that with them.

4:14: Harbison: Tanglewood composition program now includes movie/television writing. The program encourages the development of very specific skills, recognizing that it’s a different time now for composers.

4:11: Volpe: decades ago, there were 6000-7000 households feeding into subscription concerts, each going 20-25 times. Now it’s 40,000 households, averaging 6 concerts.

4:10: Sommerville: Musicians grumble when we get out Tchaikovsky’s 4th again. Ok, some do. But people enjoy hearing their favorites. People like to hear these things and it’s tremendously important for the audience. Morlot: And there will always be someone for who it’s new.

4:08: Morlot: It’s also important to give new works multiple hearings, to bring them back in subsequent seasons. To give the players and the audience the opportunity to experience the piece again.

4:05: Sommerville: one of the BSO’s most valued traditions is identifying the greatest composers of the day and commissiong them to write great works. It’s always been a central part of the BSO’s mission. Someone needs to be out there to commission the great works of the second decade of the 21st-century. Many orchestras do not have the resources.

4:03: The BSO took the plunge in the middle of the depression to launch Tanglewood. The tradition is built on innovation.

4:00: Volpe: the S&P 100 years ago: there are only three companies that remain. The great universities from 100 years ago: many more are still with us.

3:58: Morlot: One change since his tenure as Assistant Condcutor in 2004-2007–the BSO is more aggressive about creating media and making connections to the community.

3:55: Sommerville: Touring has a huge beneficial effect on orchestra. Socially, it just brings the group together, which is positive. It matters to the musicians how they are perceived, so people bring their A-game. Makes the orchestra better.

3:52: Harbison: A tour is like the Tanglewood experience, your all together but somewhat displaced. Orchestras are all different in how the chemistry works. One thing he’s noticed: the SF Symphony hangs together after concerts much longer than most. SPCO: there’s a lot more socializing between concerts and rehearsal. That cosmos seems to develop very individually.

3:49: Morlot: communication is key. Going to Seattle, for example, and starting as Music Director, the first thing he did was to encourage dialogue. It’s like what we do on stage. Best ideas don’t just spring from one mind.

3:47: Sommerville: BSO administration is made up of people who came up in the orchestral world or are musicians themselves. In some cases, that’s independent of–and perhaps more influential–than the music director on the culture of the orchestra.

3:43: Fogg: One unique thing is that we are very close physically to the players–the administrative offices are right in the hall–and we spend all summer living together at Tanglewood. It’s different psychologically than if the office is two blocks down the street. A united understanding of the “business” side is important. Mark Volpe does that well.

3:37: Do you talk like this in your daily life at the orchestra? Volpe: maybe more than most orchestras, yes. The dialogue is very healthy. Sommerville: every orchestra has different structures for dialogue. But it mostly comes down to the culture in the orchestra, which filters down from the head of the administration.

3:27: Panelists have arrived and introductions are being made.

Content from the discussion will be used in a podcast to be distributed in early January.

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