The State of the Arts

Posted By on April 3, 2011

This past week has been a very interesting experience. My wife, Kristina and I had organized a small tour of four concerts in Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany, performing a wonderfully varied and virtuoso program with our pianist, Lauretta Bloomer. The suggestion to do this tour actually came from Lauretta and her husband, Bruce Rienstra, who works for the church in The Hague, one of the places we played. We were light heartedly calling it the “Sweet L’il Church Tour” as all four concerts were held at Anglican (or Episcopal) churches.

There was no sponsor for this undertaking. There were no fees involved. Bruce simply provided us with the space through his connections with each church, and we all agreed to do as much promotion and advertising for the tour as we could, given our collective busy schedules. The plan for payment- a suggested donation of 15 Euros (21 US Dollars) at the door plus the sales of VHD CDs as well as Lauretta’s solo CDs.

The idea was never a bad one. Throughout the many years I have toured with Kristina and my brother, Kyle, through the United States, Singapore and Australia, as well as my very extensive touring with the AHQ, we have, from time to time, scheduled just such a concert because either we needed to fill in the blanks (free days) on an otherwise full tour, or because we were playing in a home town of one of the players and there was therefore a lot of local interest. How have these concerts fared? Well, in the past, you could count on a rather decent turn out. Back in the 90’s, it didn’t seem to be too difficult to attract an audience of say, 60 or 70 to one of these self-organized events. Sometimes we even had a couple of hundred. As the new century chimed in, I did indeed notice a slight decrease in concert attendance. But it certainly didn’t seem prophetic or drastic by any means. Just a couple of concerts over a couple years that were poorly attended. This last year however has brought a new realization to my previous blindness to the state of the arts, as I have performed quite a few times for almost empty houses.

This past “Cute L’il Church Tour” proved, unfortunately to be a severely negative experience in terms of audience attendance. The first concert in Waterloo was very poorly attended indeed. Luckily some good friends and colleagues of ours made the trip (just south of Brussels) to be there and support us. The concert in The Hague saw a somewhat better turn out, although still quite small. We decided to cancel the concert in Eindhoven since we all had the least friends and connections in that city, and the final recital in Wiesbaden was just passing in acceptable numbers. There were horn players at all of these concerts. And the enthusiasm from the audiences was extremely high! I think we played the poorest in Waterloo only because of the initial shock of seeing such an empty church sanctuary instead of a wildly applauding crowd. It was demoralizing and embarrassing, as anyone who has been in that situation knows. I personally could not really focus for the first half of the concert.

You see, over the past few months, I had been coming to grips with this new reality of the classical music business, a term I despise because I will never consider it a business and thoroughly believe that doing so spells out the inevitable demise of this magnificent art. My orchestra, the OPL, has been delivered an entirely new mandate, suggesting that we follow in the footsteps of American orchestras. Fund raising, privatization, audience targeting, seeking out large corporate sponsors and strategic programming and promotion are the order of the day now for us. This way of funding the arts is exactly why I left America back in 1982. Europe was the golden land of thriving orchestras and was an unbelievably sumptuous performing arts scene. There was money everywhere for the arts, mostly government money. And this way of providing for their culture created this ideal dream environment. Well, all that has changed now since September 11, 2001 and the subsequent world financial crisis (I’m not linking the two necessarily, it’s just coincidental). The opulent coffers of the European fine arts have been drained and everyone, it seems, is going the way of the U.S. fine arts set-up. Interestingly enough, they seem to have it developed to a pretty sophisticated level over there, whereas here in “the old country” we are total beginners in this way of doing things. This ironically prompts the desire to return to the States and continue working there, where they seem to have it together, more or less.

And all of this is hitting me as I step out in front of the tiny but beautifully enthusiastic audience in Waterloo and attempt to play the Haydn double concerto in Eb. What has gone wrong? We knew that these events were going to be a little under par in attendance, but never this! I had a similarly catastrophic situation in Luxembourg back in December where I organized a concert under these same conditions at the International School of Luxembourg for trumpet player Brian Chin. And I swore then and there never to do that again.

But Kristina, Lauretta and I love to play these recitals! And if I do say so myself, and please forgive my boasting, we play the living hell out of our repertoire, which is very entertaining and enjoyable (twice on this tour we received the comment, “that was much more fun than I thought it was going to be”, or something to that effect). And this one of the important ways we all make a living. So where is the audience? Where is the demand for this sort of fine art entertainment? For culture? Have the fine arts been totally drowned out by the obnoxiously loud and way overly financed (and shockingly low standard, by the way) monster machine, which is the pop culture?

Well, I have decided that the answer to that question is not “yes.” That is, the audience is indeed there. And they are loyally attending both symphony and chamber music concerts. This year in the Philharmonie, the OPL played several times to sold out (or nearly sold out) crowds. And the Philharmonie in Luxembourg is a huge facility. And when the AHQ has performed on a regular community chamber concert series, there was standing room only audiences. But the key word here is “regular community concert series”. The concert goers of the new century seem to desire to adhere themselves to a properly planned out and structured series of say, 7 or 8 chamber concerts which are held at a fine concert hall, offer a nice variety of ensembles and fit their busy, structured schedules. And sponsors, unfortunately the new way of funding the arts, quite logically opt to sponsor and advertise a concert series, where they can get advertising and cultural association in the community, not by supporting a one-time event, but being plastered on the programs and posters of 7 or 8 concerts over the year. It means more exposure and is simply good business (there’s that word again…) The result of this new way of thinking is what I have experienced over these past few years, namely if someone decides to organize a concert or recital as a “one offer”, it goes under the normal concert goers radar and sponsors are very reluctant to get involved.

Another new and frustrating phenomenon is the newly developed importance of having an agent or manager. With the vast ocean of touring musicians all scrambling for performance opportunities (so sad), the artistic committees for these regular chamber concert series are simply overwhelmed with choice. So the simple solution- turn the entire thing over to an agent. Or consult with artist managements, which have produced good results for you in the past. But artist managements and agents are businesses (did I say I strongly dislike that word?) They are principally interested in making money. Or of they do indeed have higher, loftier artistic ideals, they certainly don’t want to lose money. So they have one, maybe two brass players or brass chamber groups on their roster. And they are just as easily satisfied with selling their string quartet or piano trio as they would be selling a horn quartet or duo. In fact, I have been told by a very large music agency in Brussels, that “your ensemble is spectacular! If anyone ever needs a horn quartet, we’ll call you.” But nobody ever truly NEEDS a horn quartet.

So where does this all leave me? Well, the American Horn Quartet now has management. And Kristina and I could also pursue an impresario who would go to bat for us. The sheer time, frustration and patience involved in procuring a decent manager however, is a bit too daunting for me, especially at my age. I mean, aren’t my activities as a member of the OPL, the AHQ, the VHD, and as a composer and soloist enough? Just to give the reader an idea of the promotion I did for the “Cute L’il Church Tour”, we designed a beautiful poster for the tour, sent out hard copies to over 40 music schools, local community bands and horn teachers, as well as a mass e-mailing (including the beautiful poster) to more music organizations and conservatories and teachers, and even contacted over 12 retirement homes, offering half-prize entrance to the recitals. Fliers were printed up, to be distributed to the church congregations as well. Embracing the way of the future, we set up an event page on face book and blogged about the tour as well. And this sort of promotion cost me a lot of time! Time I really should be using to compose and practice, not to mention relax a little bit from time to time.

I decided to write this blog, not to the purpose of whining about and lamenting the state of the arts, but more to put into writing the thoughts that have been going through my mind this past year, and especially as I walked out onto the concert platform to perform incredibly difficult and beautiful music, only to be greeted by a handful of friends clapping as loud as they can, and looking really embarrassed.

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