Buzz-Feeders: Why Art and Capitalism Should Play By Different Rules

Bernie Sanders, Jane Sanders

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and wife Jane walk in Times Square on their way to see the Broadway show Hamilton, Friday, April 8, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

A strange thing happened the other day: Bernie Sanders went to a performance of Hamilton. A presidential candidate going to a Broadway show isn’t the strange part. The strange part is *this* presidential candidate going to *this* broadway show. Bernie Sanders, champion of the people, advocate for the little guy…the man leading the assault on a rigged system of privilege and wealth inequality.

That guy, somehow, scored a ticket to the hottest Broadway show ever. Hamilton, a show that is completely sold out for the next nine months, which requires a convoluted lottery system for tickets, and which keeps breaking records on secondary ticket market sites such as StubHub. Bernie Sanders used his position and privilege to score seats at a show which most Americans can’t see because they can’t afford. Nice.

But before all the Bernie Bros start swarming…this is not a rant against Bernie Sanders. I actually think it’s great that a presidential candidate decided to make attending the performing arts part of his campaign. We could use more of that from the other candidates in the race.

The issue that the Hamilton craze brings to light is an important one. The show has done what every show wants to do: it is a critical and a box office triumph. Good for Hamilton. (I’d make a Hamilton reference here—perhaps quote a line from the show or something—but I haven’t seen the show. I can’t get tickets.) But with its success we see, with dramatic clarity, how quickly commerce corrupts art.

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If you want to go to Hamilton, but you’re not among the lucky few to have procured your tickets nine months in advance—or through the nearly impossible digital lottery—you then head to the secondary market, where you will pay significantly astronomically more than face value for a ticket.

In fact, on StubHub right now, the cheapest single ticket for a weekend evening performance is $814.35. Plus fees, plus dinner, plus in my case flight and hotel and oh never mind I’m not going.

Tickets to LA Lakers legend Kobe Bryant’s final game are cheaper than Hamilton. Tickets to see the Golden State Warriors potentially break the NBA single season Win-Loss record are slightly more than 1/3 the cost of a ticket to Hamilton.

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On one hand, score one for The Arts that there is more demand for tickets to a theater show with an ongoing, indefinite run than there is demand for the two most significant NBA games of the last 20 years. On the other hand, the demand has created a situation whereby most people who want to see the show can’t, or won’t, because they either simply don’t have enough money to see it or they’ll choose to spend their money on other things—like a European vacation—instead.

The reality right now is that Hamilton is not a show for everyone. It is only a show for the elite.

Buzz creates demand, demand creates a secondary ticket market where anyone can profit off the artistic achievements of others, and lack of money becomes a barrier to art.

Back in the day, art used to be only available to the aristocracy…or at church. Then, folks like Mozart and Haydn started playing concerts publicly and publishing the music they wrote for the culturally elite, so everyone could experience what they were bringing into the world.

Today, capitalism and commerce has replaced the aristocracy as the thing to deny art from the people.

This is not just a Hamilton problem. This issue exists on smaller scales as well. Big museums charge $20-$30 for admission, the cheapest seats for concerts by major orchestras are also in that range, but it’s half that price to get into a Major League Baseball game. A night at the ballpark makes more financial sense for most people than a night at the theater or symphony.

So, with the base prices for access to art being double the base prices for access to live sporting events, I suppose it shouldn’t be so surprising that the truly buzzworthy arts events cost more than their sports counterparts.

Still, it’s unfortunate. While there are numerous arts organizations who are trying to make the arts more accessible financially (the excellent Hammer Museum in Westwood is now free all the time), there are others who exhibit the behavior of the secondary market: upselling their experiences to create buzz, capitalizing on that buzz, and monetizing that buzz.

[Case study: the hottest performing arts ticket in LA last year was for Hopscotch, a mobile opera performed in limousines and various diverse locations around town. Tickets started at $125. A lottery was established and a lucky few were able to get in for $25.]

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Where does this leave us? I understand it costs money to put on a show and that ticket prices offset some of that cost. I understand that manufacturing “An Event” is necessary to get attention in a world with infinite entertainment options. However, it is possible to create buzz without pricing people out of an artistic experience.

[Case study: the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra performed recently at a club-like venue in Downtown LA. They gave away piles of tickets mostly to young millennials, who probably wouldn’t have attended a concert of music by Schoenberg otherwise. The line went out the door and the concert was delayed because so many people came to see the spectacle. People felt like they were part of a really cool event and afterwards said they were much more likely to attend a classical concert in the future because of it.]

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I guess in a country where start-ups and entrepreneurs are king, I suppose I should just let the market be the market. But, to me, art should be a little more sacred than that. Art reflects who we are as human beings; art shapes the human experience; art helps us make sense of our all-too-complicated existence. Art should not be subject to the whims of the marketplace. Access to art should not depend on one’s level of privilege. Art should be accessible to everyone—from Bernie Sanders to you and me.

LA Phil 2016-17: By the Numbers

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I do this every year: leave the punditry to others and tally up the stats. Here’s what 2016-17 looks like at the LA Phil. Unlike in years past, I have only included performances by the LA Phil–no visiting artists.

  • 21 commissions, 14 world premieres, 5 U.S. premieres, and 5 West Coast premieres. This beats last year’s world premiere record by two and shatters the commissions number from last year, which was 12.
  • In 2016-17, the LA Phil will present music by 1 Baroque composer, 7 Classical-era composers, 24 Romantics, and 46 composers from the 20th/21st Century. (Yes, I realize that “20th/21st C” is a broad category that doesn’t tell the whole story.)
  • That’s 1% Baroque, 7% Classical, 24% Romantic, and 46% 20th/21st Century.
  • Of the 78 composers on the 2016-17 season, 7 are living. That’s 9%. If you include the Green Umbrella concerts, that number increases to 17 of 88, or 19%. This represents a steep decline from the current LA Phil season, which features 42 living composers out of a total of 107, or 39%.
  • Of the 78 composers on the 2016-17 season, 0 are women. If you include the Green Umbrella concerts, that number increases to 2 of 88, or 2.3%.
  • The LA Phil will perform 97 different works in 2016-17: 1 Baroque, 9 Classical, 36 Romantic, and 51 20th/21st Century.
  • That’s 1% Baroque, 9% Classical, 37% Romantic, and 53% 20th/21st Century
  • Of the 9 Classical-era works, all are either by Haydn or Mozart.
  • The most-performed composers of the season will be Schubert (8), Sibelius (6), Mahler (5), and a bunch of composers tied at 4, including Beethoven, Mozart, Ravel, Brahms, and Stravinsky.
  • Of the 42 different programs (including Green Umbrellas), 41 will be conducted by men. The one female conductor is the LA Phil’s Associate Conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.
  • 74 visiting artists: 43 men; 31 women. Of the 31 women, 22 share the solo spotlight with a male soloist. Nine get the stage to themselves (all with male conductors).
  • In 2016-17, the LA Phil turns 98 years old, Walt Disney Concert Hall celebrates its lucky 13th birthday, and Gustavo Dudamel has five years remaining on his recently-extended contract as Music and Artistic Director.

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How to Fix Classical Music

old pianoMoney (1950). Lascivious musicians (1530). The gramophone (1930). Money (1969). Claude Debussy (1902). The violin (1740). Money (1683). YouTube (2013). Ludwig van Beethoven (1827). Money (1903). Popular music (1324). The compact disc (2009). Money (1987). Figured bass (1609). An aging audience (1960s-present).

For centuries, classical music has been on the brink of death. Over the years, many things have been blamed for its imminent demise. Two years ago, a writer for Slate finally called it. Time of death: 11:52 p.m., January 21, 2014.

There were swift and vigorous responses from all corners of The Internet. “Classical music isn’t dead! Because Dudamel.” “Classical Music can’t be dead–I just saw Classical Music last night at a club in Brooklyn. He was drinking a cocktail and grinding on Bryce Dessner.”

Now, nearly two years to the day since Slate proclaimed classical music to be dead, Medium just did the same. (As Charles Rosen once quipped, “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition.”) This time, though, the culprit was rather odd.

Classical music was killed by classical music.

That is, the term “classical music” has too much baggage and is contributing to a negative perception of the art form. Therefore, we must stop calling classical music classical music.

The solution?

“Classical music” should be called “composed music.”

Here’s why (according to the term-coiner):

  • it’s inclusive, covers all eras
  • avoids stigma of “contemporary” or “modern”
  • it’s plainspoken
  • celebrates the composer
  • refers to how audiences should listen (i.e. in a state of composure)

So……..I disagree with this assessment/terminology for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that ALL music is composed. Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Rage Against the Machine, Kanye West, Juanes, Tom Jones, Beyoncé, and the Kronos Quartet all perform composed music. Even the great jazz improvisers perform music that is composed. It’s just that the composing is happening right there in the moment.

The term “composed music” subtly prioritizes music that is written down over music that is not written down. The author even went so far as to suggest that improvised music be referred to as “semi-composed music,” as if that doesn’t at all smack of notation privilege. This name change accomplishes little besides removing the monocle from an elitist, rebranding him slightly–dogma’s got a brand new bag.

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I could go on, but my beef isn’t specifically with the term “composed music” so much as it is with the continually-recurring premise that gave birth to the new term: classical music is dying/has died and I’m going to breathe new life into it with some slick new marketing.

You want to know how to fix classical music? Stop trying to fix classical music. Stop believing the myth that classical music is dying. Stop lamenting that the average age of a classical music audience tends to skew high. (Who cares? It always has.) Give credit to young people (yes, millennials) for their open-mindedness. Allow them to come to classical music in their own way.

The term “classical music” is indeed problematic. It doesn’t fully or accurately describe all the music associated with it. But language evolves naturally–you can’t force change. When the time comes for a new term for classical music to be deployed, the right one will arise.

Or maybe it won’t.

Because using words to talk about an art form that transcends words is hard and sometimes sucks.

At least we still have music.

A Classical Christmas

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Let’s face it, most Christmas music is lame. And it’s that same lame Christmas music that gets blared over loudspeakers in shopping malls all across this great country of ours. Ask most people about classical Christmas music and they’ll probably say something about that horrifying version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D by an electronic group that calls itself an orchestra.

Ugh.

But fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all classical fans. For unto us is born this day in the City of Angels a playlist, which contains more than five hours of actual classical Christmas music that doesn’t suck.

It’s embedded below. I’ll point out a few of my highlights:

  • There are a few of my favorite bits of The Nutcracker because it’s The Nutcracker and The Nutcracker is undeniably awesome.
  • Bethlehem Down is a Christmas carol by Peter Warlock and Bruce Blunt who got totally plastered on Christmas Eve 1927, wrote this carol, sent it in to The Telegraph’s annual Christmas carol contest, and won.
  • Since there are so many great choral recordings of classical Christmas music…and since they’re so easy to find, the choral stuff I’ve included on this particular playlist is off-the-beaten-path choral stuff. For example, Charles Ives’ “A Christmas Carol” and the two Sibelius carols “Jouluna” and “En etsi valtaa, Ioistoa” are all just absolutely stunning. (And you won’t encounter them on the stereo system at your local Target store.)
  • I’m sure you know Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” quite well, so instead of that, I’ve included his “A Christmas Festival,” which is a delightful medley of popular Christmas tunes…and the “Sleigh Ride” I *have* included is one by Frederick Delius. Don’t worry, there are plenty of sleigh bells throughout.
  • My favorite thing on this playlist is probably the least-known work as well…and I say that not as a hipster who “liked it before it was cool,” it’s just that “Une cantate de Noel” by Artur Honegger is not the most popular Christmas tune. But I think it’s worthy of 20 of your minutes. What Honegger does is harness the power of the darkness before the birth of Christ in the first few minutes of the piece and then turns that into blazing light and glory upon the angels’ announcement of the nativity. The work ends in a truly awe-inspiring mash-up of familiar Christmas carols, each sung in its original language. To me, this is wonderfully moving…and a reminder that we are all connected together as one species, regardless of race, gender-identity, class, or religion.
  • Throughout, I’ve interspersed selections from one of my favorite Baroque Christmas albums, “Bright Day Star” by the Baltimore Consort. Some familiar things, some not-so-familiar things. Including the final selection on the playlist: “Hey for Christmas!” sung to the Dargason tune, about a drunken party gone wrong (what other Christmas carol contains the line “the sweat down their buttocks ran”?)
  • The last piece I’ll point out is, I think, the smartest one. “Die natali,” (pronounced DEE-ay nah-TAH-lee), by Samuel Barber. This is an incredibly intricate tapestry of seven well-known Christmas carols that never ceases to surprise and delight me when I hear it again for the first time each Christmas season.

Enjoy!

5 Questions for Michael Giacchino

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This weekend, the American Youth Symphony will present a screening of Star Trek Into Darkness with the film score played live to picture. David Newman will conduct Michael Giacchino’s exhilarating score and Giacchino will be on hand for a pre-concert/screening Q&A with film music journalist (and frequent KUSC contributor) Jon Burlingame.

Details here.

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In advance of this weekend’s performance, I had a chance to catch up with the very busy Oscar-winning composer, Michael Giacchino, for a few questions.

BL: Live movie concerts are all the rage at major orchestras from Europe to the United States and beyond. They are extremely popular with audiences and a boon financially for the orchestras which present them. What do you make of the popularity these types of events?

MG: A large number of people are only exposed to orchestral music through film scores. It only makes sense that this material would find it’s way into the hands of orchestras and that film music should be a regular part of an orchestra’s repertoire. What better way to expose a broader audience to the power of live musicians then playing their favorite film music. I am thrilled that people are getting an opportunity to hear what it is like to be in a room with 80-90 musicians. They may come to hear the Chicago Symphony play Star Trek today, and decide to come back for Bach next week. I also think that as people’s home theaters become more sophisticated, the chance to see a film with a live orchestra in a place like the Royal Albert Hall offers something that simply cannot be replicated in their living room.

BL: As a composer of music for films, I would imagine these kinds of concerts would represent the best possible environment for audiences to experience your work. How does a finely-tweaked, impeccably recorded performance played over a movie theater sound system compare to the immediacy (and potential pitfalls) of live performance?

MG: Nothing compares to the energy of a live performance. Movies in the theater have the dialogue and sound effects mixed slightly differently than we have in the concert hall. We take great care to provide a perfect sound mix so it still feels like the film…however, in the concert hall you can’t help but notice that when Nero’s ship is approaching in Star Trek 09…there’s a lot of brass at work there.

BL: This concert is the first time the AYS will be performing an entire film score live to picture. What sorts of challenges will they encounter…and what advice would you give to the young musicians who have never done this before?

MG: They are going to be in the expert hands of David Newman who is a genius with this type of project. They will have a blast…probably their biggest challenge will be keeping their eyes off the screen and focused on the music. I’m kidding of course but I love watching the musicians follow along with the movie during their rests. I just want them all to relax and have fun. Maestro will keep them in sync.

BL: Much was made of your extremely busy summer with a trio of very high-profile releases [Tomorrowland, Jurassic World, Inside Out]. Does it ever slow down for you? Do you ever have down time? Or do you prefer having a jam-packed schedule? How difficult is it to balance multiple projects at once?

MG: Yes, once the films were released I had some time off in the summer. I went to some of the Star Trek performances, but I was able to take the time and work in my backyard. I do keep a very strict schedule even when I am working. I stop working at 6 and spend time with the kids. It is very important to keep that balance. Working on multiple projects at once is really a matter of scheduling. Luckily, this past year all the directors I worked with knew each other and did their best to keep the schedule so that I wouldn’t go crazy.

BL: Finally, slightly off topic, but KUSC is doing a week-long celebration of the music of Beethoven in a couple of weeks and we’re asking everyone we interview about their early encounters with the music of Beethoven. Has Beethoven’s music ever been an inspiration in your work? Is there a specific piece by Beethoven that is particularly close to your heart?

MG: I love Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata – just magical.  It’s almost like film music before film music existed.  Of course who can forget the 9th Symphony? I often have wondered how many people were introduced to this piece of music by hearing it first in the movie Die Hard?

10 Pieces of Classical Music Everyone Should Know

This is my first contribution to a new series on the KUSC blog. Over the next several weeks, each of the KUSC on-air hosts will unveil a list of 10 essential pieces of classical music that we think everyone should know. These aren’t the “10 Best” pieces, or even our “10 Favorite” pieces–just 10 that we absolutely love and want to share with you. 

1. J.S. Bach: Chaconne, from Partita No. 2 in d minor for Solo Violin – This is breathtakingly epic music and, at times, it’s difficult to believe you’re only hearing a single instrument. The architecture is of the Chaconne is spectacular and a performance of it requires the highest level of virtuosity and artistry. I love both modern and period instrument performances and highly recommend the latter here, with Rachel Podger doing the honors. Also check out: Passacaglia and Fugue in c minor (solo organ) and Suite No. 6 in D major for Solo Cello.

2. Mozart: Ave Verum Corpus – I’ve often said if all the music on earth disappeared except one piece, this would be the piece I would choose to remain. Maybe, just for practical purposes, I should pick something longer–how horrible would life be without music?–but, I’m fairly comfortable standing behind my original opinion. This is Mozart’s final completed work and it represents everything that made him the transcendent genius that he was. It’s the little things. Like the flowing, descending lines in each part as the text mentions the water and blood that flowed from the pierced side of Christ as he hung on the cross. Also check out: Adagio from Gran Partita Serenade and Symphony No. 29.  

3. Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring – Any piece of music that inspires a riot at its first performance deserves to be known, don’t you think? The infamous premiere is certainly a great story, but a less talked about aspect of that spring night in Paris is that the rabble that was roused in the audience wasn’t from unanimous opposition to the music. In fact, the audience was divided about 50-50. Also, they were actually more upset about the choreography than Stravinsky’s score. The Rite has been one of the most important pieces of classical music from day one…and composers today are still wrestling with it. Also check out: Dumbarton Oaks Concerto (sounds like if Stravinsky wrote a Brandenburg Concerto), Silvestre Revueltas: La noche de los Mayas (sounds like a Mexican Rite of Spring),

4. Mahler: Symphony No. 6 – Chances are, if you know anything at all about the Sixth Symphony of Gustav Mahler, you know there are two giant hammer blows in the final movement. But this symphony is so much more than the big bangs. This was Mahler’s most personal symphony. He wrote it in response to three tragedies in his life and it is an emotional journey from darkness to darkerness. Also check out: Symphony No. 9 (for more darkness); Symphony No. 2, Resurrection (in case you need a break from the darkness); Uri Caine’s jazz transcriptions of Mahler.

5. Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 – Yes, you know those first four notes. They are, probably, the most famous four notes in all of classical music. But did you know that short-short-short-long rhythm appears an astonishing 382 times in the first movement alone? (By the way, I will passionately argue that the opening movement of Beethoven’s 5th contains no melody–only rhythm and harmony.) After the first movement, Beethoven is not done with that s-s-s-l rhythm. He infuses the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th movements with that rhythm, which Gustavo Dudamel told me is like a “master key” which unlocks the mysteries of the symphony. You may think you know this symphony (I know I do), but like any great masterpiece, there’s always something new to discover in every hearing. Also check out: Piano Sonata No. 23 in f minor, Appassionata, which Beethoven was writing at the same time as the 5th Symphony and which also ruminates on s-s-s-l in the first movement.

6. Andrew Norman: Play – Norman is the “It Composer” for 21st-century classical music and Play is his most ambitious work to date. In his words, Play is “a symphony in all but name that explores the myriad ways musicians can play with, against, or apart from one another.” It’s partially inspired by video games and when you listen to it, you can certainly feel like you’re watching a really good gamer do his/her thing on the screen. There’s a wonderful exuberance in this music and, for me, the most exciting thing about Play is how, after all these centuries, composers like Andrew Norman are somehow still able to elicit new sounds from the symphony orchestra. Also check out: Gran Turismo (for violin octet, also inspired by video games), The Companion Guide to Rome (a Pulitzer Prize finalist), and the wonderfully-titled Drip Blip Sparkle Spin Glint Glide Glow Float Flop Chop Pop Shatter Splash (a piece written to help introduce young people to classical music).

7. Ravel: String Quartet – You might recognize the playful second movement scherzo as the music for the opening credits of The Royal Tenenbaums. That’s just one of the many wonderful moments in this quartet. The opening movement is a textbook definition of “impressionism.” The slow movement makes time itself seem to stop. The finale is the exact opposite: more energizing than a triple-shot of espresso. Also check out: Gaspard de la nuit, Piano Concerto in G major, and the string quartets by Debussy and Grieg.

8. Mendelssohn: Octet – The greatest thing I ever did at age 16 was not crash my car. The greatest thing Felix Mendelssohn ever did at age 16 was write this masterpiece. No one had really been able to successfully combine two string quartets into a single ensemble before…and only a few have tried since. The word musicologists use most often to describe Mendelssohn’s Octet is “perfect.” Just give the first movement a whirl. If you don’t have goosebumps racing up and down your arms by the end, check your pulse. Also check out: Symphony No. 4, Italian; Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Piano Trio No. 1 in d minor.

9. Schubert: Impromptu in G-flat – Schubert is a composer known for his lieder (songs). This is a song for 10 fingers. It is excruciatingly simple and delectably sublime. The notes are easy enough to play, but the challenge of crafting an artful interpretation is immense. Each note requires a precious amount of care and contemplation. The pacing must be perfect otherwise what can be pure poetry ends up as just a lame collection of notes hanging out together. Also check out: String Quartet No. 14, Death and the Maiden; Symphony No. 5.

10. Verdi: Macbeth – No, this is not one of the great Verdi hits. However, there is something really special about this opera. It marks a turning point in Verdi’s compositional output. We get our first glimpse of Verdi, the mature dramatist, in this work. Shades of Otello and La forza del destino to come. If you like the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco, you’ll love the Chorus of the Scottish Exiles from Macbeth. Also check out: Otello, Don Carlo, and the String Quartet in e minor, which Verdi wrote during a break in rehearsals during a production of Aida.