As a wine professional and classically trained musician, I’ve always wanted to know if wine was important in the lives of the great composers. Did Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven enjoy wine daily? Did they keep a cellar? Did they write about the wines they drank? I’ve never been able to find much about the subject of wine and composers – until now.
Enter friend and colleague Ron Merlino. Ron is owner and manager of MusicVine Performing Arts and Wine Consulting. Since 2009, he’s managed a roster of internationally renowned orchestral conductors including Sir Andre Previn, Gerard Schwarz, Andrew Litton, and Keith Lockhart. He also consults on a diverse range of projects for artisanal wineries and arts institutions worldwide. Prior to starting MusicVine, Ron was Vice President at Columbia Artists Management Inc. for more than ten years where he established a reputation as one of the most sought after managers of conductors in the world.
Ron is also a wine professional, having worked as apprentice with the late Patrick Bize at Domaine Simon Bize in Burgundy, as well as collaborating with winemakers from California, Washington State, Oregon, New York State, Michigan, and Niagara, Canada on music and wine projects. Merlino passed the M.S. Introductory Course and Certified Sommelier Exam, and is currently a WSET Diploma Candidate at the International Wine Center in New York. In the past few years, Ron has undertaken an academic study of the role wine played in the lives of the great composers. His project has led him to libraries and institutes throughout Europe. Not long ago, I spoke with him about the project. Here is our conversation.
Tim Gaiser (TG): How did your project of researching wine and the role it played in the lives of great composers come about? What was the genesis?
Ron Merlino (RM): The catalyst for the project was my good friend Matthew VanBiesen, who in 2015 was the CEO of the New York Philharmonic. He came to me and said, “Let’s start a series of pre-concert events for donors and board members where we pour wine in my office. You can talk about the intersections between what they’re going to hear on the concert and the wines you’re going to pour.” I ended up doing that for two years.
Over time I realized that there was lot more information to be collected, organized, and written about just how important wine was in the history of so many of the famous composers. That was the launching pad. From there I began to take the work deeper from a more academic point. I met with people like the director of the Beethoven House in Bonn in Germany, the director of the Handel House in Halle also in Germany, and other such institutions. I was convinced that there was something that might illuminate not only the music, but also the lives of these composers and allow us to build some bridges between the two worlds.
TG: What are the kinds of things you learned in researching wine and composers that surprised you?
RM: There’s a lot. Going back to when I was doing the events with the New York Philharmonic, I was a bit of at the mercy of the orchestra’s development department as far as being handed a program for a performance and having to build something around it. For example, purely by chance I ended up having to do something on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
TG: What did you learn about wine, Vivaldi, and his Four Seasons?
RM: Initially I wasn’t interested in doing anything on Vivaldi. The Four Seasons has been played a million times. But I was obligated to try and ended up stumbling upon how important the history of music and wine was during Vivaldi’s lifetime. Moreover, how the two intersected in ways I hadn’t anticipated.
Vivaldi was living in Venice at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries. The ruling Rialto families, who had been in control of the Republic of Venice for hundreds of years, found themselves in a quandary. The viability of their business model of being able to trade wine and other commodities to other parts of Europe was beginning to wane. They were at the mercy of growing success on the part of Bordeaux and other places, and had to find another line of business besides trade. These families settled on the idea of making the city of Venice itself a high-end luxury destination for the elite of Europe. They built hotels, restaurants, and other entertainment venues trying to attract the wealthy elite. It’s much like the Las Vegas of modern times.
As part of that initiative, some 17 new opera houses were built in the city during the last decade of the 17th century. This created a huge demand for commissions for composers to write music for all these new opera houses. In essence, if you were a successful composer in Venice at the time, you made your bread and butter living by churning out operas week after week.
Inadvertently, the ruling class of wine merchant families suddenly became one of the most important historical groups in the history of Italian Baroque opera. They commissioned tons and tons of music. Today, Vivaldi is known as a composer of instrumental music. In fact, a majority of his output was opera, much of which has unfortunately not survived. So there’s a very direct link between the commerce of wine and the history of Baroque Italian opera, not necessarily something people talk about.
TG: What about J.S. Bach? Was wine important to him and his career?
RM: Yes, there’s a lot to talk about with regards to Bach; not necessarily the wines he drank but even more how important wine (and beer and coffee) were to his life, particularly during the later years when he lived in Leipzig.
A focus on Bach and wine could take up an entire lifetime of study by itself. He was incredibly aware, informed, and connected to all the political, commercial, and artistic trends around him, especially in Leipzig. He may not have been a composer that traveled very much, but he was keenly aware of a sense of nationalism like few other composers. Think about the fact that Bach spent the first half of his life in what was the boondocks. Then he got the position at the Collegium Musicum and the St. Thomas church in Leipzig. At that time, Leipzig was an epicenter for international trade. It was a place where merchants were bringing in goods from the Far East, the Middle East, and Southern and Eastern Europe. In this milieu, Bach was around a highly sophisticated culture including wine.
We know more about Bach’s political and public interest in coffee than wine. There was a raging debate about the merits of coffee throughout Europe at that time. It’s not dissimilar to the marijuana debate today, in terms of whether it’s good for you, bad for you, or a morally terrible thing to be associated with. At various points during Bach’s time in Leipzig, coffee was banned, legalized, and then banned again. But Bach was a constant advocate for coffee. We know that he was a real connoisseur and collected lots of coffee equipment and paraphernalia. He also used it as a platform to promote his own musical activities. Instead of holding concerts in churches and other places, he would famously hold his concerts in one of the coffee houses in Leipzig. It was a daring thing for him to do because coffee houses were often equated to red light districts. He would convene all his students at Zimmerman’s, a well-known coffee house, and present his concerts just as a way to be sensational. So Bach was someone who wasn’t afraid to ruffle the feathers of those around him and shake things up a bit.
We don’t know a lot about the specific wines Bach drank, but we do have record of him asking for contracts to be paid not in currency but in coveted commodities like barrels of wines from the Rhein land in Germany. These wines were hard to come by in Leipzig and expensive. Bach also had a large apartment at the end of his life that was given to him by the Collegium Musicum. It apparently had some 15 rooms. We know from the ledger in 1750 that when he died two of the rooms were dedicated to the storage of beer, wine, and spirits. That’s not inconsiderable!
TG: What about Mozart?
RM: With Mozart, we know a little bit more – but we still don’t know as much as I’d hoped we would. I think that’s partly a function of the fact that Mozart falls in the period of time where composers almost always lived under the employ of a court or royalty or the church. Only late in his life did Mozart become what we think of as a freelance artist. Most of the information that we know about his daily life only comes from that late period when he had to write letters about more practical business matters.
Mozart was a person who was very interested in trends. He was a man of the moment, so to speak. Today we would call him something of a dandy. I don’t necessarily think Mozart was a connoisseur of fine wine and food, but he was always interested in being of the fashion of the time. It’s probably not entirely by chance that the few references we get as far as the wine he was drinking was Champagne, which shows him to be a man who was able to access something more rare and prestigious within the wine culture of the time.
We know from his father Leopold that Mozart was fond of drinking Champagne in the daytime – not at night! I don’t if that’s a show or a display or status or if it gives us an insight into how people actually were using Champagne at that point in time. Leopold tells us specifically that the Champagne would come – and there were many bottles of it – at the end of a lunch and not at the beginning. It was served with shellfish and sweets.
(Since our conversation, Ron wrote, “The Champagne and oyster lunch apparently became fashionable in France during the reign of Louis XV, at the time when Champagne was being actively promoted by the King as a line of commerce. The wealthy elite would usually hunt in the mornings and convene for a shellfish and oyster afternoon lunch – so this may have some relation to the time of day and service of the champagne at Mozart’s home – an emulation of the French ‘style.'”)
We also know that Mozart often kept bottles of wine on the keyboard at night when he was composing. There are also some reminiscences from a neighbor that lived in the apartment across from him in Vienna. Apparently, in the middle of the night when Mozart was composing and needed more bottles of wine he would simply knock on the wall between the apartments and his neighbor would bring him more bottles so he could continue writing.
TG: What about Beethoven?
RM: Beethoven is amazing. In regards to this research journey, he continues to inspire and amaze me every day. Every time I look, I discover more. Beethoven was the first composer in history who literally lived as a freelancer, from day one through the end of his life. He never had a job where he was employed under the patronage of someone full time. Every single piece of music he wrote, he wrote on commission. This is significant because it meant that from very early on, at least in his professional life in Vienna, he had to be capable of functioning well in high society, with the political, social, and noble elite. He had to be able to find connections and friendships with the patrons who would basically keep his career alive. This required him to be informed, conversant, adept, and able to slip in and out many different contexts, which meant that he had to be incredibly knowledgeable about things that would appeal to these people.
Beethoven was therefore very connected to the world of culture and wine. The patrons who stuck with him throughout his lifetime had their own specific lines of business. What almost all of them had in some way, shape, or form, was some aspect that had to do with the business of wine. Through interactions with these patrons, Beethoven became very knowledgeable about a wide array of wines. We know through his letters and the conversation books he used to communicate with people because he was deaf in his later years, just how diverse the array of wine he was drinking but also what specifically he was drinking, from Bordeaux to Champagne to a wide variety of wines he enjoyed in local heurigen and taverns. He tells us what he would drink and what he would eat. He writes about being frustrated with certain kinds of wine. It’s very interesting and quite fascinating how much information is there and how important wine was in his life.
Something also worth noting about Beethoven is that while he sometimes lived in the center of Vienna, he would also take apartments outside the city walls. Frequently, the apartments were in what are now major wine regions. So Beethoven was literally living in and among the vineyards. He was taking walks through the vineyards, up and down the steep hills, and strolling next to the Danube. He was constantly composing while living in the vineyards. There’s a link between his compositional spirit and the actual land, vines, and wine.
In a bigger picture, wine for Beethoven was symbolic. It was a representation of something he wanted to aspire to in his own music. He felt that wine was something artistically more pure and incorruptible that inspired people to communicate in a more immediate way with each other. It was something that would strip away all the barriers and layers of status, and bring everyone around the table to eat and drink and be equals. I think this for Beethoven was so important. It has a lot to do with why wine played such an important role in his daily life and his professional life.
TG: I remember you mentioning a quote in a previous conversation; something Beethoven supposedly said on his deathbed that has been long misinterpreted. What is that quote?
RM: A British biographer in 1827 wrote that Beethoven’s final words before passing were, “Pity, pity, it’s too late.” The biographer and Schindler – Beethoven’s handler at the time – wanted the world to believe that the composer’s last words meant that he was raging at the heavens because of all the amazing music he had in his head that he wouldn’t be able to write. The reality is that in the very last months of his life, Beethoven’s doctors had advised him to stop drinking the kinds of wines he had grown accustomed to. He had terrible digestive issues and was going through a series of medical treatments to alleviate almost constant pain.
At that point in his life, Beethoven was drinking almost exclusively sweet wines like Tokaji, Rust, and Ausbruch. His doctors recommended that he stop drinking entirely – and if not, drink lighter wines like German Riesling from the Mosel. Beethoven then asked his publisher Schott in Mainz to send him a shipment of Rieslings from the Rheingau. But the wines didn’t come for months and months. Beethoven sent Schott several letters asking about the wines and when they would arrive. Finally, the shipment arrived the day before he died. When his butler told him, he famously sat up in bed and said, “Pity, pity, it’s too late.” The wines he wouldn’t be able to drink.
TG: What about Brahms?
RM: Like Beethoven, Brahms was very connected to the world of the Rheingau. When Brahms was younger and visited Schumann, he literally hiked on foot from Mainz through the Rheingau to Düsseldorf. He kept a small travel book so we know literally every vineyard that he walked through on this long two-month trek. It made such an indelible impact on him that later in life he befriended Rudi and Laura von Beckerath, who were not only musical devotees but also wine merchants and negociants who lived in Rudesheim in the Rheingau. Brahms started to visit them every summer and spent time in the vineyards of the Rheingau. He spent a lot of time composing in there during the summers. The third symphony was written during a time when he was in Rudesheim and Wiesbaden.
Brahms drank many different kinds of wines. He was an avid traveler, visiting Italy nine different times throughout his life – no small accomplishment in those days. He was very fond of sweet wines and drank a lot of Sicilian wine, especially Marsala. We know that at the Red Hedgehog, his favorite tavern in Vienna, he had a standing barrel of Tokaji always at his disposal. And like Beethoven, Brahms’ final words are about wine, in this case also Rudesheim Riesling. On his deathbed, he was given a spoon of Riesling and said something to the effect of, “Ah, this always tastes good.”
TG: Any closing thoughts about your project?
RM: I look at Beethoven and how he able to communicate directly to the core of humanity with his music. Wine as an art form was something that he could use in his daily life as inspiration to keep going. I think it’s very profound and also important. We may be fascinated in the minutiae of wine, but to me it’s very uplifting to see wine as an art form that meant so much in a very spiritual, moral, and social way to someone as important as Beethoven. I take some comfort and solace in that. For all that we do in our professional tastings and comparisons, there is humanity, personal energy, and creativity imbued in a bottle of wine that can also inspire us to do better.
My first real job playing trumpet was in a Mexican orchestra, high up in the mountains beyond Mexico City, under the snow capped peaks in Toluca. What a blast! I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
I say it was my first real job because it offered me for the first time a great monthly salary, at least given the low cost of living down there. And it even paid everyone for a 13th month – you know, for Christmas expenses. I did not, however, get my own locker. (That would have to wait until my next job.) But then nobody did: we were expected to show up dressed in our tails – outfits that nobody remarked upon as being somehow backwards. Tails or tuxedos were simply what orchestras wore, as they do worldwide. By local standards, compared to the mariachis walking around town, we were positively trendy. The town of Toluca itself was unremarkable. I’m sure you would never see it in a travel brochure. It was notable only for having the largest flea market and best chorizo around. And an orchestra.
Our conductor was an HR department’s worst nightmare. Imagine a cross between the perversions of Harvey Weinstein and the tantrums of Buddy Rich, and then throw some matador in there for flavor. I will not attempt to give accounts of what transpired in rehearsals as the reader simply would not believe me. There was no HR department, however – just a few staffers who ran around putting out fires and setting up music stands for our fourth-generation photocopied parts.
I also taught at the conservatorio where I had a studio bursting at the seams with eager young trumpeters who still worshipped the patron saint of lightning fast staccato trumpet playing, Raphael Mendez, born just over the mountains in Michoacán. In the eco-system of that school, trumpet and guitar were at the top of the food chain, and “less useful” instruments like cello and piano had to eat our scraps. Almost all these young trompetistas came from one village, Metapec, where most worked as carpenters making furniture and the mandatory hobby was playing in the local banda, numbering 500 players. One can imagine what kind of fiestas go on in a village where everyone plays music!
Concerts were celebratory, tremendous outpourings of enthusiasm for classical music and the musicos who play it. The audience, as is customary, showered roses on the orchestra from time to time. As we were the orchestra that represented the State of Mexico, we covered that entire territory with frequent forays into the countryside.
On the Sunday afternoons when we ventured out, we would, without fail, get lost on the long bus ride out to uncharted villages to play in their local churches, which were always large and opulent no matter how far they were off the map. During the panic to find these places, as if scripted, the bus driver would always ask an old lady selling tortillas and cactus by the roadside for directions, which she gladly provided regardless of whether or not she had any real idea where we were going or how to get there. Other times, we would go to a large outdoor venue somewhere outside the big city and there play the same heavy program we played indoors the night before.
The audiences always showed up and always cheered mightily. One year, we made it our routine, upon returning home after our Sunday concerts, to turn on the tuba player’s bulging black-and-white TV, to fiddle with the coat-hanger antennae, pull out a case of Negro Modelo cervezas, and watch the Orquesta Nacional play their televised, complete Mahler Cycle. Highly entertaining it was – a bit like going to the demolition derby. They, like the numerous other professional orchestras in Mexico City, had their own audience, loyal to only them – like White Sox fans who won’t go to Cubs games. And theirs was the first Mahler cycle in Mexico, having about it the air of what must have transpired during the weeks of rehearsals before the premier of Rite of Spring in 1913.
The only exception to filled houses were those weeks when none of the three administrators who ran things remembered to tell anyone in the public, by way of what these days we call “marketing” but in those days was basically a sign on the hall or an ad in the newspaper, that we were holding a concert that week. In cases of such oversight, practically nobody showed up.
We played a variety of war-horses and obscure music, all of it good – a breadth that I would never span again in my career. Bruckner Masses and symphonies, Tchaikovsky’s orchestral suites, Beethoven rarities like Ruins of Athens, anything by Turina or Albeniz, and works by Debussy that I never heard again. Early forgotten symphonies of Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, Copland’s less than greatest hits. Anything by Strauss, either Richard or uncle Johann. Soloists would get edged out by muscular programing, such as an evening of Sibelius’s 2nd and Shostakovich’s 5th followed by Wagner’s Rienzi Overture as an encore. We even recorded all of Verdi’s and Rossini’s overtures, offering me an education in just how many of those gems there are. Our audiences ate it all up. And Mexico has its own classical music canon revolving around Revueltas and Chavez, the beauty of which should not be lost on artistic planners.
We reached the greatest number of people with our outdoor concerts – many thousands in one fell swoop. I remember vividly playing in a town zócalo and seeing the Indian women with babies wrapped about them quietly contemplating Beethoven’s 7th. During another concert in a distant village one Sunday after Mass, a mysterious, mustachioed man rode into the dusty church on his horse to figure out what was going on with Tchaikovsky’s 4th. The locals were drawn to classical music for what it most simply is: a spectacle of magnificence.
Given my experiences in Mexico, my lingering question has been, “Who decided, or why do we feel, that we must upend our programming in order for people of targeted ethnicities to comprehend and enjoy classical music played by a live orchestra?” It strikes me as suspiciously odd that, for all our talk about the universality of classical music, administrators, and, certainly some musicians, when they think of specific ethnic groups, must suddenly condescend to them, patronizingly and awkwardly changing what we do to suit all the clichés.
There are Mexicans in Mexico and Mexicans in the US, but only individual Mexicans attend classical concerts either here or there. It may be a conceit of planners that we can put out special bait for an entire group or that any one community leader speaks for them, as if there was a hive mind we can tap into. Only individuals choose to attend classical music concerts – and for personal reasons. Entire groups do not.
I was certain, by the time I moved away from Mexico, that Mexicans enjoyed and appreciated classical music as much as anyone else in this world. Of course, many Mexicans never went to orchestra concerts. But to be certain, those who did also loved to dance in their neighborhood street parties, called pachangas, and at weddings that started solemnly in churches with Mozart’s Coronation Mass and Schubert’s Ave Maria and ended with mariachis raising the dead at the late night cena. What with the huge families they had, that meant a wedding just about every month. Today, not only do most Mexican cities have their own orchestras but every single state has a robust youth orchestra, too, as part of their far-reaching Esperanza Azteca Foundation program.
And they do this, not because they don’t have other societal problems, including true material poverty or a vast and bloody drug war spreading every which way, but because music, the best music, is self-evidently and intrinsically good by their estimation, a testament to and reminder of human flourishing and accomplishment. It is a cornerstone of a good life.
I think of those days, a lifetime and a world away, whenever I hear the intelligentsia up here talk about what our various “under-served communities” need in order to cross an imaginary chasm in order to be able “to understand” our music, which we are told must be so alien to them.
Sed me Parnasi deserta per ardua dulcis raptat amor.* —VIRGIL
Perhaps our modern world is not so far gone as yet, but it is easy for us to imagine the painful longing in Petrarch’s heart as he stood on the Capitoline Hill in Rome on Easter Sunday in 1341. Looking around him at the cultural desolation of a land and its people ravaged by war, famine, civil unrest, epidemic, and economic collapse, he was nevertheless so sure of his vision, so inspired by his love of something greater than his self or his time, that the words he spoke that day come down to us as the first manifesto of the glorious Renaissance:
Someone then might say: “What is all this, my friend? Have you determined to revive a custom that is beset with inherent difficulty and has long since fallen into desuetude? And this in the face of a hostile and recalcitrant fortune? Whence do you draw such confidence that you would decorate the Roman Capitol with new and unaccustomed laurels? Do you not see what a task you have undertaken in attempting to attain the lonely steeps of Parnassus and the inaccessible grove of the Muses?” Yes, I do see, oh my dear sirs; I do indeed see this, oh Roman citizens. “Sed me Parnasi deserta per ardua dulcis raptat amor,” as I said at the outset. For the intensity of my longing is so great that it seems to me sufficient to enable me to overcome all the difficulties that are involved in my present task.†
There in the ruins of an ancient Roman Empire, Petrarch accepted his crown of laurels – the first offered a poet in over twelve long centuries. The tradition was all but dead. The age was indeed dark. The slopes of Parnassus were dauntingly steep and deserted. But from somewhere beyond the shroud of gloom that enveloped him, the Muses called to Petrarch and he followed, inspired by the love and the sweet longing of one going home.
It is easy for us to imagine because our modern age seems to be dimming before our eyes. We are reminded at every turn that the world is a new and alienating place, unfit for the traditions that evoke some past and irrelevant golden age or a society we no longer recognize. We discard or neglect the Canon’s great works when it is easier to do so than to dig for the treasures hidden therein; what is difficult or laborious to understand is sacrificed for the sake of accessibility to the modern mind. Like Petrarch we marvel that
This age of ours consequently has let fall, bit by bit, some of the richest and sweetest fruits that the tree of knowledge has yielded; has thrown away the results of the vigils and labours of the most illustrious men of genius, things of more value, I am almost tempted to say, than anything else in the whole world….‡
We allow our great cultural institutions to fall into disrepair and disrepute because, as we strip them of their reverential traditions and their arduous canon, we also strip them of our reasons to cherish them. We call them before the tribunal of public opinion to justify their very existence, as if we can no longer see through the smog to the heights of Parnassus, lonelier than ever because we have forgotten that it is even there. We attempt to chain the Muses to the machinery of our modern malaise, as if we do not remember that they exist to show us the way to transcend that malaise, to find our way home again, by way of that steep and difficult climb, to the bosom of art and learning.
It is easy for us to imagine that someday our symphony halls will be ancient ruins and the source of a painful longing for those who remember the wasted Muses, or who sift through the rubble for what was lost. We can even hear the howls of those who proclaim that it should be so, and we mourn the actions of those who obviously believe it. Yet, there are many more of us who recognize Virgil’s description of a deep and ardent desire because it urges us, too, to persevere against all difficulties in the name of the symphony orchestra. This is the mission and the purpose of the Future Symphony Institute: to orchestrate a new renaissance for live classical music, to ensure that the dawn breaks on symphony halls that rise like polished temples in our midst rather than like ruins on abandoned hilltops.
To circumscribe this immense task, we created seven initiatives that describe and focus our efforts. The first two are of a philosophical nature. We must, firstly and perhaps most fundamentally, reframe the way we understand and communicate what is being overlooked because it is immeasurable and immaterial – namely, the principle value of the symphony orchestra to society. By doing so, we not only orient our institutions with respect to mighty Parnassus and the dawn of a new renaissance, but we also arm them with an answer for the cynical tribunals who mercilessly impugn their relevance and their mission. Our second initiative focuses on the critical role of the orchestra as an educator – not just musically and not just of children, but in the way that high culture has always been that which teaches us what it most profoundly means to be human. We must build the foundation for and design the structure of this meaningful role for the orchestra – so critical and inspiring in an age that is increasingly digital and impersonal.
Some of our goals will require extensive and scholarly research. This will certainly be the case for each of the following three initiatives. Most immediately, orchestras need a concrete system by which to understand and quantify their audiences – one that goes beyond the limits of their usual and failing marketing methods. They must learn to identify their patrons not as demographic statistics but as human beings driven by internal aspirations and motivations that do not necessarily correlate to physical characteristics. They must find the real reasons people come to love the symphony, why they feel the sweet longing that urges them to our concert halls. The field of psychographics presents us with a way to understand and measure these drives – a more meaningful way for orchestras to relate to and reach their audiences, both actual and potential. Secondly, with a proper psychographic system and the research that supports it, we can construct a bridge between casual attendance and eventual connoisseurship. Much energy today is wasted on efforts to bring the uninitiated into the audience – wasted because there is no effective plan to make the uninitiated into the convert. And this is far from the only case of mislaid efforts. We must take the time to thoroughly and critically evaluate the oft-repeated theories and measures that have neither adequately explained nor delivered orchestras from their troubles. Much of the dogma that assails our orchestral institutions – and informs their failing policies – has not been tested by scholarly research, and doing so is our next critical initiative.
Finally, if our first two initiatives are entirely theoretical, our last two are purely practical. To begin with, it is essential that we develop a new architecture for our symphony halls – specifically, one that emphasizes the relevance of the symphony orchestra to its community. The trend of late is to erect halls that, frankly, resemble something from another planet; and when we look upon them, we feel a predictable sense of estrangement – a hesitance to approach what we have difficulty recognizing as human. The new halls must remedy this error and present themselves as neighbors and friends, both outside and inside where the offering of hospitality must equal the expectations of today’s cultural consumer. But among the most challenging of our tasks is the initiative we list last here: the development of a blueprint for future union policies and relations. In today’s business climate it is becoming increasingly clear that unions must understand their stake and their opportunity in shaping change before it is forced upon them. Change is as enduring a feature of society as is our need for traditions that endure change – indeed, that transcend and transform it.
It is a common criticism today, as it was in 1341, that to look “backwards” is to look upon something old and decrepit, outdated and dilapidated. Time for us moves only forward, and so paradoxically, while our civilization grows old, it is our past that we label as aged and the day itself as eternally young. It is taken without question that the inevitability of change means and perhaps requires that we do not repeat the past, but any student of history or of its successive civilizations can prove for you otherwise. And so here we say, again, with Petrarch, the Father of the Renaissance,
I am moved also by the hope that, if God wills, I may renew in the now aged Republic a beauteous custom of its flourishing youth.§
And over his shoulder we see our vision. We, too, are urged by a sweet longing that will not be deterred by the challenges or the times that face us. In our sights are the heights of Parnassus, and the dawn of a new renaissance. The fulfillment of both the youthful glory and the incandescent future of the symphony orchestra, the new renaissance is, like the one so long ago, the birth of a present more glorious than what came before it, but entirely dependent upon its rich and heroic past. And posterity will reap the bounteous and beautiful rewards.
* “But a sweet longing urges me upward over the lonely slopes of Parnassus” (Georgics III, 291-292). Mount Parnassus, rising above Delphi in Greece, was the home of the Muses of Greek mythology, and in literary references it symbolizes the source of art, literature, and learning. It derives from the same root as the ancient Trojan word for a house.
† From Petrarch’s Coronation Oration, translated in Ernest Hatch Wilkins, Studies in the Life and Works of Petrarch, Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy, 1955.
‡ Petrarch, in a letter to Lapo da Casiglionchio, 1355, translated in Richard M Gamble, The Great Tradition: Classical reading on what it means to be an educated human being, Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2009.
§ From Petrarch’s Coronation Oration, translated in Ernest Hatch Wilkins, Studies in the Life and Works of Petrarch, Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy, 1955.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of both the author and Interbrand, who published the author’s important and pertinent book Metaluxury: Brands and the Culture of Excellence, which we encourage you to read for its enlightening discussion of the business strategies and philosophies elemental to success in the realm in which classical music lives.
Few characters in modern history are as controversial and divisive as German composer Richard Wagner. Many of his political writings and personal views are rightly considered an indelible and embarrassing stain, forcing virtually all critics to draw a clear distinction between the man and the composer. And even when considering only the latter, his creative work counts both fervent devotees and equally vehement detractors.
There is one point, however, which finds everyone in agreement, and it is Wagner’s unparalleled influence on the history of music and on the wider world of the performing arts. Whether one loves or loathes Wagner’s work, its significance cannot be overstated. Perhaps a simplistic indicator of this is the fact that the adjective “Wagnerian” has transcended the musical vocabulary, and now describes something grandiose and extraordinarily ambitious. There is no equivalent example; independent of the greatness of these composers, expressions such as “Beethovenian” or “Mozartian” have never crossed the borders of music.
Literally hundreds of books have been written about Wagner’s revolutionary, sweeping music; to the extent, for instance, that some of those books focus on a single chord, known as the “Tristan” chord (the four-note combination which introduces the musical drama Tristan und Isolde), which many take as signaling the birth of modern music. To Wagner, however, fundamental as it was, music was an ingredient, which blended with the narrative, the lyrics, the scenography, and the actual staging – all of which he had full authorship of.
He created the stories, such as Parsifal’s reinterpretation of the legend of the Holy Grail. He imagined the characters, inspired by ancient tales, such as the Nibelungs and the Valkyries in the colossal Ring cycle. He accompanied his scores and librettos with prescriptive visual references. And when he had the opportunity to oversee the construction of his own theatre in Bayreuth, Germany, he developed a concept (as we would call it today) combining a number of innovations which now seem obvious: the dimming of the lights in the theatre; the use of stage and lighting effects; and the disappearance of the orchestra from the audience’s view. These three simple, but hugely effective, design choices ensured the audience’s deep engagement. In essence, one could argue that Wagner invented cinema before the technology existed.
All of this shows that Wagner did not conceive his works merely as musical performances or operas. Rather, he was effectively masterminding monumental immersive experiences – and he was doing it to convey precise messages to his contemporaries, be it the creation of a shared Germanic culture through the reinvention of a mythical past, or to expose the dominance of man’s desire over rationality, years before Freud’s work.
Ultimately, Wagner believed in the power of experience to change the way people thought. He spelt it out in one of his best-known quotes: “Imagination shapes reality.”
Concept. Design. Experiences. Messages. Strange as it may seem, there are profound analogies between Wagner’s creative vision and our evolving thinking around brands.
Today, creating compelling experiences is the chief way in which brands can credibly express their raison d’être, as well as what differentiates them. Organizations wanting to extract immense, even disproportionate, value from their brands must, like Wagner, work as polymaths; they must be great storytellers, impeccable orchestrators, innovative designers, consummate engineers, as well as uncompromising perfectionists.
They must (like Wagner) own a single sense of purpose (the message) and bring it alive through emotionally intense content (the music and the drama) and the effectiveness of touchpoints (the staging). Most importantly, they must weave all this into a seamless, cohesive texture.
But how can that be achieved in our fragmented world, where the stage is at once nowhere specifically, and potentially everywhere? Where the audience is not sitting in a theater for hours, but is connecting on demand for minutes? Where each spectator is an active, and sometimes influential, critic?
The answer is, interestingly, in one of the musical tools that Wagner became most famous for:
In order to help us perceive a character’s feelings or motivations, Wagner needed tools at his fingertips. One such technique is his use of fragments of melody, rhythm, or harmony as calling cards of a character, a place, an idea, an object, or a memory. These musical cells, from which he created the whole web of the music, he called leitmotiv. At its simplest, leitmotiv is a straightforward association of a nugget of tune with a character. Every time the character appears, or is mentioned or thought of by someone else, we hear that nugget. In the Ring, every character has his or her own leitmotiv, or signature tune. Other motifs in the story are attached to concepts, such as “spear,” the “gold,” or the “River Rhine.” There are in fact hundreds of leitmotivs in the Ring. They became a vast tapestry on which the music and the story hang.*
It is inspiring to think of this as the brand leitmotiv: a signature concept that the brand owns, and that can be brought to life through a variety of expressions while always being instinctively associated with the brand. Just like in Wagner’s music, the leitmotiv is sometimes hard to distinguish; however, it is always effective in evoking the brand. It’s almost never explicit, but you know when it’s there – you just feel it. And it brings the entire brand experience magically together, giving the brand the status of a ubiquitous, indispensable presence.
A brand’s leitmotiv is not, for instance, a visual, verbal, or aural element; these are, rather, codes. The leitmotiv is the overall, unifying theme and concept that those codes should help express.
This reflects the fact that the days in which a brand could manifest itself through elements of a visual identity are gone. In a multidimensional world, brands must be able to manifest themselves through a far broader and nuanced spectrum of means. Developing a brand leitmotiv is a way of owning a relevant, wider concept that creates salience for the brand. It is also a way of superseding the increasing limitations of traditional intellectual property and creating an association which, if successfully consolidated, results in uniquely strong differentiation – the kind that provides stronger protection than any trade mark could ever guarantee.
Think of Burberry, a brand that has driven impressive business growth by creating a coherent and compelling experience across a wonderfully diverse set of existing and newly created touchpoints. What makes the Burberry experience particularly effective is its omnipresent leitmotiv, Britishness. Whether it’s the choice of British testimonials or the falling leaves in a pictorial, or even the use of materials and furniture in its Regent Street store, Britishness is what consistently underscores this brand’s presence. Or even its absence, in fact: introduce Britishness as a theme, and, by now, Burberry will be a very likely association.
In retrospect, the turning point for this brand was the shift from owning merely a code – the once over-exposed check pattern – to owning a leitmotiv (a much more flexible, engaging, and purposeful property).
For a brand like Prada, the leitmotiv could possibly be defined as being avant-garde. This echoes through the maison’s bold, provocative product design, the adventurous architecture of its flagship Epicenter stores; it vibrates across the brand’s selective artist collaborations, its landmark Fondazione Prada in Milan, and its involvement in the Venice Biennale. Prada’s leitmotiv is implicit, but it can be felt across every single public act of this brand. As a result, it brings everything beautifully together, giving the brand a salience that goes beyond its industry. This also provides the brand with a strong edge: when you think about it, Prada is very similar (in terms of its Tuscan origin, products, touchpoints, and business model) to the likes of Gucci and Ferragamo. Yet, Prada’s brand leitmotiv allows it to conceive and design an experience that creates, all other things equal, deep differentiation.
Or, think of Red Bull, a brand whose leitmotiv is at the border between energy and bravado. That leitmotiv is at the heart of the entire experience: from its F1 investment to Felix Baumgartner’s near-orbital drop and everything that’s in between, Red Bull has succeeded in creating a relevance that stretches far beyond its product – an energy drink. By finding highly impactful ways of playing to its leitmotiv, this brand has touched audiences that would have been completely indifferent to traditional product-focused communication initiatives.
These examples show the power of the leitmotiv in providing these brands with a “gravitational field” that expands far beyond the reach of their products as such.
To this end, a brand leitmotiv is rooted in, but radically distinct from, constructs such as a purpose, a positioning, or a proposition. While these concepts, in various ways, represent what the brand stands for, the leitmotiv is what will stand for the brand.
The leitmotiv translates a brand’s competitive position into a compelling, universal concept which can be successfully sublimated into a meaningful, narrative experience; an aura that is indispensable in igniting demand and desire in today’s fragmented world.
* Howard Goodall, The Story of Music, London: Vintage Publishing, 2013. The historical and musical context reported in this article owes much to this book.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is the second part of a three-part series.
You can read the first part here.
If classical music is the art of “therapeutic” interiority, then thinking about presentation, marketing, funding, etc. needs to be developed from this insight. “Selling” music in wrapping paper which belies its nature will inevitably lead to disappointment: the regular listeners will feel their experience is being diminished and dumbed down and may stay away in the future; potential new audiences – especially the younger generations without much exposure to classical music – will feel cheated when they find out that a Mahler symphony does not sound at all like heavy metal or hip-hop. One could revisit the many rubbing points that characterize the problems of classical music with this perspective in mind and try to find new and better ways to connect the art form to the needs of modern society instead of trying to make it compatible with modernity. Symphony orchestras especially, vulnerable because of their complex bureaucracy and great expenses, could find explorative trajectories to anchor the institution within society in a way that secures their existence in the present and in the future. And at the heart of such considerations lies the way in which the orchestra as an institution is perceived from the outside, from the modern world to which it offers a much-needed alternative space.
A short word about the sonic art performance culture is appropriate here. Since the Second World War, this entirely new art form has developed aesthetic and, especially, psychological receptive frameworks which differ fundamentally from those of music. This has meant an entirely different approach to composition, performance, education, and marketing. Sonic art does not intend to address the listener’s interior life but instead wants him to become aware of the aesthetics of pure sound patterns, which is more like an observation process of patterns which are not means of any communication of interior, emotional experience, but are objective, independent entities to be enjoyed for themselves, as natural phenomena are. Sonic art is not an art of interiority but an objective art that belongs to the world of objective entities. Given the ideological nature of much sonic art and its promotion, which insistently relates it to the specific character of modernity, it can never offer the contrast to modernity as explained in the first part of this essay. It belongs firmly to the modern world to which classical music, as the art of interiority, in contrast offers an alternative experience. In other words: audiences who want to immerse themselves again in the modern experience will seek sonic art; listeners who long for an experience that confirms their inner life and universal humanity will try to find this in classical music.
Let us now try, with the concept of interiority in mind, to find indications of possible solutions that can help to preserve classical music in the future. What follows are mere general suggestions which, however, can be further explored in specific cases and thus may offer new and fertile trajectories.
Educational programs of classical music should be organised from primary schools onwards and clearly presented as an alternative music to pop, in the way healthy fruit is presented as an alternative to fast food, ice cream, and candy. It should not be treated as something old-fashioned but instead as something that has proven, by experience, to be wholesome to people’s emotional development. Active playing and singing, however simple, should be part of such programs. Comparisons with pop music which children will hear elsewhere in abundance, comparisons in which classical music is told to be superior, should be avoided, since patronizing overtones of a truth hinder communication; children will have to discover for themselves the quality difference when they engage in classical music; and if they do not, that’s too bad – but you cannot force love and appreciation. At least children who do not appear to be sensitive to classical music will know it exists and that it is important for a lot of people, and a normal part of civilization.
At the level of secondary school, the case of interiority and timelessness can be discussed around active playing and informative listening sessions. And at the university level, music history and general education in classical music culture should be a normal part of the humanities and of first-year, or preparatory, orientation programmes. Every student leaving university should know the basics of the classical music culture, irrespective of the profession he has been prepared for. As for “diversity”: since classical music is universal (because human interiority is universal), it is not bound to culturally-defined mental territories; it is open to everybody with enough interest and sensitivity to spend some effort and time on it, and will give its full and rich rewards to listeners irrespective of ethnic background or culture. Such music information courses at the university level should not be part of gender studies, or musico-sociological courses where music history is treated as part of political or social agendas; however interesting such courses may be, they do not touch the heart of the art form which transcends such contexts.
When information given in the media and on websites about concerts, ensembles, orchestras, and opera houses, apart from the practical data, is presented in a style which does justice to the dignity of the art form and which refrains from any association with vulgar commercial advertisement, such an approach will be an honest and correct service to prospective listeners. Where orchestras and opera houses also include the more popular genres like musicals and cross-over programs, the style of presentation should be as different as possible from the presentation style of the classical programs, so that it will be clear to prospective listeners that classical music is really a different genre and will address the more sophisticated and developed inner life of audiences.
The star cult around brilliant performers has always been part of the classical music culture, and it would be much too puritanical to bring up arguments against it, since the real, live presence of such artists is one of the great attractions of a concert. But it makes quite a difference whether performers are presented as the main subject of the event, or as serving the music. A certain measure of dignity and chastity will keep the balance right (one thinks of pianists dressed up like pop stars, or singers almost drowning in their cleavage – a misapplication of the idea of interiority – which creates a barrier between the listener and the music by exaggerating the outer appearances of the intermediate).
If the promotion and marketing of concerts focus on the contemporary need for interior experience, one has the best chance to get audiences, both old and new, who will recognize the value of the event and will come back for more. When attracting young and new audiences, it will not be references to the modern world, or pop, or superficial glamour that will bring them around more than once, but the argument that they will find something of their own inner identity touched and confirmed by classical music. Surely young people, still finding their way into life and into a confusing and often insecure world, will be interested to experience something that will strengthen their sense of Self, that will stimulate aspirations, and that connects them to the long organic chain of generations, an experience which may insert some awareness of human greatness, individual potential, and all the important human values which cannot be defined by “the market” or fashion or hip technologies.
A short word upon “diversity,” a term which often crops up in government reports, fundraising initiatives, and defenses of the art form in relation to social changes. The classical repertoire was created in times and places which were different from our own times. The idea that the art form should be accessible to all community types within society is perfectly legitimate and right; given the universality of classical music, it cannot be nailed down to a mere product of dead, white males from undemocratic times and thus an expression of white, male, European dominance. The music transcends such narrow-minded notions. It is not anti-women, anti-proletariat, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-gay, anti-whatever, but addresses itself to any human being prepared to open her heart and ears (probably the latter in the first place). So, programming which seeks to meet requirements of diversity by including works which do not belong to the genre is creating a barrier: listeners from backgrounds where Western classical music is not heard should not come to the concert hall to recognize something of their culture at home, but to be invited to explore an art form which may be unfamiliar at first but which can be absorbed by their own inner Self in the same way that it absorbed their own cultural symbols and metaphors, and thus may provide an enrichment without any suggestion of “giving up” something of their own cultural identity. Programming works which supposedly reflect the cultural backgrounds of non-Western listeners hinders the acculturation of Western classical music which such concerts are supposed to offer. As Western listeners can learn to understand and experience Indian traditional music, Indians can do the same with Western classical music. Because of its all-embracing universality, Western classical music is particularly suited to the needs of our own globalized, and therefore increasingly neurotic, times.
As we know, funding of classical music differs from country to country and especially from the USA to Europe. Where concerts are dependent upon private donors and corporate sponsorship, again the contemporary need for interior experience that classical music offers, best be at the heart of the fundraising exercise. Also references to permanence, continuity, and the civilizing influence of the art form should help to attract donors who feel themselves committed to such values and corporate sponsors who wish their products to be associated with an art form contributing to compelling, interior experience. (A good example of the presentation of classical music with a dignified emanation of quality – and with a discrete reference to sponsorship but without the suggestion that music is a mere luxury product – is the website of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, where a mere little clock on the left indicates that the orchestra has a sponsor relationship with Rolex.)
Where governments support classical music, as they do in Europe, orchestras’ existence is secured by structural subsidies. Spending tax money on such institutions has to be politically motivated and this results in the dependence of the institutions – orchestras, opera houses, concert halls, etc. – upon just how politicians think about cultural identity and the political gain they may derive from supporting the arts or else cutting the subsidies (as recently happened in Denmark and the Netherlands, both countries gravely suffering from populist inroads into the cultural sector). Most countries in Europe, however, still have a strong traditional cultural identity in spite of the erosion that comes with globalization. Germany and Austria understand themselves as Kulturnationen, “nations of culture,” where classical music especially forms an important part of national self-understanding. France still cultivates its patrimoine, the total of cultural monuments, artifacts, and traditions which have come down through the ages, not to mention Italy and Spain with their rich inheritances. The arguments that institutions have to regularly present to the state funding bodies have to relate to the political agendas of the reigning parties, and where the political landscape changes these arguments change as well. The current rise of populism, which infects many political parties who had been immune against such erosion before, means that musical institutions have to find other accents in their arguments to justify their function within society. In the discourse with governments, the populist agenda is entirely against any culture which claims high quality experience since any such suggestion is considered “elitist.” The best an institution could do when confronted by such an agenda is to stress the accessibility of classical music and its therapeutic effect on all levels of the community – and be silent about its relationship to notions of “European civilization,” its artistic qualities, its level of craftsmanship, and the like. As for the concept of interiority: this will probably be much too difficult to understand for populist politicians and thus better left untouched.
A concert hall is not merely a practical space for live concerts; it also creates the appropriate mood where classical music can be experienced in the most appropriate way. But what is the most appropriate way? To begin with, this space will have to underline its separateness from the outside world, not only acoustically (a practical consideration) but also psychologically, to underline the interior nature of the art form. The great concert halls of the 19th century, when public music life found its first anchoring in public space, were created like temples, separate from the noise of daily life, often with solemn classicist design and richly-sculpted decorations out- and inside the hall, which had the advantage of both creating an atmosphere of dignity and elevation and spreading and distributing the sound waves in such a way that the music comes into its own right. In the 20th century, however, architectural modernism sought to stress the contemporaneity of the concert hall building, with the effect that the music being performed inside began to seem “outdated” and “historical.” Together with the splitting-off of the avant-garde from the central performance culture, modern concert halls seemed to underline the museum-like nature of the classical, pre-modernist repertoire. The inescapable conclusion is that, if classical music should be best served in its concert spaces, we need to build concert halls in a classical style, as happened in Nashville with the Schermerhorn Symphony Centre.
Fortunately, many musical institutions have extended their activities to educational programs in the communities of their cities, trying to interest young people and hoping to build new audiences for the future. Some of these community programs have taken on the character of a social engineering exercise, as if classical music could heal the social problems of underprivileged neighbourhoods suffering from crime and racism, thereby suggesting that the influence of music should be able to change attitudes in the social sphere. But classical music is not an instrument of social change in a direct sense: if it has an influence, it works in an indirect way by civilizing the emotions, awakening aspirations, confirming the Self. But it cannot solve the problems resulting from the lack of these things. Those problems are (for music) too far down the chain of cause and effect. Active participation in music-making in ensembles, sponsored by either donors or the state, can certainly improve problem neighbourhoods as many reports have shown, but one should not expect miracles from classical music in such areas.
The last subject related to the relevance of classical music, the repertoire problem, will be treated in part III of this series.
I am finally sitting down to write this after the effervescent and ebullient football legend David Modell was laid to rest – at the age of only 55 – at the Baltimore Basilica, a few blocks down the street from my home this morning. I have procrastinated in writing this piece for years. It was originally intended to be an article about the lessons that American football can teach orchestras; it was to be anecdotal and prescriptive – something I wanted the Future Symphony Institute (FSI) to get into much later, only after the philosophical foundations of our argument were firmly established.
But God orders life according to His timing, and my esteemed friend left this world before I could show him that I really was taking notes during our many talks. Dave was one of my very first supporters and not only encouraged me, but backed me in the hard work of establishing FSI. He was rooting for me to help not only our home team, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO), but perhaps other orchestras all around the country to seize the many opportunities that he and I plainly saw waiting for them.
I met Dave sometime around 2003, when we were serving together on a committee formed by the BSO. That committee was charged with the task of getting more young people to attend concerts. Symphony Rocks was the BSO’s early version of the efforts now undertaken by orchestras everywhere to try to make themselves “cool” and to get more “young professionals” to attend. Dave and I hit it off immediately for we shared a similar roving and imaginative conversational style – what might sound a lot like ADD to someone overhearing us. But each time we bantered back and forth, what seemed pretty obvious to both of us was that what was lacking at symphony concerts was simply something about the social experience around the music. Together we would envision what might be done with our concert hall lobby and beyond it, stepping out of this or that event, where we regularly collided, to enjoy his really great Cuban cigars.
Back then, as now, the main impetus of the music community’s conversation across the nation is what we might call “declinism.” Driven by the idea that our art form was in a tailspin, leaders of the major foundations and the League of American Orchestras concluded that we had to keep up with the times, embody “cool,” get over our fixation on the music of dead, white, European men, and mimic the successes of mass entertainment through marketing and “innovations” in programming while breaking down the walls of musical styles – and thus becoming somehow relevant to people who had never before shown interest in what we were doing.
Dave, who was himself a smashing success, quickly earning a Super Bowl victory in only the fifth year at the helm of his father’s team, shared my sense that our greatest achievement as Baltimore’s orchestra would not come through trying to be something that we were not, or through trying be all things to all people, but by being even more of what an orchestra is really and already inherently about. The opportunity for us lay in the possibility of enhancing the overall patron experience – and this is something the NFL knew all about.
Before moving to Baltimore in 1996 to establish the Baltimore Ravens, Dave was raised in Cleveland where his adoptive father, the storied Art Modell, had been owner of the NFL franchise the Cleveland Browns. Cleveland has long been a city facing challenges very similar to Baltimore’s: a post-industrial city struggling with class conflict and high unemployment. They also have a world-class orchestra, to which Art was a subscriber from 1977 to 1996. As Dave told me in our last meeting together on a bright, sunny afternoon,
My dad loved classical music, especially The Cleveland Orchestra, and introduced me to it by taking me out to the car where we would sit in the driveway, listening to the radio. I’ll never forget the first piece he taught me, Scheherazade. I still love that piece because he opened up a whole world of music to me through a story I could follow in the music. As I grew up, we frequently attended the Cleveland Orchestra together as a guys’ night out. There was never any mistake about what we were witnessing: greatness, an A -team to the last player, and that it was the orchestra that was main thing. Like another sports team, the Cleveland Orchestra was highly respected in our home and was a main source of the city’s pride.
It’s hard to think of the Cleveland Orchestra or the NFL as anything but wildly successful, but Dave reminded me,
Back in the 60s, professional football was lagging behind college football, baseball, and even boxing and horse racing. Of course, television changed everything, especially Monday Night Football, but we also did a bunch of other things that really expanded our audience and gained us huge sponsorships, which was really the name of the game.
Speaking broadly from the perspective of the NFL, “Building better, more comfortable stadiums like we did in Baltimore made a huge difference. The luxury skybox with all its amenities has been great for revenue but even more so for sponsorships. We were able to make great gains from the people who could afford it.” Indeed, the average ticket price for the Baltimore Ravens in 2016 was $216. Clearly, the NFL doesn’t lose sleep over the fear that they might be charging too much for tickets. Over the years, I would chat with Dave about the challenge we orchestras believe we faced: asking ourselves how we could manage to charge less for tickets. “That’s crazy,” Dave would say. “You have to make your product seem as valuable to people as possible. Even the folks with little money spring for NFL tickets and the team jerseys if that’s something they really want. What’s so hard to understand about that?”
It simply rubs an arts administrator with an egalitarian mindset the wrong way to try to push up prices. Yet, people from all economic strata in Baltimore do fork over the big bucks for Ravens games. The Ravens and the Orioles, with their legendary Camden Yards, are the best shows in town – aside from the BSO, of course. Not everyone attends every game or every concert. Some people don’t attend any, but those who do pony up gladly.
I told Dave about my dream of redesigning our concert experience, changing it from a two-hour sit-down-listen-and-leave routine to a five-hour window during which people show up in time to eat, drink, and be merry, the orchestra playing not just a world-class concert but also the world-class host. In short, the concert hall would become a destination for atmosphere, music, and hospitality. And Dave jumped all over this one:
Well, that’s exactly what the NFL did. We expanded the whole concept of the game into a bigger time slot – an event with tons of pregame and postgame activities. Tailgating in our parking lots has been huge. For lots of people, that’s the best part: the socializing and drinking.
So, social context matters. The event brings people together to enjoy each other under a pretext that for some might even be secondary. It’s not the game but who one goes to the game with – and the opportunity to spend the day and make memories with them. That was the truth I was trying to get to. In this day and age, I think it is too much to expect most people to come to a concert simply because we are playing Mozart or Stravinsky or whatnot. But to have a great time with others while they get know this thing called classical music, that seems entirely plausible and in keeping with the times. The idea of wedding our art form, the concert, with other forms of high quality diversion became what I hoped we could pull off. And history apparently supports the notion: concerts used to be fun and lavish social events before some puritans got hold of the concert format.
Dave would go on about all the perks you get by being a season ticket holder. “It just keeps getting better the more you buy into the team. For so many people it becomes a lifestyle that consumes them.” Yes, a sense of membership, and a membership that had its privileges. Being a cheeseheaded Green Bay Packers fan from Wisconsin, I certainly could relate. The closer one gets to Green Bay, the more one notices everything being painted green and gold, including people’s garage doors, cars, and the occasional dog. Their football stadium, Lambeau Field, is one of the top places for weddings in Green Bay – right on the 50-yard line. As the Toscanini of football, Vince Lombardi once said, “Think of only three things: your God, your family, and the Green Bay Packers – in that order.” But, I digress.
The idea I got from Dave was how welcoming the NFL tried to make itself, getting fans to regard the stadium as a home away from home, a Great Third Place, as we call it. I wanted to make our concert hall lobby into our own version of such a home. After all, so many of our patrons had been coming to the BSO for 50 years or more! Talk about loyal fans. They certainly deserve a comfortable place to sit when they come to “their happy place.” That so many of our patrons are retired made it seem to me that it was even more incumbent upon us that we make our friends comfortable first and foremost.
Dave once asked me, “Why do you guys care if your audience is so old? That’s your niche.” For his own part, he seemed to have no illusions that the NFL could or should be for everyone. He said that he got that part, but he also recounted some important forward progress they made. The NFL nearly doubled its audience when it figured out how to appeal to women:
We learned a lot by asking women what it would take to make them want to come to games. It boiled down to making it easy for them to understand what was going on in the game, selling women’s sports apparel, which is a big part of fan life, having comfortable seats, good bathrooms and enough of them, food they liked, and places to keep warm. They also really liked knowing the backstory to the players’ lives, the human interest. In sports, the focus is always right on the team itself – where it has to be. It’s not about the coaching staff or the conductor, really. It’s about you guys. I want to know you guys. You know, to this day, women are still our biggest growth segment.
Indeed, today women account for 45% of NFL attendees.
It was about that same time that I discovered from the Knight Foundation’s report published in the late 90s that women bought the vast majority of orchestra tickets – and that for every four people who attend a concert, it was another person (a women usually) who had bought their tickets for them. It became really important to me that we get to the women who are doing the purchasing and to get their men to go along with them. Since concert audiences skew towards women, Dave and I mused about what we might learn if we did something like what the NFL did, but in reverse – if we asked men what it would take to make them more excited about coming to concerts.
Dave, releasing a luxurious cloud of hand-rolled Cuban puffery, declared, “Easy. A killer single-malt Scotch list, great beers, a place to smoke cigars, and more legroom.” Sounded familiar: cater to their creature comforts. The Cleveland Orchestra was spending a small fortune on gingersnaps that were of such great repute in their donors’ lounge that they didn’t dare cut them lest they incur donor backlash. They learned this the hard way, I was told.
It wasn’t long before orchestras got into the Great Cupholder Debate, while Dave and I sat on the sidelines asking, “Why the heck not?” Besides wanting to get the full service bar going at our hall, I wanted the high rollers that we needed to court to be able to have drinks brought to them – and for everyone to be able to take their drinks to their seats. We needed cupholders. Apparently, the NFL has already figured that one out. But to this day, it would seem this is an insurmountable challenge for symphony orchestras, raising grave concerns over red wine and carpets or something like that. I did hear that recently the cupholder barrier was broken down somewhere. I wish I had had a chance to tell Dave about that.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The author’s book Wine Wars: The Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists is highly recommended for the psychographic insights it contains that potentially describe an important place for classical music in today’s market.
The connections between wine and music run unexpectedly deep. It isn’t just that many wine lovers are music lovers, too. The brilliant “postmodern” California winemaker Clark Smith has experimented with wine and music “pairings,” demonstrating that certain wines taste better when accompanied by particular tunes. Inexpensive Glen Ellen Chardonnay, he says, is especially tasty if you sip it along with the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.”
I used to be a skeptic about this connection until Smith put on some music and asked me to taste a particular wine and then changed the music on me mid-sip. The taste of the wine turned from sweet to bitter right there in my mouth. It really did. How is this possible? One answer comes from sensory science research. It seems that there are parts of the brain that are particularly involved in appreciating wine and these overlap to a certain extent with the music appreciation areas. Change one element and you can sometimes change the other. Incredible.
Just because the sensory appreciation of music and wine are connected in this way doesn’t mean that there is necessarily much to learn about music by studying wine or vice versa, but sometimes I am struck by certain parallels. In one chapter in my 2013 book Extreme Wine, for example, in trying to understand the changing market status of the great red wines of Bordeaux, I ended up viewing the situation through the lens of grand opera. Once upon a time, I argued, opera was an integral element of the common culture. The composers, the arias, the singers – they were all part of everyday life: when someone whistled a tune in the subway or tuned into a radio program on Saturday, opera was there or at least nearby.
Bordeaux once occupied a similarly commanding height in the world of wine. But, of course, things changed. Opera and Bordeaux both became very expensive and associated with elites. Meanwhile competition grew fierce, especially as new generations emerged who did not automatically conform to the older norms. China kept Bordeaux in its exalted position for a while longer, as Suzanne Mustacich writes in her wonderful new book Thirsty Dragon, but now it seems that the interest has turned from Bordeaux the wine to Bordeaux the tourist experience, and Chinese investors are snapping up lesser estates to refashion into flashy destination resorts.
“Is Bordeaux still relevant?,” I asked in Extreme Wine. And I’ve decided that it is,
but in the peculiar way that opera is still relevant. Opera no longer informs us about music (or culture) generally as it once did. Opera is about opera now, and that is good enough. And Bordeaux is (just?) Bordeaux.
These are just my observations and since I am an only an economist who studies the wine industry I don’t expect that others who know more about music and culture will agree with them. But hopefully they show how I am how trying to use music to understand wine.
Does this rather pessimistic view of opera and Bordeaux apply to wine and classic music more generally? No. When I tilt my perspective just a bit, the outline of an optimistic future for great music emerges.
Fifty years ago it would have been easy to doubt the future of fine wine in America. A thin film of great Burgundy and Bordeaux wines floated on an American sea that was dominated by unsophisticated, industrial wines. Thunderbird, a high-octane lemon-flavored fortified wine, powered the rise of Gallo to its position as the nation’s – and now the world’s – largest wine producer. The best-selling imported wine of all time in the U.S. market was custom-crafted to appeal to mass market American tastes. Have you tried it? Riunite Lambrusco was created to be the “Red Coke” – fizzy, a bit sweet, low in alcohol and irresistible to American consumers. As the advertisements once proclaimed, if you haven’t tried Riunite you don’t know what you are missing, so you might want to pick up a bottle and unscrew the cap (a Riunite innovation among imports when it was introduced).
Most of the wines that guided America out of the wilderness of the Prohibition were commercial products, crafted to please the existing market rather than to elevate American tastes. And yet, while those mass market beverages are still with us, the market momentum has shifted dramatically and unexpectedly towards more sophisticated wines. Data from the Nielsen Company’s surveys of off-premises wine sales tell this story. The market for inexpensive generic wine is still large, but sales are falling in every price category below $9. Meanwhile sales are increasing in higher priced categories, with a 14+ percent increase in wines priced at $15-$20 and more than 7 percent rise in sales of wines costing about $20. The wines that American buyers increasingly seek today are in a different world from the Thunderbird of days past. They are more sophisticated and the best of them proudly reflect the great traditions of winemaking. How did we get here from there? How did wine escape, at least in part, from an industrial wasteland and begin the journey to return to its roots?
My 2011 book Wine Wars plotted the evolution of American wine culture in terms of the dynamic interaction of three powerful forces. First comes globalization that benefits local wine producers by expanding their potential marketplace, which is great. But it also produces a more cluttered and competitive market environment. Consumers, once starved for choice, are now sometimes overwhelmed by it. Upscale supermarkets routinely stock more than a thousand different wine choices that range in price from a couple of bucks to more than two hundred dollars a bottle! Big box specialty stores now carry 8000 wines from every corner of the globe. The “wine wall” where enthusiasts gather to choose bottles to take home is now plagued by the Paradox of Choice. Having no choice is bad (that’s why the communist empire collapsed, according to an economics joke – because everything was either mandatory or forbidden), but too many choices can be just as troublesome.
One way that people cope with globalization and the Paradox of Choice is to try to simplify things. This explains the increasing importance of branded wines like Yellowtail from Australia and Charles Shaw (a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck) from California. An effective brand allows consumers to economize on information: they do not need to know the country, region, vintage, or even grape variety they like. They just need to know what brand they have tried before and enjoyed. The problem with brands, however, is that they risk breaking what I call Einstein’s Law. Einstein said that everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. I think he was talking about scientific theories, but the idea applies more generally. Simplifying wine helps consumers escape the Paradox of Choice, but it risks stripping wine of the very properties that make it appealing to us in the first place. Dumbed-down wine – would you like Bud Red or Bud White? – might be a commercial success, but it wouldn’t be wine anymore, would it?
Globalization and commodification are powerful forces. They push the idea of wine toward oblivion. How can wine resist? The answer, as I wrote in Wine Wars, is that there is a third force pushing back. I call it the “revenge of the terroirists,” adapting the French word terroir which roughly translates as a sense of place. I was counting upon wine lovers who care deeply about wine and wine culture to take up the fight to preserve wine’s soul.
Although there are many ways to characterize the war for wine’s identity, I think the framework that I developed in Wine Wars is fairly useful. What I didn’t fully appreciate at the time, however, is the fact that the war isn’t just about wine. It is about everything, or at least many elements of civilized life. The forces that serve to undermine wine’s complicated existence are mirrored by similar forces at work more generally in the worlds of food, art, literature, education, and even music. Given this fact, it would seem like the terroirists’ revenge is unlikely indeed.
Unexpectedly, however, the ubiquity of the challenge seems to have strengthened the terroirists’ resolve. The yearning for a sense of connection that slick brands cannot provide is widespread and growing. I see it manifest in the world of wine as consumers who are increasingly focused on things that matter prove over and over again that they are willing to pay for products that connect them to person and place, to history and inspiration. Having grown tired of the fake, they now seek out authenticity. I know a winemaker who confesses that he just follows the market and who consequently now focuses intensely on wines that are a tangible expression of a particular time and place. He sees the future in organic wines that bring buyers closer to the earth, and closer therefore to the ultimate source of wine experience.
The terroirist revenge, a renewed commitment to authenticity, was not created by wine alone and it does not apply to wine alone either. Rather, it is a movement among the new and the young today – exactly those not brought up in the traditions of grand opera and Bordeaux, but who seek out, nevertheless, the real, the genuine, and the authentic experience. To twist a Rolling Stones lyric, they are surrounded by what they want – or what they are told they want – so they search instead for what they need. And sometimes they find it. They see Einstein’s Law broken all around them, and they choose another path.
The unexpected success of the terroirist revenge doesn’t mean that the wine wars are over, but they give us hope. And the parallel patterns in craft beer, craft spirits, and other consumer categories underlines the pattern. The emerging terroirist class wants to be challenged and they want to learn. Who knows? – perhaps they will even one day embrace Bordeaux with the same ardor as their grandparents. Perhaps they will embrace opera this way, too – and the rest of classical music movement, if they understand what it really is and what it means. I am not sure how it should be done, but the effort must be made. If it can happen in wine, it can happen elsewhere.
Not everyone is cut from terroirist cloth, but there are enough who are for this to be recognized as an important movement – and for this to be an important moment in history of wine culture. Can it be sustained? Prediction is difficult, we economists like to say, especially about the future. But the factors that have provoked the movement’s rise seem unlikely to go away. Cheers to the terroirist revenge!
In the first part of this series, I acknowledged that there may be something wrong with the pursuit of luxury as exclusionary and materialistic, and that orchestras at least are right to be suspicious of it. But I also suggested that the things we most highly value are often those things that are surplus to our basic needs precisely because they reach beyond niggling reminders of our material world to present us with something that transcends our time and place in it. This class of surplus things we might call meta-luxury because, though they represent luxuries in the sense that they exceed our basic needs, what we value in them lies beyond anything we could define as material luxury. Classical music is only one example of this special category of things, but it is a particularly apt example because music itself is essentially nonmaterial.
Perhaps for this very reason Manfredi Ricca and Rebecca Robins chose a Stradivari violin as the striking cover image for their bookMeta-luxury. Even more telling, of course, than a book’s proverbial cover is what’s inside it. In this case, inside the book classical musicians feature in three of ten conversations with inspirational people throughout the world whose legacies, practices, and achievements embody the values and principles of meta-luxury. Ricca and Robins set out, roughly within the disciplines of business philosophy and branding strategy, to understand the nature of enduring and iconic success – especially in light of the changing attitudes of today’s consumers, who face a marketplace glutted with meaningless luxury and materialism. Their discoveries about meta-luxury describe a deeply rooted culture of excellence, and lead them quite naturally to classical music.
It is absolutely critical for those of us who go about the business of classical music and who strategize its future to understand what exactly it is that makes classical music valuable to those we need to and hope will invest in it. That, in turn, must translate into our unwavering commitment to a positive vision. It is not enough, for example, for us to resolve to move away from an ill-suited association with the vulgar materialism of luxury. We should know specifically what we are moving towards; otherwise our moving is only a wandering. Or else it is not really moving at all, and we only stand around kicking at the box we busily congratulate ourselves for having just got out of. And we must have no illusions or flippancy about the direction we choose. Rejecting the “elitist” luxury of fine wines in the lobby, for instance, in favor of something we may think of as more populist – say, peanut shells on the floor – is not rejecting materialism, but in fact only changing the flavor of it. We must look much deeper than that to understand our strategy. In business we should be guided always by principles that describe the thing that we are about – in our case, with the thing that classical music is. And if our original instinct to reject luxury is correct, that is because classical music is certainly not just one more flavor of materialism.
I suggest that, like Manfredi Ricca and Rebecca Robins, we will discover a natural harmony between the principles and values that describe classical music and those that define meta-luxury. Even more significantly, I propose that we will also find that those principles and values resonate most deeply in our human nature, transcending all the boundaries that so worry us when we contemplate the problem of luxury – boundaries such as age, race, or class.
We might agree that we already have a general consensus about what luxury is. We are much less familiar, however, with the idea of meta-luxury. It is tempting to assume meta-luxury is really just some kind of mega-luxury. So perhaps we should begin by making the distinction plain. In their book, Manfredi Ricca and Rebecca Robins offer us a vivid and practical comparison:
‘Luxury’ is often self-proclaimed status; meta-luxury is always a restless pursuit. ‘Luxury’ is often about showing; meta-luxury is always about knowing. ‘Luxury’ is often about stretch and surface; meta-luxury is always about focus and depth. ‘Luxury’ is sometimes about ostentation; meta-luxury is always about discovery. ‘Luxury’ is often merely about affording; meta-luxury is always first and foremost about understanding.
It becomes clear in this light that meta-luxury is not just more or bigger luxury, but something that exists in a realm beyond it – in the same way that meta-physics exists beyond physics. It moves according to a different set of principles and embodies a very different philosophy.
Ricca and Robins go on to identify Knowledge, Purpose, and Timelessness as the three principles that drive the creation of meta-luxury. It’s important to remember that what drives the creator of meta-luxury is not the thought or idea of meta-luxury, per se, but rather the relentless pursuit of human achievement – and we can understand that achievement as the result of a tireless pursuit of knowledge, purpose, and timelessness. The creator of meta-luxury, too, is reaching for something beyond purely material manifestations.
From the very beginning man has cherished and sought after knowledge. It was the Tree of Knowledge, after all, for which he gave up paradise. Our libraries are full of books, but it is not the paper or the ink, however old, that makes them a treasure. It is the knowledge contained in them – hard won, pressed by time from the toil of human experience – that we consider priceless. And it is the value of that knowledge that makes it sacrilegious to burn a book – any book. We send our children, at whatever cost, to get an education because we know that knowledge is what will make their lives better – and not just in material ways. It is like the rising tide that lifts all boats.
And what is the tradition of classical music if it is not a repository of knowledge? From the instruments, some of which are still carefully crafted according to specifications mysteriously perfected ages ago, to carefully preserved compositions that chart, for instance, the developments in polyphony or the art of the fugue over the course of centuries, to the expertise and musicianship of the instrumentalist who learned under the watchful care of a master and spent untold hours in disciplined practice as now his own students do…to the tradition itself – the continuous and intimate relationship that the music has had with our history, with our dreams, our triumphs, and our tragedies…what is this but a most exquisitely complex repository of knowledge?
We have nothing to do here but to be what we are. The music only survives if the knowledge does. We all know this and always have.
Knowing just that, perhaps, is part of the conviction of purpose that drives the classical musician. But we know our purpose is more than that, too. It is also the purpose of mastering the practice and performance of these instruments and this music, learning to deserve this repertoire and our teachers, becoming a part of the legacy, and taking our place in the living tradition. It’s nothing less than a focus of purpose that compels the musician to spend a lifetime in the practice room when so many easier and more flirtatious diversions are always at hand. Likewise, it’s purpose that makes the devotee overcome life’s myriad little hurdles to find his seat in the hall on a Friday night and to sit, enchanted, through three movements of a concerto he’s never heard before.
Classical music is not a meandering even if there is a fair amount of serendipity involved. It is mostly a striving, with a purpose to be part of this thing that is bigger than you and that extends behind and before you.
And this leads naturally to the subject of timelessness. Music doesn’t necessarily belong to the moment in which it’s born. It is, of course, a product of the particulars of its birth, but it is also something universal. Much of the classical music born in our day will be forgotten and even more of it will never be heard. That is true of all eras, and our canon – like all canons – represents a small selection of the music that is our inheritance. It is the selection of music that has survived the amnesia of ages, the ravages of history, and the fickleness of fashion. And there will be a canon that has survived the ages to come, too.
But what is most astounding is that we can be more familiar now with a Bach cantata than almost anyone living in Bach’s day might have been. Bach wrote his music “for the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” Did his contemporaries consider him irrelevant because he wasn’t writing music to address the problems of his age? Maybe we can imagine that they did. But when we turn our efforts toward the task of making ourselves relevant to a specific time, we risk forfeiting the timeless. It is because Bach recognized and reached toward the universal with his music that he is still relevant today. In fact, he is not only relevant, he is one of the most loved and respected composers of all time.
Classical music is essentially timeless. It lives only in the moment when it is being played and listened to. And when we bring a score to life again, we are playing the very same notes that were played perhaps centuries ago. Each musician brings to the performance something personal – and so does the listener. Like the composer, we participate in the miracle of touching the universal through the particular. And long after we and our world have passed away, the music will continue to live for as long as there are hearts, minds, and hands that learn to play it.
Returning to the earlier, only slightly exaggerated example where we considered replacing fine wine with peanuts as the theme of our concert hall’s repast, we might now consider the strategy in a different light. Before choosing between “luxurious” wine and “populist” peanuts, we might look more closely at the values and principles that guide the creation of a fine wine and compare them specifically with those that go into producing a roasted peanut. And then we might ask ourselves which of the two offerings harmonizes with the principles and values that create, say, a violin, a musician, a symphony, or an orchestra. As Ricca and Robins point out:
[I]t is difficult not to see the paradigm of meta-luxury manifest itself in some of the world’s most respected wine-makers, where the wealth and depth of diverse competences, often passed on from one generation to the next for centuries, blend with an intrinsic conviction about wine being the celebration of the fullness of life in the creation of rare masterpieces, some vintages remaining as benchmarks. Knowledge, purpose, and timelessness.
We could easily substitute the craft of musicianship for that of winemaking – and music for wine – in that excerpt. In fact, I’ll wager that you already did. It practically begs for the comparison.
But read it again. Who can doubt that what they describe is exactly what moves those who really appreciate wine, just as it is exactly what moves those who really love classical music? It was never about status or ostentation for the aficionado of either. Instead, it was always about inspiration, discovery, and dedication. It’s quite possible, of course, to find those who drink fine wine for the show of it, or who attend symphony concerts for the same reason. But they are to be distinguished from those who partake out of genuine love. The future of our orchestras depends on the latter. They are the ones who will return again and again, who will bring their children and their friends, and who will deem us worthy of their philanthropic investments. They are the ones who understand and value us as a unique achievement, because their love for us is born of another, deeper love for the nonmaterial things that we embody: knowledge, purpose, and timelessness.
So, returning once more to our example, if we reject wine as a symbol of snobbery and luxury – or reject it in parts by offering the offensively simple and uninspiring choice of a Sutter Home “red” or a Yellow Tail “white” – in our concert halls, then for the sake of the pettiest interpretation of the choice at hand we will have at once misunderstood wine’s appeal and its real nature, misunderstood classical music’s appeal and its nature, and worst of all undeservedly underrated the universal aspirations and individual motivations of our human nature. We will have reprimanded those who most cherish us for a materialism that is not theirs. And we will have judged those who do not yet love us to be incapable of rising beyond the material appreciation for peanuts or the churlish reaction against ‘luxury.’ We will have certainly abandoned the thing that classical music most essentially is – that doorway that opens for each of us onto the nonmaterial world.
No one in business needs to be told that a mountain of misunderstandings and misconceptions is not a strategy for success. But business-wise, what is success in the paradigm of meta-luxury? It is precisely what orchestras and our great musical institutions already know it to be:
The right term to describe meta-luxury would, in fact, be one that is now abundantly used in other contexts – sustainability. In meta-luxury, business results are meant to sustain – and never to drive – the enterprise’s mission and ethos. Economic success is therefore a requisite and a consequence, but not a primary objective.
None of us chose a career in music because we wanted to be fabulously wealthy. In fact, the miracle is that we went into music despite the fact that we might have preferred to be filthy rich. But there was something more important to us than material gain.
And orchestras, too, exist not to accrue handsome profits, but to sustain themselves. They sustain themselves in order to sustain the art form in perpetuity. Again, we hear the echo of the thing we already are. We might do well to look more closely at this paradigm we so perfectly and naturally fit. And in the next installment of this series, we’ll do just that by examining what Manfredi Ricca and Rebecca Robins describe as the pillars of meta-luxury.
It shouldn’t surprise us that orchestras are distancing themselves from the idea of luxury. We generally and perhaps rightly sense that there is something wrong with it. The most obvious reason is the uncomfortable fact that luxury represents a category that might necessarily exclude us – or indeed anybody. That, of course, does not describe classical music, and the notion that it might solicits serious objections. But the problem of luxury goes even deeper than our egalitarian convictions and has serious ramifications for the symphony orchestra. For this reason, and because classical music’s association with luxury persists nonetheless both in the domain of luxury brands themselves and in the realms of popular culture, the subject deserves careful examination.
We may not, perhaps, recognize many of our efforts to eschew the lap of luxury as simply or overtly so. Instead, we might more immediately understand them as our response to shifting cultural realities and modern sensibilities. But those realities and sensibilities to which we are adjusting can also be understood as a reaction against luxury. For example, long ago luxury boxes gave way to un-luxurious boxes. Away went the sumptuous curtains and furnishings and the affectations that divided the audience with sharp distinctions suggesting class. Boxes began to resemble terraced seating, marked only by their proximity to the stage and the limits of their size. And now we see concert halls being designed without any box seating at all. Our immediate justification may be the predicted trend in ticket sales or innovation in the disciplines of concert hall design. But at the heart of it, what has really changed is our experience of the concert – more specifically, our social experience of it. What has changed is the way that we relate to each other as audience members and more broadly as neighbors who are also equals. Were someone to suggest the re-introduction of luxury boxes and their distinctions of exclusivity, I think we would learn quickly what our real objection to them is.
Or consider the increasingly controversial tradition of musicians’ tailcoats. Decried for being old-fashioned and irrelevant to our modern life, they will likely go the same way as luxury boxes in the end. But what’s important to note is that when they are replaced, it will be with something not simply more “modern” but, crucially, more informal. “Modern” alone will not satisfy the demand for change in this case because the tailcoat is, in fact, still modern. As it happens, white-tie events did not disappear with the dinosaurs. People do still attend formal affairs and they do still prefer to wear tailcoats that look very much like they did hundreds of years ago. The issue isn’t a matter of style, but rather a matter of luxury as a reminder of class-distinction. What we really want is something less evocative of the luxury of white-tie evening dress. If anything, for many of us it is luxury that has become old-fashioned.
But if the egalitarian objection to luxury is the most obvious, it is also – at least so far as the symphony orchestra is concerned – the least important argument against it. In fact, it grows out of the more pervasive and pernicious problem, which is the fact that luxury has come to suggest to us gross and conspicuous materialism. It suggests the pursuit of excess for its own sake, the glorification of gluttony. And the more obvious the display of luxury is, the more we sense that it is empty, ostentation being its sole substance.
Interestingly, the leeching of luxury into the mundane – of Louis Vuitton knock-offs, for instance, hawked on city street corners – and the popular cliché of “affordable luxury” attest to two important truths. The first is that most of us, regardless of our means, aspire to some level of luxury. I’ll come back to this point later. Secondly, for many of us luxury reduces to mere appearances. What matters is the appearance of the Louis Vuitton bag as such, and not any of the less obvious but arguably more important qualities that would distinguish the authentic article from its imitation. And for those of us who take home the fake, it doesn’t even matter that we know it really isn’t what it pretends to be. Our pursuit of luxury becomes largely a game of pretense, display, and excess – and one in which we must first deceive ourselves. That act of delusion chips away the gold veneer from the face of luxury, and we find staring back at us only the contorted visage of wanton avarice. So if we turn away from the idea of luxury in disgust, it’s most rightly because it has come to represent a vulgar and vain material world, littered with things we know to be inauthentic and trivial.
We are right to protest that classical music does not belong in this category. And yet it does represent something surplus to our material needs. Against this fact, of course, music educators are forever forced to battle. But if it is surplus, it is also essentially immaterial. Music does not appear as a physical object in our material world like, say, a handbag or a sports car. That it does not is the great challenge facing its advocates, who cannot therefore simply and empirically measure and sum its value, even for the sake of its defense. At the same time, that it does not appear as a thing in the physical world is the reason we can never conflate its value with its physical appearance. Instead, we value in classical music qualities that are also essentially immaterial – metaphysical qualities, which endure partly because they cannot be corroded like the physical qualities of material things, either by moth and rust or by the mockery of gross ostentation and cheap imitation. Perhaps it is for this reason that music belongs to the special category of immaterial and surplus things for which we will often sacrifice even our material needs. Indeed, many of the things that we value most highly in life are like this. Education, for instance, is like this, and so is friendship. For these things we are usually willing to sacrifice a great deal.
But while some things in this category, like friendship, might be free, other things like education and symphony concerts are generally not. And as is true for any category of things for which we can name a price or for which we are willing to make a sacrifice, we find that some such things are worth a great deal more to us than others. The question is, what makes one thing worth more to us than the next? Why, for instance, do we value this education so decidedly over that one? What distinguishes our best friend from all our other friends? We make these judgments all the time. And rather than it being simply a matter of taste, we often find our reasons in the fact that certain metaphysical qualities mean more to us than others – perhaps even more to us than a thing’s physical qualities. As difficult as these invisible qualities are to measure or quantify, most of us would have no trouble naming them.
This is also true of the immaterial qualities that belong to material things. While it seems that almost all of us aspire to some level of luxury, surely far fewer of us are motivated by abject materialism. In fact, for most of us it is likely the metaphysical and not the physical qualities of a thing that lead us to meet its higher cost in excess of our basic needs. Consider, for example, that you are presented with two apples. One is the conventional kind of apple you’d find in any supermarket: large, red, smooth, and waxed to an attractive shine. The second is not at all like that. It is a smaller apple, not nearly as physically attractive; but it comes from a small farm in central Pennsylvania where a third-generation farmer is taking great pains to conserve both the land by practicing sustainability and the old heritage varieties of apple that our supermarkets have forgotten all about. He doesn’t use pesticides or herbicides, and he loses a good deal of his crop every year because of that choice. For him, though, it is something like a labor of love. Most of us would not hesitate to recognize that the second apple is worth more than the first. And either will satisfy our basic need of hunger. In fact, perhaps the first apple, by virtue of being a little larger, would do so better. Nevertheless, many of us who have the means will select the second apple and duly pay more for it. The extra investment we make is an example of a kind of luxury – one based not on pretense and excess but rather on the value attached to metaphysical qualities.
This kind of luxury we could call “meta-luxury.” And it is the kind of luxury to which the avid skier aspires, for example, when he finally buys an expensive pair of expertly handcrafted skis. It is the kind of luxury that the very wealthy music patron aspires to when she invests in a rare violin that she’ll never even play. It’s the kind of luxury that moves the lover of books to bid on an illuminated, medieval manuscript when it appears at auction. And it describes the aspiration of the new professional who invests more than he can afford in a fine suit of cottage-spun and hand-loomed tweed from the Outer Hebrides islands. This is the kind of luxury that moves those of us who have rejected “luxury.” It is defined by values that transcend shallow materialism.
And it is those values that have already linked classical music with the idea of luxury. As much as we try to escape the connection, it is always and already there. Many of the world’s oldest and most respected luxury brands continue to associate themselves with classical music even while we try desperately to distance ourselves from their world. We see their advertisements printed in our concert programs. They sponsor our festivals. We hear our music in their marketing videos and in their showrooms. And we know it cannot be because classical music, which is entirely immaterial, lends them material grandeur. It’s quite the opposite. They are, in fact, the ones who supply the material grandeur themselves. No, it lends them metaphysical – or spiritual if you will – grandeur. What we sense in classical music is a set of transcendent, immaterial values, and these brands want us to know that these values are what they, too, embody.
What probably should surprise us is that these luxury brands – representing some of the longest-lived and most successful businesses in the world – firmly grounded in all of their worldly and material concerns, know what we pretend not to. And that is not merely that human nature aspires to something far more than the ordinary and to something surplus to our material needs, but even more importantly that our highest aspiration, whatever our means, is the one that seeks something essentially immaterial. This common impulse is neatly summed up in Oprah’s famous words, “Live your best life.” While to some that may conjure pink Lamborghinis, I hardly have to mention here that that’s not her point. And her point has not been lost on her many millions of subscribers.
Classical music, by its very nature, already represents some of our most treasured transcendent values – it is already like that second apple. Those of us who have experienced it and know it also know that it is already part of our “best life.” And as it is with so many of life’s most meaningful luxuries, the orchestra is also, by its nature, a costly proposition. So we must ask not how it can become cheaper or more common, but rather what are those values that make it worth its cost? The values that people are willing to sacrifice for are precisely what the orchestra should never sacrifice. Those, instead, are the values that should define it.
In the essays that will follow in this series, we’ll examine the principles of meta-luxury as outlined in the thoughtful book Meta-luxury: Brands and the Culture of Excellence, written by Manfredi Ricca and Rebecca Robins. We think this work is vitally important for orchestras and other institutions of classical music, and we encourage you to buy or borrow a copy and read it for yourselves.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an edited transcription of the address delivered by Richard Bogomolny at our inaugural The Future of the Symphony Conference in September 2014. View the video of this presentation in its entirety.
I just want to begin by saying what an honor it is to appear on this program with such highly credentialed speakers, and I don’t take this lightly. I’ve been asked to talk about how the Cleveland Orchestra operates, focusing more on the practical side. But along the way I have to tell you those things we believe in and those things we don’t.
My own personal history is that I grew up in the supermarket industry, and I retired from that business. I wouldn’t mention that except for Andy’s comments yesterday concerning potential problems when you bring too much business discipline into an arts organization and what the potential is for that, both good and bad. I’m glad I had the business experience to apply to it, but historically, when you become the president or chairman of this organization, you never lose sight of the fact that the art is the most important thing. Music is number one. We’d like to say that the musicians are number two and everything else is number three.
I grew up during the George Szell era. This was the era during which the orchestra became known far and wide for artistic excellence. There were two elements of pride for the community in those days. They were the Cleveland Orchestra and the Cleveland Browns – that’s where my head was when I was growing up. My mother studied at the Damrosch School in New York, which later became Juilliard, and my brother and I each studied music and grew up loving classical music. He played the clarinet and French horn and now plays classical guitar, and I the violin and viola. We both studied with prominent members of the Cleveland Orchestra and attended the national music camp at Interlochen for two summers. It was at Interlochen that I realized I was never going to be good enough to play at the level where I would like to play.
Here is a kind of disclaimer: while I think the kinds of things that impact orchestras today are fairly common among the orchestras, the solutions, in my view, have to be local. What works in Cleveland may or may not work elsewhere, and there are reasons for that. So I’m not here to say what things other orchestras ought to be doing simply because we’re doing them – it’s not that at all. And we make as many mistakes as the next organization does. Cleveland itself is a major part of what and who we are. But I think we have four issues in common.
It’s fairly obvious that financial resources – or the lack thereof – are a major issue in the industry. The development of audiences – their age, their size, and their demographics – is another thing. That leads to the third problem, which is lack of true diversity on the stage, in the boardroom, and in the building. The fourth thing is that none of us suffers from a lack of qualified musicians. The world is continuing to produce more and better musicians than the major orchestras of the world can possibly support. Unfortunately, on the issue of diversity and inclusion, because of years and years of trying and failing, I don’t think that I have much that is useful to provide for you other than a long study of things that didn’t work. So I’m going to talk about history a little bit.
The orchestra was founded in 1918 by Adella Prentiss Hughes. She had two things in mind, both of which have remained central to our existence ever since. Firstly, she wanted Cleveland to have a great orchestra and to avoid the need of always having to import touring orchestras for classical music. And secondly, she hoped the orchestra’s musicians would form a cadre to teach in the Cleveland public school systems. And for most of this time, this has been true.
In 2018 we will celebrate our one hundredth anniversary. We are planning a celebration not of the orchestra but of our community, which has supported us for all of these years. In addition to the Orchestra, we run the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, and the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Chorus. We involve in these organizations as many people from northeastern Ohio, and some from even further away, as we can.
Severance Hall was opened in 1930. At the time it was called America’s most beautiful concert hall and I believe that it was. In 1956 or so, George Szell completely revamped and improved the acoustics by changing the concert stage and removing heavy carpeting and drapes, but in the process he buried the six-thousand-piece organ in the ceiling, making it impossible to play. This was at the beginning of the era of high fidelity, and Szell believed that we would be able to play the organ and broadcast it through very large speakers that were installed in the back wall, but that never happened.
Later, we revamped the whole Severance Hall again. We renovated it, we added to it, and we brought the organ down to the concert hall level, where it now stretches around three sides of the stage and is very playable. The hall seats two thousand people, all with an unobstructed view. And the acoustics are really quite good. I think the acoustics are one of the reasons for what is referred to as the ‘Cleveland Orchestra Sound.’ It’s a stage where the musicians hear each other better than anywhere else they’ve ever played.
In 1968 we opened our summer hall at the Blossom Music Center. It sits on 200 acres in the middle of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It was completely renovated in 2002, and the serious work of providing better accessibility, not just for the handicapped but also for the aging population, is being completed in phases over the next couple of years. The pavilion seats 5,700 and another 13,500 can sit on the lawn, all with good visibility. The stage is at the bottom of a natural bowl, with seating and access from the hillside. Touring soloists and guest conductors tell us that it’s the most beautiful and best acoustical outdoor classical venue in the world.
Franz Welser-Möst has been our music director since 2002. He is under contract through 2015 and we’re in the midst of negotiations to extend that now. He just recently resigned as the music director of the Vienna State Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic. I think he had the second longest tenure of anyone there, but when he took the job he said, “I’m not going to complete my term; nobody does.” And he didn’t.
The Cleveland Factor
I want to talk about the Cleveland marketplace. In 1955, we had one million residents residing inside of the city’s legal boundaries. Today we have 390,000. The city went from a manufacturing powerhouse for cars, steel, and oil refinement to a service economy where the largest current employer is the Cleveland Clinic. We were long ago a top-tier economy, and we became a second-tier economy in the 1970s and ’80s. By the recession of 2007–8, we’d become a third-tier economy. Last week the US Census Bureau released new numbers that give Cleveland the distinction of being the second poorest city in America. Detroit beat us out for the distinction of being the poorest.
But surprisingly, for all these years, the Cleveland Orchestra has been supported by our community as a top-tier orchestra with all the associated costs that go with it. We’re the smallest city in the world to have such an orchestra, and it would be easy to conclude that the people leaving Cleveland moved into the suburbs, but the numbers don’t really back that up. It means that our funding base has deteriorated and that support for all of our area nonprofits has fallen to fewer and fewer sources. Many of the area’s Fortune 500 companies have moved elsewhere or have merged – several major banks among them. In 2007, after a very large campaign, the city created a pool funded by a tax of thirty cents per pack of cigarettes for the use of the performing arts organizations in the area.
There’s one other factor besides the economics to be considered, and that’s the historical generosity of the community. In the words of Fiddler on the Roof, I’m speaking about Tradition. In Cleveland, the tradition of philanthropy has origins in the early 1900s with Andrew Carnegie, the Rockefellers, the Severances, and others. It has continued to this day, measured by what the Cleveland Orchestra raises, what United Way, Jewish Federation, Catholic Charities, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and a mass of others have raised annually. I believe that the United Way was originally the Community Chest and it was founded in Cleveland. And the Cleveland Foundation, which was the first community foundation in America, is currently the second wealthiest behind New York City. That’s all going on while people are leaving the area and the economy turns from heavy-duty manufacturing to mostly service and medicine.
But one of the things of interest is the fact that the Cleveland Orchestra had the highest market penetration for both ticket sales and per capita donations in the industry. No other orchestra has developed even half of what we have achieved in their marketplaces. Yet balancing the budget has always been a struggle. And here is why: the nature of the industry. My predecessor as president of the orchestra, Ward Smith, defined a nonprofit as the symphony orchestra. Why? Because the revenue earned from ticket sales and sponsorships never covered, even in the best of times, more than 47 or 48 percent of what it cost to operate. In recent times, that number has been closer to 40 percent than to 50. Covering the other 53 to 60 percent of the annual operating budget depends totally on fundraising – whether you called it endowment, annual bridge, special, or by any other name or combination of names.
On the business side of the symphony orchestra, I believe this is all one really needs to know in setting priorities. Next to governments, for which most boards easily possess the talent – whether they have the will is another story – fundraising is where it’s at in terms of financial success or failure. Every one of our trustees has a fundraising plan to which he has agreed and assists in solicitations for the annual fund drive.
There are some broad principles. It’s often suggested that if the board does the job of fundraising the musicians will be able to keep up with their compatriots in other cities in terms of pay, benefits, and retirement. Conversely, any lack of resources to pay for these increases is generally the board’s fault. And I believe that this argument may in fact be true in certain instances, but it certainly isn’t in every instance and it’s way too simplistic – it’s just not true in many cases, and in others it’s true only by degrees.
I created the chart in Figure 1 not with the purpose to compare orchestras, but to talk about marketplaces. There is new data released by the US Department of Commerce that measures what it really costs to live – not what the CPI is, but what it really costs to live – in each of the areas marked in the left-hand column. The ranking is the regional price parity score from highest to lowest. One hundred is the average, so for anything listed as above one hundred you can assume the cost of living is higher than zero. Those listed as the bottom three, all less than one hundred, are the more impoverished cities. You can say that it costs less to operate there. In the last column you’ll see the actual percentage difference between the scores of Cleveland and the other cities. Cleveland is listed at the bottom as zero; New York is 37 percent more costly, based on this federal study, than Cleveland; and Baltimore comes in somewhere in the middle at 22.6 percent more costly than Cleveland. There’s one other thing that you can deduce from this information. For a dollar spent in Cleveland, you’d have to spend $1.37 in New York to buy the same market basket; $1.19 in Chicago to buy the same thing; and, surprisingly for me, $1.22 in Baltimore. The purpose of the chart is just to show you generally the economics of the twelve major orchestras that I listed there.
What that means is that Cleveland was the eighth-highest paying orchestra in terms of actual dollars, but its musicians had more purchasing power than all the others because of the marketplace in Cleveland. As I said, one dollar spent in Cleveland would buy $1.37-worth of products in New York City. Based on purchasing power – which none of the union players wants to hear about and so, to that extent, what I’m talking about is highly sensitive – the Cleveland Orchestra musicians clearly are able to afford the nicest standard of living compared to the musicians in all the other cities we’ve looked at. And that is, unfortunately, because Cleveland is one of the poorest areas.
But we also adhere to a legal principle: to agree to pay more money than what the figures tell you will be available – as many orchestras have tried to do over the years – is a breach of our fiduciary responsibility to the organization and to the community. And that’s how a lot of orchestras have got themselves into deep trouble, betting on the if-come, which in fact rarely does come.
Musicians like to look at how they stack up against their peers in terms of base pay as a pure number. I think this is certainly a psychological issue; it’s a feel-good issue. They want to be paid as well as Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, and New York, and the reason for that is the fact that they can, in many cases, logically say that they play as well. I would argue that these other things show much more than the relative base pay. But none of these arguments are the real reason for showing you these numbers. That, I will discuss in a couple of minutes. I just want you to keep in mind the background of these numbers.
What We Believe In
This is based on both personal and institutional experience. Let’s begin with Excellence. We believe that everything we do – every plan we form, every expenditure that we make – must be tested against what that action will do for or against the standard of musical excellence that we have followed for decades. In times of financial difficulty, only those activities not related to what we call being a world-class orchestra may be cut without consent of the board.
The other thing we believe in is the fact that it’s very hard to play an instrument at the level of the members of our orchestra, how very good the musicians have to be in order to get in in the first place, and how hard they must work in order to stay at that level and to uphold our artistic traditions. While growing up, many of these musicians were thought of as child prodigies in their own communities. It’s been my objective over the years to make sure that the trustees understand and believe that our musicians are special and that they, collectively, are the reason we’re in business.
We also believe that classical music is not dead, nor will the ability to hear any amount of music free on the Internet bury us. Our unwavering belief is that the live concert experience, with the audience being emotionally involved and connected to music, is enduring. You can ask our musicians and you’ll find that none of them buy into the proposition that classical music is dead. In fact, they’ve been asked that question by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which for the last few weeks has been doing vignettes on each of the members of the orchestra, and one of the questions they ask is about the death of classical music.
Last summer we set attendance records at the Blossom Music Center for most attendees, highest average attendance per concert, highest number of age 25-and-under attendees, and the highest revenue – even with ages 18-and-under being admitted free with an adult ticket buyer. And we achieved this in two fewer concerts than we had the year before. Some of this is programming – and some is weather and that’s accidental – but it’s nonetheless true that what we’re doing is not dying.
We believe that we are the most efficiently run of the major orchestras, based on statistical comparisons of operating size and budget – currently around $50 million – and considering the fact that we operate both Severance Hall and the Blossom Music Center. Very few orchestras own and run their own venues. The trustees understand that, operating as tightly as we do, it is no longer possible to save the orchestra from a financial crisis by significantly cutting overhead. That’s already been done and we don’t permit mission creep in this area. We recognize that investments, by definition, must often be made in advance of actually achieving desired results. We also understand that some initiatives will fail or be far less than hoped for.
We believe that it’s neither possible nor desirable to save money by trying to balance the budget on the backs of the musicians. In a crisis caused by events outside our control, we do expect them to participate in sharing the sacrifice, and they have done so in the form of freezes, slower increases, and extra services – within the whole organization, including the music director, the executive director, and the senior staff. It’s very interesting that when Franz Welser-Möst took the podium to be our music director in 2002, we were getting right into the first recession of the decade, and he volunteered 10 percent of his total compensation before he had even conducted his first concert.
We do believe that musicians and staff need to be fairly paid, recognizing and taking into consideration their highly developed talents and level of skill. Here is the reason for the chart introduced earlier showing the relative economies of the twelve orchestras. I know that what I say next is controversial, but I believe it to be true nonetheless. We believe that our employees’ pay and benefits need to be negotiated based on the situation in the Greater Cleveland marketplace, not on what’s going on in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. Why? Because there is a fundraising reality. As I told you earlier, we’re always having to raise between 50 and 60 percent of our operating budget one way or another, and it’s Cleveland where we raise our money. It’s Cleveland where we do business, where we sell tickets; and it’s not possible to separate these functions from the Cleveland marketplace. The economies of other cities are not relevant to our ability to cover expenses in Cleveland. We cannot raise funds based on population numbers or the strengths of Boston or New York’s economies. And, as you can see, we have no ability to influence the buying power in these other areas. It’s often been proposed that we won’t be able to hire and keep the musicians unless we pay competitively, based on what the other major orchestras pay. For many decades we followed this path. This may or may not become a problem in the future, but as of now it isn’t and it hasn’t been. It’s currently a specious argument. It looks okay on the surface but fails in real life.
We believe that the number of musicians in orchestras must be set by the music director, not by economic issues – even though each open position can easily save more than $150,000 annually. In the early years we might have talked about this kind of thing, but I believe today’s board would not even hold a discussion on the subject. We understand that, even though we’re likely to have 250 musicians from around the world wanting to audition for a single open position, reducing the actual numbers of musicians in the orchestra, forgetting what the impact might be on sound balances, is a very slippery slope towards disaster. During contract negotiations, if there were a showdown on an impasse, we and the musicians all know that we could easily hire a whole new orchestra and replace the musicians with other talented musicians, but it would never again be the Cleveland Orchestra, where we have a tradition of hiring the best players who audition. And those players are then taken under the wings not only of the music director but also of the current members of the orchestra, who help teach them the style in which the orchestra plays Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, or Brahms. This remains a part of the George Szell tradition, and it’s been self-perpetuating. It’s kind of amazing to watch.
The orchestra does not like to go on stage unprepared – for either educational concerts or regular concerts. The musicians expect to work hard during rehearsals. They are skeptical if they don’t. They do not appreciate guest conductors who are so impressed or so overwhelmed that they coast in rehearsals. They complain to management not for being overworked but for not having enough rehearsal time. On tours, if you’ll walk the halls of the hotels as I’ve done many times, you’ll hear them practicing in their rooms instead of sightseeing. This is an experience that I’ve had many times, not just once or twice.
Every orchestra I know describes itself in terms of excellence – a term that is almost completely subjective and quite un-measurable. What is clear to me is that most orchestras in the top ten or fifteen largest American cities are very, very good. Why? Because their musicians are highly trained, highly skilled, highly dedicated, and substantial members of their local communities. They care about their job, their artistry, and their audiences. The orchestras themselves have usually good to great artistic leadership. Any one of these orchestras is capable of giving great concerts.
However, to my chagrin and the chagrin of others, playing great music and wonderful concerts ceased years ago to ensure the success of major orchestras. While that should be enough, the fact is that it isn’t and it hasn’t been for a while. This has certainly been the case in Cleveland. If it were enough, there would be no need for conferences like this one, the Philadelphia Orchestra would not have gone into bankruptcy, and the Detroit and Minnesota orchestras would not have had financial troubles. All of them play very well. On the flip side, though, I’m convinced that not playing great concerts of great music will ultimately ensure failure.
During both the recessions of 2001 and 2007–9, many of the things that hurt were predictable, even if out of our control. The endowment and pension funds got blasted by the market decline, creating unfunded liabilities in the pension fund that would require large cash payments over years to fix. Even if the market were to bounce back hugely, money in the endowment would never be able to ride the market back up because all of us were using principle to fund the operations. The donor base at all levels of wealth dried up because people were scared and their advisers were telling them to perhaps pay off their existing pledges, but certainly not to get any more heavily involved.
If you were like us, something else happened that I’ve never heard mentioned anywhere else in the industry. Each orchestra went into survival mode with key members of staff and board leadership involved day and night in trying to save the institution rather than in building the artistic side of the business, which is where our organizational leadership ought to be spending its time. In my view, there is only one way to avoid that trap, and that is to build a large enough endowment – roughly six times the annual budget – which can help an organization ride through inevitable business cycles. We’ve been trying to do this, with our goal to be there by our centennial in 2018. As of now, we’re not on track to do it but we may end up close.
This experience told us, though, that we really had to change. The change would likely have to be transformative rather than incremental. We had to look at things differently in order to do things differently. The Committee on the Future of the Cleveland Orchestra was formed and met for a solid year. It was made up of trustees, senior staff, and non-trustees who were important in the community, including elected officials and business leaders. They looked at every line of the financial statement and thought through every idea, crazy or not. It was during this time that we considered downsizing.
Because of the extreme hits to the market value of both the endowment and the pension plan and the resulting implications, we seriously looked at downsizing from a world-class orchestra to a truly regional orchestra. This was precipitated by potential large future operating losses based on loss of attendance and donors. Even though we already had the smallest operating budget of the other big ten orchestras except for Washington, we found that we could save millions of dollars annually by eliminating those costs which were directly attributed to being what we called “world-class” – that was union contract and benefits, touring, publicity, and so on. But there wasn’t one person in that room willing to propose such a step.
Since fundraising was crucial to any plan, we went out and spoke to our major donors, corporations, and foundations – particularly to our most generous individual donors, myself included. We asked them directly if we could count on their continued financial support for the downsizing plan to become a regional orchestra. The results were unanimous: nobody would give us the same amount or anything close to it for a lesser orchestra. Most wouldn’t contribute anything at all. We were built on excellence and that’s what we needed to be. Even when faced with the choice of going out of business versus survival by downsizing, the results were clear.
The turn-around plan was a five-year plan. Most of us had been operating traditionally with five-year plans and we were caught in that trap in those days. We looked at strategic imperatives, the excellence of the brand, and this might have been hubris but we believed, based on what others were telling us and what we saw ourselves, that we had established a kind of brand recognition that, if marketed correctly, could help us to develop residencies. The term “The Cleveland,” as we were known in Europe and Asia, often results in the need to answer the question, What is a Cleveland? But the last time we were in Japan, for example, the emperor and empress came to one of our concerts – something that no one at the hall could remember ever happening before. This evoked a huge response, with the audience standing and applauding loudly with much pride.
Well, the obvious part of the turnaround plan was that we cut nonessential overhead and reassigned work. We cut non-musicians’ labor with one-time reductions of five percent; music directors took another ten percent cut; the senior staff, including the executive director, actually voted themselves a ten percent reduction. The not-so-obvious idea was that of having to pursue excellence and innovation.
The goal was to remove six to eight weeks of total overhead from the Cleveland operating statement. This was based on the underlying reality that the economy of northeastern Ohio was too weak to support us as they had done in the past. We would have to look elsewhere in order to solve our financial problems. The target was to replace the lost ticket sales in Cleveland with ticket sales and donated funds from residencies outside the area. We would either strike out in a new direction with high risk or wait until the problem of our market ran us out of business. Even so, such a plan would take years to develop. We would no longer tour in a situation where Cleveland donors had to pay for the cost of the tours. We had to create a plan where, if we toured, the tours had to pay for themselves. Otherwise, we couldn’t afford to go. We defined residencies as a creative way to enhance the program of playing great concerts.
Miami would be our first opportunity because they were nearing the completion of both the new concert hall and the opera house and because of friends in their marketplace willing to help us. Miami’s hall was scheduled to open in 2006–7. We began negotiations and flew important individuals from Miami to Cleveland on multiple occasions so they could see what we were doing in our own marketplace, hear concerts and operas, and see initiatives in education at all levels. We reached an agreement to have the Cleveland Orchestra be the Orchestra in Residence at the Knight Concert Hall when it opened. The plan worked and the residency commenced in 2007. We started spending two weeks each season in Miami, then three weeks, and currently we’re spending four weeks in Miami, beginning in January and concluding in March of each year.
The activities in which the orchestra and musicians participate there are constantly evolving and expanding. Residencies require the building of strong relationships with existing organizations in the community – with schools and universities, cultural and education groups. First we were going to play two concerts each week at the Knight Concert Hall. The music and guest artists target the broad population of ethnic groups residing in Miami. The repertoire is often different from what is performed in Cleveland. We do side-by-side rehearsals and training sessions for musicians wanting to play in orchestras. We do that with the New World Symphony and with the Frost School of Music orchestra at the University of Miami. Our musicians and Franz Welser-Möst lead master classes and conducting sessions. We do chamber music, concerts and coaching, children’s concerts, family concerts, Musical Rainbows, and everything else we know to expand the geography beyond the Adrienne Arsht Center and the Knight Concert Hall. In some cases, in order to raise funds not covered by earned income from the sale of tickets, we set up and operate fundraising departments in residency areas. In Miami we set up the Musical Arts Association of Miami to fundraise. Every year Franz Welser-Möst opens the season down there, and we now have Giancarlo Guerrero as our principal guest conductor. He’s also the conductor of the Nashville Symphony.
Setting up residency is a huge investment in time and money, which are in particularly short supply during a recession. Currently we’ve established residencies in Miami, at the Musikverein in Vienna, the Salzburg Festival, the Lucerne Festival, the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, and the Lincoln Center Festival. Some of these we do in alternate years. We expect that a major new residency in Europe is likely to be announced shortly. We have established a brand. The marketplace sees that we know how to operate with flexibility during these residencies, to give value for the money and for the people we attract. We’ve not yet solved the problem, which is serious, of having our musicians away from home during residencies. In the case of Miami, it’s a four-week period, and it’s a difficult situation for all concerned. I’m not sure we’ll be able to solve it in the near term, but we’re all working on it.
One of our imperatives is what we call ‘Communicate and Align.’ Its intent is to have musicians, trustees, staff, and audiences engage with each other in new ways with no agenda other than getting to know each other on a different level. The musicians show up and socialize after ‘Fridays@Seven’ concerts, during which we host world music presentation parties. On another occasion, the Development department and the Fundraising committee of the board hosted a thank you lunch for members of the orchestra, most of whom came from rehearsal and stayed for two hours. We now have members of the orchestra on certain board committees, like the Total Concert Experience task force, the Fundraising committee, the Facilities committee, and the Technology task force. They have become valuable, contributing members. One string bass player, Henry Peyrebrunne, asked for and received a year’s sabbatical from Franz to work in our Development department and learn what fundraising is all about. He has recently completed that year and has joined the staff part time while going back to playing in the orchestra full time. There are many examples of dinners and after-concert events, open rehearsals, and such where we try to get the four constituencies together.
Just before the recession of 2007–8 hit, which closely followed the one in early 2000, we solicited a grant of $20 million from the Maltz Family Foundation to fund audience-building initiatives. After the recession hit, they honored the gift but spread it out over several years. With these funds we created the Center for Future Audiences. It had several goals, made all the more necessary by the second economic crash in the decade. We needed to rebuild our audiences and also to admit that lost subscription sales would be hard or impossible to rebuild. We would be fighting a universal, nationwide downward trend in subscription sales. We needed to concentrate on individual concert ticket sales and marketing. We needed to identify once and for all the existing impediments to concert-going and to set about removing them – things like the presumed dress code and concert etiquette. Does it really matter and to whom? There were winter and summer transportation issues. We targeted ticket packages that included busing from the various neighborhoods for our older population, particularly in winter, and out to Blossom, which is geographically halfway between Cleveland and Akron.
We needed to look at supply and demand, also. In terms of the numbers of concerts being presented and the demand for tickets created by current audiences, there were huge differences in the way we were operating now and the way we operated in the nineties, when the number of concerts was expanded because demand was high and good seats were simply unavailable. After 2001, we believed it was important to reduce the number or concerts and the corresponding number of available tickets. Really, the strategy was to set up a shortage of tickets, if possible, and increase the demand.
The chart in Figure 2 shows the number of subscription tickets – it’s the top green line that becomes dotted and trends downward – and it crosses the blue line, which represents individual ticket sales. Much of the overall ticket sales figures are the same. But what’s happening is that, with the demise of subscription purchases, many people are buying fewer concerts and so it takes more people to buy the same number of seats. That’s pretty obvious. What’s really happening is that we’re selling more tickets to more households today than in any other time in our history, but they’re buying fewer tickets because they’re not subscribing to multiple concerts.
We did a considerable amount of research on the question of ticket prices, which had gone up industry-wide at a rate twice that of inflation. There was a price-value reorientation that we thought was different, and we looked at the strategy by audience segments: 25 and under, 25 to 40, 40 to 60, and above 60. We found little or no resistance to the cost of box seats or the dress circle seats, always in big demand, with few seats available. We did find price concerns for most of the other audience groups.
We had tried many programs in the past to bring in younger audiences, particularly college students, but with little luck, even though Severance Hall sat in the middle of the Case Western Reserve University campus. The Maltz Family and the new grant were tied to this effort at every step of the way. First, we created a multimarket ticketing plan, dedicated to building the youngest audience in America by 2018, our centennial year. We tested an under-18-free flagship program at Blossom, and a year later we brought the under-18-free program to Severance Hall. With each free ticket there needed to be an adult ticket purchased. We created a student advantage pricing program for college students and a fan card program where $50 buys the student unlimited concerts, based only on the availability of tickets. We introduced the ‘Fridays@Seven’ concept, in which the orchestra plays probably two-thirds of its regular program of Thursday and Saturday that week, but with no intermission. Afterward there is a world music festival with food and a party in the Grand Foyer. And it was hugely successful! Last year we created the Total Concert Experience task force and populated it with people from all over the community to give us a fresh look at how to do things better.
The 25-and-under program has been hugely successful. All of the programs I mentioned earlier have helped, but the student program attracted 110,000 students since its inception – 40,000 during last winter’s season alone, which means that last season 20 percent of the Severance Hall audience was made up of people age 25 and under. Saturday night has become date night again, and we had twenty-three sellouts on Saturday nights during the season.
The backbone of success has been our focus on social media and the Web. In raw numbers, we went from attracting 13,000 hits in 2012 to over 100,000 last year. Most importantly, we focused on engagement, which is the number of people who actually participate once they get to the social media interface, and we found that ours is an industry-high at 17 percent.
We know we haven’t reached our full potential, but we also know the results have been very positive. In Cleveland, this means pursuing innovation with staged or semi-staged operas. Last season we created a fully staged production of The Cunning Little Vixen by Jánaček. We do ballet partnerships with the Joffrey and Miami ballet. We do a couple of concerts each year using the original music to movie scores for ‘Fridays@Seven’ programs, and we have adjusted the way we concertize around the world, only going where we cover our costs. And, as I said, where we have residencies, we don’t just drop in and play concerts; we do master classes, we do chamber music coaching; we spend a very intensive period of time – a week to two weeks at a clip – making very intensive use of the musicians.
We have residencies at home, where we go into particular neighborhoods and for a week play concerts in venues there – it could be a barber shop, a small café, or a supermarket. We play concerts in those, and at the end of the week it all culminates in a full Cleveland Orchestra concert at one of the big venues in that area, maybe a church or a school auditorium. Three or four months before the residency week begins, we go into the school system and we have over forty visits to each of the schools by our musicians. There they do what they do best in terms of trying to turn on the students to the kind of music that we play. For some of the younger students, this may mean showing them how to play the instrument, letting them touch it or hold it, and playing it for them. Attention span is relatively low, so we’re in half-hour segments there. But for older students, usually we plan an hour with a theme. And in the themes we select, we try to relate the music to the classes they’re being taught. Music becomes a way to teach those classes.
We do that because we learned over time that the first place a school system goes to get rid of budget costs is to the music program. And that’s because it’s usually a distinct program – they know how many teachers they have, they know how many dollars are budgeted, they know what getting rid of it all saves. We’ve taken a different tack, which is that when we go into the schools we try to teach the curriculum using music as examples. And we’ve had a great deal of success with that, but, as you can imagine, it’s very intensive. There are some orchestral musicians who have been doing this now for close to fifteen years and are really good at it. There are some musicians who don’t do it, but we’ve never had a shortage of musicians to go in and work this way in the schools.
To diverge, we played an orchestra concert under Franz at, I think, Saint John High School in Cleveland – an inner-city school. There was no music in the school at all. The principal tried to get the audience to order – we were all in the gymnasium – and he could not do it. I said to our orchestra’s president at the time, who was sitting next to me, “This isn’t going to go well.” We were scheduled to perform Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and that was the whole program. But the school’s principal couldn’t get the students to quiet down.
The minute Franz took the podium, without turning to his audience and without saying a word to them, he just started to play. He played the beginning, cut us off, and then started to speak. You could hear a pin drop for the rest of the hour. These kids – most of them were black and all from the inner city – came up afterward wanting different things: they wanted to talk, wanted autographs, wanted to know how certain things worked or didn’t. It took us three hours to get back on our buses to Severance Hall. I had thought, “We’ve got an uneducated audience and this isn’t going to go well.” But the reverse was true. They were fascinated by the music, by the rhythms. There was no hint of disinterest or boredom. It was amazing to watch.
Communicate and Align
Well, I could talk for hours on this subject, but the only other thing I will say has to do with board leadership. It’s my view that boards matter. It’s my view that board leadership is necessary for both artistic and financial success. These things need to be board-driven. And to my view, failures and successes, by whatever definition you use, ultimately fall to the trustees. It’s our collective responsibility to fix things and to see that things work.
In the nonprofit world, I think everybody will agree that decisions have to be made more by consensus than in the corporate world, where the CEO can just make a decision and edict that it happen. You can’t really do that with volunteers because the volunteers can leave at any time. And for the most part they didn’t bargain for problems. They don’t like to find themselves in the newspapers – they don’t want the institution involved in publicity they consider inappropriate. And if and when they do, they can walk.
You have to engage the board in a way that it’s willing to make the decisions, and the only way that works is by constant involvement. We have a rule at Cleveland that we never vote on a major issue the first time it’s presented. By the time it’s presented the first time, it will have worked its way through several committees, depending on the subject matter. The only exception is if something has a time limit imposed from outside the orchestra so that we have to vote on it at a particular meeting. But they get a chance to make the tough decisions, and for the most part we’re able to give them the decisions to work on when it’s still timely.
So things have worked for us in that way. It’s not that we don’t have the same kind of problems you find elsewhere. We are as bound to the community and its financial structure as any institution could be. It’s why I like to make the point that says that when you arrive at a contract, whether it’s for labor or for buying lights or music stands, it’s the market in Cleveland that matters and it’s there that we have to convince our musicians that they are better than fairly paid. But they have to consider the purchasing power of the community when they make that decision.