Friday, March 10, 2006

What's next for the symphony?

What's next for the symphony?
By Mary Ellyn Hutton
Cincinnati Post (3/10/06)

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is poised to announce its 2006-07 season, music director Paavo Järvi's sixth at the helm.

But more than a clutch of new repertoire lies ahead for the CSO. Symphony orchestras across the country are facing challenges and the nation's fifth oldest orchestra is no exception.

Unlike most, the CSO is on an even keel financially. Thanks to an anonymous donor, it was freed of debt in 2004 and has remained that way, with a balanced budget anticipated for the current fiscal year (ending Aug. 31). There has been significant belt-tightening to go with it - its summer chamber orchestra series "Bach and Beyond" and "Home for the Holidays" were eliminated, as were the Concerts in the Park and the Handbook to the Season - and ticket prices were raised.

Concert attendance is up from last season, CSO officials say, but it still needs spiking. With revitalization of Over-the-Rhine yet a distant goal - despite good intentions and a new K-12 School for Creative and Performing Arts planned to go up in the neighborhood during the next couple of years - there are many people who remain wary of coming to Music Hall.

Music Hall itself is a hot-button issue. With 3,516 seats, it's the largest concert hall in the U.S., and despite having an audience any orchestra in the country would be proud to own (the CSO has more long-term subscribers than any U.S. orchestra), the cavernous hall swallows them up.

Worse is the lack of intimacy in Music Hall. The electricity of a live, close-up performance - possible in a hall of 2,000-2,300 - is missing, and binoculars (commonly seen at CSO concerts) are no solution.

What Järvi finds "most detrimental," he says, "is the perception that somehow the quality of the orchestra is not good enough to fill the hall. That, of course, is completely misleading. It's not the quality or the support in the community. It's just that the proportions are wrong."

There has been considerable speculation about "downsizing" Music Hall, which was never intended as a concert hall in the first place, the CSO having left its home in Emery Theatre in 1936 to give Music Hall an anchor tenant.

Apparently, downsizing could be done so that the hall could revert to its larger configuration for the May Festival and Cincinnati Opera. Järvi cited New York's Avery Fisher Hall, where chamber concerts in the summer are with the stage positioned in the middle of the hall.

The CSO's needs are paramount, since the opera and May Festival utilize Music Hall for much shorter periods of time and depend on the CSO for their own existence.

"I think it can come to the point where we have to move out of here if we cannot make a right environment for this orchestra," Järvi said. "I'm not saying that it's going to happen or that there are any plans to leave, but I don't think it is something that should not be discussed.

"All the new halls that are being built for orchestras are small, not because they want to have the easy way out and not worry about ticket sales, but because that is the right environment for this kind of music."

Järvi cites the Los Angeles Philharmonic's new Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles, which seats 2,265 compared to 3,197 in its former home in Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, while serving the nation's second largest metropolitan area - 16 million compared to Cincinnati's 1.9 million.

"We have plenty of audience who are true music-lovers, plenty for the size of the community, who know and love music and come here regularly. I just think if you put these people in a stadium, the stadium would look empty," he said.

Järvi also does not want to dilute the repertoire and "play the 40 or 50 pieces that everybody thinks they know, combined with media stars who look good on a picture for the sake of filling the hall. This art form cannot and should not ever be in the position of competing with the movie star, Hollywood idea of what's attractive and successful - or with this television attitude, let's see what the ratings are. We have much different values and goals."

Another issue on the CSO horizon is Järvi himself. His CSO contract expires in 2009, a blip in the world of major league classical music, where seasons are planned years in advance. (Järvi is booked four or five years ahead, he said). He is being eyed to succeed music director Daniel Barenboim, who leaves the Chicago Symphony in June. Järvi will guest conduct there in April and twice next season. In the fall, he adds the music directorship of the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra to his CSO post and his positions as artistic director of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and artistic adviser of the Estonian National Orchestra.

Järvi says he "loves" Cincinnati and the CSO. "Somehow I feel like it has just started. I sometimes have to look at the eight CDs we have made so far to remind myself that actually there has been a substantial amount of time already. I feel fresh, because I think the music is happening well. That aspect is better now than it has been - even last year."

As the CSO prepares to announce its new season, the focus will shift to promoting and selling it.

For tips, they might look across the river.

Granted, the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra has a five-concert subscription season compared to the CSO's 24, but they are famously creative with what they have.

When it comes to concert enhancements, multi-media and tie-ins to popular culture, "the devil is in the details," says American Symphony Orchestra League president Henry Fogel. "Experimentation is necessary and by definition, not all experiments will be successful. If you experiment and have no failures, you're not experimenting enough."

The CSO takes to experimentation slowly. (Erich Kunzel has been given wide latitude with the Cincinnati Pops, but that is the nature of the beast.) In 1992, for example, the CSO was the first orchestra in the country to use video screens during an adult subscription concert. After one concert, however, the idea was scrapped because audience reaction split 50-50. The Detroit Symphony is using video screens with great success now as part of its "Classics Unmasked" series.

The full CSO season is being announced this weekend.

One program is already certain. Estonian conductor Olari Elts, 34, who made a splash with Shostakovich's irreverent Symphony No. 9 last season, will conduct Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 3 on March 30 and 31, 2007. Soloist will be CSO principal bassist Owen Lee, who will perform American composer John Harbison's Double Bass Concerto. The concert will open with Prokofiev's "Russian Overture," Op. 72.

Though further details await formal announcement, here is some reasonable speculation about the next Music Hall season:

Järvi and the CSO will observe the centenary of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich's birth. Expect his wartime Symphony No. 7, the "Leningrad," to open the season in September, plus other works during the season, perhaps even a mini-festival. Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, who is doing a lot of the current Shostakovich honors, is supposedly on the CSO guest list at an unspecified future date, but Järvi's own father Neeme Järvi, who knew and worked with the composer, would be a natural.

Also look for:

Carl Nielsen Symphony No. 2, "The Four Temperaments."

World premiere by Charles Coleman. The New Yorker, who wrote "Streetscape" for Jarvi's September 2001 CSO inaugural, will spend five weeks in residence with the CSO next season.

Stravinsky ("Firebird"?); 2007 is his 125th birthday.

Estonian Erkki-Sven Tüür's "Noesis" for Violin and Clarinet with violinist Isabelle van Kuelen and clarinetist Michael Collins. Long shot: Tüür's Symphony No. 5 for symphony orchestra, big band and electric guitar (premiered by Elts in Stuttgart last year). According to The Post's Rick Bird, former King Crimson guitarist/Northern Kentucky resident Adrian Belew has expressed interest in performing it with the CSO.

The standards: Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony, Bruckner No. 7, Mahler No. 3, Schumann No. 4, Haydn No. 100 ("Military"), Sibelius No. 2.

Any of Arvo Pärt's "tintinnabuli" (minimalist) works. "Wenn Bach Bienen gezüchtet hätte" ("If Bach had kept bees") would go well with something by Bach himself.

As part of Mozart's 250th birthday celebration, Finnish pianist Antti Siirala, who played a sublime Mozart Concerto No. 27, K.595, with Neeme Järvi and the Detroit Symphony last fall.

Other guest artists: pianists Lang Lang and/or Yundi Li; violinists Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn and Vadim Gluzman; cellist Truls Mork.

Guest conductors: Marin Alsop, Mark Wigglesworth, Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, Stephane Deneve.

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