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MSO and others strive to stand out amid changing temperaments, multitude of entertainment options [The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn. :: ]
[March 02, 2014]

MSO and others strive to stand out amid changing temperaments, multitude of entertainment options [The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn. :: ]

(Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 03--In the days before Elvis and the Beatles, classical music was referred to by the slang term "longhair music," in reference to the eccentrically untamed coiffures of celebrity symphony conductors and the shaggy styles of such master composers as Brahms and Beethoven.

Of course, rock and roll changed the meaning of "longhair music" in the popular mind. It changed attitudes and habits, too. Along with soul, hip-hop, country and other popular music forms, it became a catalyst and remains a symbol for a new era of live entertainment, social "relevance" and instant accessibility that continues to inspire much soul-searching among the organizers of such older expressive art forms as classical music, ballet and opera.

Based in a city that identifies itself as "The Birthplace of Rock 'n' Roll," the Memphis Symphony Orchestra is in trouble. Last month, MSO officials revealed that a depleted endowment plus declining revenues have created a financial sinkhole that threatens the 62-year-old orchestra's existence.

As the symphony launched a call for donations, Mayor A C Wharton and other civic leaders offered oratorical if not necessarily financial support. The city "would not be Memphis" without the symphony, Wharton said.

Meanwhile, the crisis created an opportunity for other arts organizations to reassess their missions, argue their strengths and assert the belief that Memphis -- a city world-famous for its creative artists -- is "filled with opera fans who don't know it yet," in the words of Opera Memphis general director Ned Canty. The implication is that his statement would be just as true if the word "opera" was replaced with "symphony," "ballet," "modern dance," "chorale" or "string quartet," to name a few.

"Very few cities can speak to this as strongly as Memphis can," said ArtsMemphis president Susan Schadt, citing the "powerful authentic assets" of the city's musical heritage (and visual heritage, as represented most significantly by photographer William Eggleston). "The enduring legacy of our history is defined by the arts." An arts support organization, ArtsMemphis typically raises and distributes about $4 million annually in grants to about 60 art and culture entities, including some that are local household names (the Orpheum) and others that are more esoteric (the Luna Nova Music chamber ensemble). Elvis brings tourists, but the Memphis arts menu for residents is so long and varied that the calendar at the website -- to cite just one local arts calendar -- typically lists dozens of events per week, and sometimes per day, including many classical music performances unaffiliated with the MSO.

In fact, the average Memphian might be astonished by the number and diversity of active local arts groups. Dance companies alone include Ballet Memphis, the New Ballet Ensemble, Project: Motion, Collage dance Collective and Ballet On Wheels.

How to attract audiences, engage the community and provide meaningful experiences while remaining financially viable is a challenge that faces all these groups, big and small.

Referring to the symphony's woes, Canty said: "I wouldn't say the demand for classical music is shrinking. I'd say the supply of everything else is increasing." At Opera Memphis, he said, "Our competition is not the symphony or the ballet. Our competition is 'sitting at home with a bottle of merlot and watching Netflix.' Our competition is 'getting people out of the house.' We live in an age of unprecedented supply of high-quality entertainment." MSO president and CEO Roland Valliere agreed. "The dilemma is more people than ever are enjoying classical music, but technological innovation is causing a sea change in the way they enjoy the music," he said. "There are more great ways than ever to enjoy great music." For example, the Berlin Philharmonic, regarded as one of the world's great symphony orchestras, has launched a "digital concert hall" that enables subscribers all over the world to enjoy live performances on their computer or mobile device. This puts them, on a certain level, in competition with every other orchestra in the world.

Said Valliere: "The critical question is how do we at the Memphis Symphony adapt?" Many local arts groups have responded enthusiastically to the challenge of making their "product" more relevant and accessible to young people, lower-income Memphians and other demographic categories that don't overlap with the stereotypical image of the symphony or ballet buff.

"The 'brand' of opera is fat ladies screeching to people in monocles and high hats while some poor guy who got dragged there is bored silly," Canty said. "A lot of our work is reconstructing that image and making sure that we're providing a realistic and more compelling counter-argument." The recent Opera Memphis production of "The Mikado" at the Germantown Performing Arts Center contributed to that counter-argument. It included references to Elvis and barbecue; was marketed to a hip audience; and was a box-office and critical hit.

Also, every fall Opera Memphis hosts "30 Days of Opera," a series of free "pop-up" opera events in which singers perform all over the city, in such unexpected public spaces as the Memphis Zoo, where the vocal calisthenics of sopranos competed with the whoops and yodels of siamangs.

In partnership with Crosstown Arts, Ballet Memphis has its "Spark" series of monthly community conversations and performances. (March's theme is "Censorship and the Arts.") Lauren Kennedy, outreach coordinator for Ballet Memphis, is charged with coordinating and promoting such "offstage" activities, which means " taking movement or dance to nontraditional audiences -- to have people be encountered with the physicality of dance. That hasn't happened much outside the stage. We want people to see us moving." The Memphis Symphony Orchestra, meanwhile, has offered its "Opus One" concerts, which pair classical musicians with such performers as Al Kapone and Harlan T. Bobo in such nontraditional venues as the Hi-Tone Cafe and New Daisy on Beale.

While such efforts may increase public awareness and contribute to the quality of life in a city, they don't necessarily inflate the bottom line, as the MSO has discovered.

If the purpose is to expose people to the performances of classical musicians, "that's great," said Valliere. "If the hypothesis is that by going to perform on Beale Street to 27-year-olds, they're going to subscribe to the symphony, that's a false hypothesis." Few local arts groups sell enough tickets to cover costs, so they depends on donations and grants. Even so, the symphony's "business model" is more or less unique among Memphis arts groups. MSO's main musicians are under union contract and represented by the American Federation of Musicians; the core artists are paid $25,635 to $29,893 each a year. This gives the symphony less financial flexibility than many similar groups, which pay their artists on a per-performance basis.

Valliere said that while being "relevant" with community outreach is important, marketing the symphony to those already or potentially interested in classical music is crucial.

"The notion of going to the symphony and sitting still and listening to the Brahms Requiem for an hour uninterrupted is not a common experience these days," Valliere said. "We need to flip it and say that's actually what's great about it. It is outside of your normal experience." Everyone agreed that the value of the arts can't be quantified.

"A lot of people would say a great city is defined by great art, but I would take it a step farther and say a great city is defined by great art and the ability of its citizens to access that art," Canty said.

He said the Memphis Symphony Orchestra will find a way to make it. "Memphis is a city that supports innovation. We invented half of the music people listen to, and there's no reason we can't be as successful with music that's been around a while. Memphis will figure it out." ___ (c)2014 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.) Visit The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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