- Category: March/April 2003
by Rebecca Winzenried
Collaborative events involving orchestras and museums are box-office draws with long-term impact.
Citizens of Baltimore have been in a Russian frame of mind recently as the city's many cultural institutions--from the orchestra to the art museum to the American Craft Council--joined forces for the Vivat! St. Petersburg celebration. The three-week festival that began February 13 explored the arts and culture of the fabled Russian city, which is celebrating its 300th anniversary this year. The connection to Baltimore? None other than Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Music Director Yuri Temirkanov, who is also music director and chief conductor of the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra. The Russian-born Temirkanov played a pivotal role in the cultural celebration, which involved art exhibits as well as theater, dance, and music performances throughout the city.
Meanwhile, residents of Springfield, Massachusetts have gone Egyptian. The Springfield Symphony Orchestra's scheduled May performance of a semi-staged Aida has been the impetus for a season-long exploration of Egyptian art and culture. The city's museums, public radio and television stations, and schools have joined with the orchestra to host activities ranging from public forums to the installation of a reconstructed Egyptian temple complex.
Orchestras, museums, and other arts groups are making beautiful music together, it seems, banding together on projects designed to attract, entertain, and enlighten audiences of all ages--students, sure, but adults, too. In the process, the organizations involved are building alliances to make the arts a recognizable force in their communities, and a regular option in the leisure/recreational schedule for individuals and families.
"It draws attention to the fact that the arts don't operate in a vacuum," says Alice Curry, executive director of the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic, which hosted two Frozen Music projects in 2000. Drawing on the city's unexpected reputation as a hotbed of modern architecture, the orchestra worked with the Indianapolis Museum of Art-Columbus Gallery to explore, through concerts and discussions, the famous Goethe quote: "Architecture is frozen music." Columbus boasts more than 50 buildings by I.M. Pei, Eero Saarinen, and others, thanks to locally sponsored corporate programs dating back to the 1950s that encouraged leading architects to design public and private buildings there.
People still ask Curry when the orchestra is going to do the next Frozen Music event. "The name sort of stuck," says Curry, who replies that the organizations may very well do another similar, if not identical, project. "People are hungry for more information. They are interested in learning things that they didn't have time for before or didn't take advantage of in school."
Such collaborations aren't an entirely new phenomenon. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has worked for years with the Art Institute of Chicago on a chamber music series that combines performances by CSO musicians at the museum with gallery walks led by Art Institute curators. "It literally brings the music into the museum," says Synneve Carlino, CSO director of public relations, adding that the curators select artworks relating to the music. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has also had great success the last five years with its Music and Masterpieces series. The day-trip package combines an orchestra concert at the Music Hall with admission to the nearby Cincinnati Art Museum, where ticket holders can take in the exhibits and have lunch at the café.
For the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it was a matter of convenience. The Art Institute is located right across the street from Symphony Center, and the two organizations found, not surprisingly, that they shared similar audiences. In Cincinnati, the Music and Masterpieces series was developed as a tour package for senior citizens who live outside the city, but it quickly became popular with school and adult groups from as far away as Columbus and Lexington, Kentucky. The program's explosive growth (900 percent in its first four years) resulted in a Sunday option being added to the regular Friday schedule dates.
In both cases, the collaborations have led the institutions to work together in other ways. The Cincinnati Symphony and Cincinnati Art Museum regularly work with tour operators and the travel industry to promote Music and Masterpieces as a city travel option. In anticipation of a Silk Road Project residency in Chicago last October, the CSO approached the Art Institute about mounting a companion exhibit featuring artifacts from countries along the ancient Asian trade route, which was explored musically in the residency.
Baltimore's Vivat! St. Petersburg evolved in a similar way following the arrival of Temirkanov three years ago. The BSO music director is involved in an annual winter festival in St. Petersburg, and he suggested creating a similar event for his new city. The orchestra started talking with the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Center Stage theater company. "The timing was right," says Greg Tucker, the BSO's vice president of public relations. "The museum works three or four years out, the Center Stage three or four months out, and we're somewhere in between." Interest in the project outpaced the orchestra's wildest expectations. Vivat! St. Petersburg eventually grew to involve nearly 60 arts institutions and became the centerpiece of the Baltimore tourism schedule for the winter.
Connections necessary to get projects off the ground are fairly common in the arts world, where groups often share facilities or have board members in common. In a round of get-acquainted meetings soon after Nathan Newbrough became executive director of the Orchestra of the Southern Finger Lakes in 2001, board members of the orchestra and the Arnot Art Museum mentioned that they were interested in doing some kind of joint event. Simultaneously, orchestra musicians expressed a desire to perform more chamber music. "It all just clicked," says Newbrough, as the swirl of ideas grew into the Musicians' Choice chamber music program, performed at the museum.
The concert, a new concept for the Corning-Elmira, New York area where the OSFL is located, explored the idea of how music influences the artist's palette--or conversely, how a composer uses a "palette" of sounds to create musical works. Cellist Hakan Tayga-Hromek stepped forward to take the role of "curator" for the October event, selecting paintings from the museum to highlight the "Romantics Unleashed" theme. The chamber ensemble played in a gallery of the museum, which--in an unusual step--was rehung to spotlight the grouping of 19th-century French paintings.
Tayga-Hromek spent some time discussing the selections before the ensemble launched into Mozart's Divertimento in F major for String Quartet, the Duo for Violin and Violoncello by Kodály, and Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence. The musician-curator's comments were more personal than scholarly, which fit the evening's informal atmosphere. Newbrough points out that an underlying theme of the program was that in the visual arts, like music, individual perceptions have as much validity as expert opinions. "That's a core theme we try to get introduced by the orchestra at all levels," he says.
"Romantics Unleashed" was a sellout, but not necessarily a moneymaker. Seating in the gallery was limited to about 100, so the program was promoted mainly to a list of orchestra and museum subscribers. But ticket revenue was beside the point in this case, says Newbrough. The event was greeted enthusiastically by the participants: musicians who had been looking for chamber performance opportunities; audience members who cheered the program; museum and orchestra staff members who established a rapport they plan to carry forward. A second Musicians' Choice program was added to the schedule for March.
A similar event last spring drew a sellout crowd of about 400 to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for a discussion sponsored by the museum's Institute for Art and Culture and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. "They have a following of people who are interested in being intellectually challenged," says Ruth Eliel, LACO executive director. The discussion's starting point: While visual art of the 20th century has become generally accepted, if not completely understood, music of the same period remains a mystery to many people. Why is it that a print of a Kandinsky painting may turn up in any given office, while the occupant wouldn't consider listening to Schoenberg? The discussion, involving LACO Music Director Jeffrey Kahane and a museum curator, also included a chamber music performance. "It was not our typical crowd," says Eliel of the rather young demographic, "which was part of the purpose--to reach people who may perceive that they are not so interested in us."
Eliel notes that the audience's very lack of familiarity with the music being discussed added a kind of circular, Catch-22 quality to the event. "There really wasn't the chance to address the nuts-and-bolts questions of the theme," she says. "Because people were not so familiar with the music, we had to spend a lot of time on exposition." Perhaps the planners should have seen it coming. Eliel vividly recalls that conversations between the music director and the museum curator were among the most fascinating aspects of the planning process. "Because neither of them knew that much about the other's area, they were learning more from themselves along the way, about the meat of the issue. I wished the audience could have gotten to hear those discussions."
Collaborations are an opportunity to reach out and make new connections. Still, it can be startling to realize just how little audiences--or even your own collaborators--understand the particular language or history of your art form. Everything the LACO learned from its first collaboration went into the hopper for an internal evaluation, to identify things that worked well and elements that could have gone more smoothly. For the next phase of the series this spring, Eliel is planning to work with slightly more familiar musical material, focusing on the works of Stravinsky.
All in the Details
"Collaboration is not fluffy work. It is hard, frustrating, and unremittingly real, but it's worthwhile and absolutely essential in this new age." So said a participant in a recent Museum Loan Network report on interdisciplinary projects. Another put it more succinctly: "Getting elephants to dance is very difficult!" The report's think-tank participants--all of whom had come off recent collaborations between museums and other arts institutions--suggested a list of items that can help make such projects work. Recommendations include: a workable communications system; a timetable; written agreements that describe roles and duties of the participants (including such mundane concerns as who handles which bills); a process for reconciling differences; consistent communication; documentation of all meetings and training sessions; frequent pats on the back to keep the momentum going; and follow-up meetings (not to be called "post-mortems," by the way).
Logistics of planning the citywide Aida Project in Springfield, Massachusetts have kept the various participants in meetings for a year. "It is monumental," says Sue Bennett, director of marketing and public relations for the Springfield Symphony. "To just get everyone together in the same room takes planning." A point person was assigned from each organization so someone would sit in on every meeting. It's not the most glamorous aspect of collaboration, Bennett notes, but it insures that no details get lost in the translation and that each organization has a representative voice.
Maybe it was something in the water. The orchestra's music director, Kevin Rhodes, and the Springfield museums independently came up with plans to do Egypt-related projects this season. Pooling resources and thus expanding the reach of each individual organization seemed a natural move. The various partners had already established regular communication through past projects, though none had collaborated on something of this scale, or on a project pitched to adults as well as students. "For a little place, we have so many organizations coming together," says Bennett. "We're reaching so many more people than we would ever have reached." The Aida concert, for example, will be broadcast statewide via WGBY television; the orchestra's regular venue seats just over 2,600.
That's not only an increase in the number of ears and eyes. "They will also have the opportunity to learn something more--if they choose to," says Bennett. Viewers who take an interest in Egyptian culture have a menu of options to explore. (Offering several points of entry for the audience is another hallmark of successful collaborations.) The Aida Project now involves the orchestra, the Springfield Museum of Fine Arts, the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, WGBY, WFCR Public Radio for Western New England, and Springfield Public Forum. To keep a consistent message, correspondence is passed around among participants for approval, mailing lists are checked for duplications, and press releases include a contact name for each of the institutions. All the organizations are using the same stationery--papyrus-type sheets with a logo that spells out "The Aida Project" in hieroglyphics.
In another quirk of fate, the web designer for WGBY television had been developing a hieroglyphics software program. "Let's just say there seem to be a lot of people interested in Egyptology here," notes Bennett. The software was donated for use on a special web site, www.aidaproject.org, where visitors can translate their names into hieroglyphics and find out more upcoming events. The Aida Project has a major sponsor in MassMutual Financial Group, and a special grant funded the web site. As orchestras and their collaborators have found, special multi-disciplinary projects are attractive candidates for grants and sponsorships. That's a particularly welcome prospect in leaner economic times, when sponsorship dollars may be spread thin.
Finding a true collaborative project can be difficult, as Simon Woods, vice president of artistic planning and operations for the Philadelphia Orchestra, points out. "I'm a big fan of collaborations, but so often you get something like the orchestra playing for A Midsummer's Night Dream." An unusual opportunity came his way when the orchestra began discussing a possible project with the Wilma Theater, its Avenue of the Arts neighbor, for a presentation of Tom Stoppard and André Previn's Every Good Boy Deserves Favor. The 1970s-era work, which is billed as a play for actors and orchestra, uses about half dialogue and half music to tell the story of an imprisoned Soviet dissident. The music springs from the mind of one of the characters, who imagines himself playing in an orchestra, and the full ensemble is seated onstage.
Having worked with other groups previously, Woods was prepared to draw a business-like division of duties for the project. "If you're not very clear at the front end, there's a real potential source of conflict," he says. A decision was made for the orchestra to be the presenter, since the play would take place in Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, the orchestra's home venue. The Wilma Theater paid a flat sum for the hall rental; the orchestra handled ticket sales. Publicity was split down the middle, with the orchestra taking music media and the Wilma taking other arts press. Operations staff of each organization worked together to iron out details of the production.
Woods wasn't so prepared for some of the collisions of the theater and orchestra worlds that emerged. "We're used to three rehearsals, and they are used to three weeks of rehearsals," he says. Labor issues, with a number of different unions involved, had to be addressed, as did the schedule of Verizon Hall, which had never hosted a theatrical production. "A concert hall is not designed as a place where you have a set in place for a week because nothing else will happen."
Instead of engaging a guest conductor, the orchestra scheduled its assistant conductor, Rossen Milanov, for the November 20-26 run. The Bulgarian-born Milanov's own background resonated with the story of Soviet-era repression. Even more importantly, as a staff conductor he was available to sit in on rehearsals so he could become familiar with the dialogue, staging, and pacing of the actors. "So many of the timing issues fall to him to resolve, to move some of the dramatic action," says Woods. As it turned out, Milanov's familiarity with the dialogue came in handy on the second night: The lead actor repeatedly forgot his lines, which were fed to him by the conductor.
A more pleasant surprise for the collaborators came at the box office, where the event proved as popular with subscribers as with single-ticket buyers. The orchestra and theater group had not expected their respective subscribers to be terribly enthusiastic about an experiment that put drama into the concert hall and orchestral music into the drama. But the project generated the kind of buzz that made it an Event. "It's been an eye-opening opportunity for everyone," says Woods. "How exciting it is to do things that are different! In the orchestra world we tend to get stuck in a rut of doing great music three or four nights a week, which is wonderful, of real value to do, but this takes us out of our usual realm."
Expect more partnerships to blossom as orchestras reach out to increasingly significant communities and new partners. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been fostering a relationship with the city's Pilsen neighborhood through the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, a cultural landmark in the primarily Mexican area. Its Armonia Musicians Residency program, now in its fifth year, has brought CSO ensembles to the museum and has helped teenagers working at the museum's Radio Arte, a community station, produce a program exploring classical music.
A concert in early March by the Long Beach Symphony at the Museum of Latin American Art signals a new collaboration between those groups. A second concert in May will feature a new commission by Music Director Arturo Diemecke that tells the Cinco de Mayo story of Mexico's victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla. It's a story of Mexican unity and spirit familiar to the Latino population that now makes up the majority of Long Beach.
Both programs will be marketed to museum patrons who don't typically appear at the orchestra's regular concert hall. "L.A. County is a busy place, with lots of arts options and very expensive media," says Jack Fishman, the orchestra's executive director, "and the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra can't spend our way to greater awareness. Therefore we are trying to collaborate our way into this wider recognition."
Over the course of two days last October, Fred Bronstein, president of the Dallas Symphony Association, stood on the north lawn of the Meyerson Symphony Center and watched as construction cranes maneuvered a 60-foot-high, 20-ton sculpture into place. His companion was the sculptor Mark di Suvero, whose Proverb was being set on the lawn as a three-year loan from the artist.
The sculpture's placement heralds a new partnership between the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the soon-to-open Nasher Sculpture Center, which is located on a site adjacent to the Symphony Center. The DSO approached the Nasher Center about a year ago, hoping to connect with a sculptor who could help liven up a long-empty corner lot and create a symbolic gateway to the Dallas Arts District. The seventeen-block area of downtown includes the Meyerson Center, the Nasher site, the Dallas Art Museum, and several other arts institutions. "It provides a visual entrance to the Arts District," says Bronstein.
While the sculpture loan was already in the works when Bronstein came on board last year, other more extensive collaborations are on his agenda. Some, like a major project with the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, are already in the works. The museum, housed in the one-time Texas School Book Depository, chronicles the Kennedy presidency and assassination. A goal, says Bronstein, is to place the DSO at the center of a series of events, creating a seemingly ubiquitous presence in the community. "I understand why more of this thing hasn't been done. It takes a lot of work to make them meaningful, a large investment of time. But it adds a different dimension to what we do, and in turn we can bring a whole new element to things that they're doing," says Bronstein.
"The synergy created can be quite powerful."
Rebecca Winzenried is managing editor of SYMPHONY.