Touring Test – Part 1

Red Rover
Not on the front lines of any real fight…

From Mark Swed’s hogshead overflowing with Dom Pérignon Cuvée to Gabriela Montero’s dry shot glass, there’s been plenty of disagreement over both the size of the vessel and the extent to which it was filled by YOLA’s appearance in the Super Bowl. Anne Midgette looked at the impact on classical music as a whole and found mixed blessings half filling the industry’s tea cup, but for a Sistema perspective, the best on the subject came from Geoff Baker who served up an uncommonly balanced brew. To summarize in a manner guaranteed to do his thinking a disservice, Baker sagely differentiated  between the participant experience and the benefit to the larger Sistema sector, while asking important questions about the latter. With so much said already on the matter, I don’t feel the need to comment or extend my analogy further, save to say I recommend his post highly.

Montero paints an unflattering picture

For my part, I simply don’t understand why anyone thought this would have any impact at all on classical music’s broader popularity. Or unpopularity. Opera singer Renee Fleming’s rendition of the national anthem at the Super Bowl two years earlier was far higher profile than YOLA’s fleeting turn as part of the backup band for Coldplay. For that matter, I don’t understand why classical music is expected to be popular. It’s a niche entertainment industry. Generally, classical anything isn’t popular except for pedagogical purposes – that’s pretty much what makes it “classical”. The situation is summed up best in the photograph of Beyoncé, Chris Martin and Bruno Mars jamming out at centre stage, while Gustavo Dudamel tries in vain to push into the front row with them like the scrawny kid running the line in a game of Red Rover. The literal and figurative breakthrough was never going to happen.

I look at YOLA’s involvement through a different lens – that of an ensemble director at a major educational institution. If I received a phone call offering an all-expenses paid trip for my ensemble to a high-profile event, no matter how low-profile the orchestra’s involvement or mine, I’d probably say yes, within some reasonable limits. For the Super Bowl, the question would be whether we were being engaged in lieu of professionals. If the answer were yes, then we would decline. I have a responsibility to my students’ future as much as their present.

Those phone calls haven’t come as yet (+1.704.687.0922 – my office at UNC Charlotte), but the calls that I do get are from tour and festival organizers, inviting me to European festivals with grand names and offering me the “opportunity” to perform at their events, provided I’m willing to pay all associated travel costs plus premium festival entry fees. Hardly an opportunity, one might say, and there’s no way the University would support that, so the costs would be passed directly on to the students, guaranteeing that only the well-heeled could participate. That kind of vanity musical tourism might offer a great experience, but it is completely inconsistent with the mission of accessibility of this urban research university, and my vision for the orchestra program. We travel for the purposes of service, for the mutual benefit and growth of visitor and host, when we do that, we subsidize all student travel costs with the exception of food so no one is left out. Not because the institution is cash rich – we definitely aren’t – but because it’s the right thing to do.

Were it offered, I’d take the NFL’s filthy money, but build around it a full slate of socially-oriented service activities for the sake of the students, not just my conscience. It’s what responsible educators do, and I’ve done it before, and without the tainted lucre of football. Next time: The England Service Residency.

4 thoughts on “Touring Test – Part 1

  1. Funny, I looked at the YOLA engagement with Superbowl not on Classical music lines, not on music education lines but on social action and transformation lines. All the Classical music pundits and arts media got it hopelessly wrong. This was always about the children and never about the nature of the music. For heaven’s sake they played Vida la Vida with Coldplay, not Beethoven’s 5th! It’s not even a tribute to music education – or touring an orchestra. It was about giving the children such a gift of amazement. They were a part of one of the biggest sporting events in the world, playing their violins! They were lifted to the ranks of the stars for half an hour or so. They will remember that moment fro the rest of their lives, as will their families and their communities. It was a stellar moment for and from them. And was always about them… and maybe Gustavo Dudamel a bit too…

  2. Given my past history of being bullied with my fellow musicians by the high school football team during our performance of the school’s annual musical, I would say we’ve come a long way. For once it was cool in America to play the violin while taking over the football field.
    One wonders what could be next.

  3. I think I respond to this fully in Part 2: it’s not a question of cool, but of the many different opportunities missed to do something meaningful on many different levels.

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