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Sorry, We're Fresh Out of Mahler

The less compelling side of program substitutions.

by Holly Mulcahy
September 7, 2009

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Sorry, We're Fresh Out of Mahler

It's the beginning of another orchestra season and that means it's time to scout out the season brochures and websites of the groups I'll be playing in to see what's in store. It's hard not to notice that I look through season brochures as I would a restaurant menu. I narrow down the "main courses" that look most interesting or challenging to me and start planning my practicing accordingly.

Most of my concert-going friends analyze a season brochure like a menu as well and as I have Facebook discussions with them about programs, it seems many have already decided which concerts they want to attend. "I think we'll pass on the Classic Series VI, we don't care for a whole concert of Strauss, but I think we'll take the Classic Series II and V." And much like a restaurant, as one party orders the entrée, the other party prepares the dish.
But recently, I've noticed a growing number of orchestras switching programs to save money. While nobody should be faulted for trying to save money during tight times, they should be questioned for some of the options presented.
For example, if Mahler's Symphony No. 5 programmed is later replaced with a Beethoven or Mozart Symphony due to budget reasons, there should be questions as to how much is really saved. Is the audience comfortable with this? Imagine what would happen if a similar situation unfolded at a restaurant: "Sorry, we are out of the Filet Mignon but we are happy to present you with the Caesar salad instead. Same price, sorry."
Maybe this will be the best Caesar salad you'll ever eat. But while the entrée price hasn't changed, and the appetite may have wanted more, there must be sacrifices….right?
Sure, Mahler's Symphony No. 5 with the 33 wind and brass plus full 45-50 player string section is more expensive than a Beethoven or Mozart symphony with a mere 13 or so wind and brass plus a reduced string section. As we said, sacrifices must be made but assuming the audience will be fine because Beethoven and Mozart are equally "compelling" as Mahler is a cheap shot.
As a musician, I'll perform whatever is programmed to the best of my ability, just as I'm sure any good chef would do for items on his/her menu. But charging customers the same price for lower cost selections leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Would you keep going to your favorite restaurant if you were presented with menu substitutions? Maybe, if the dining experience was that important to you but you'd think twice about paying steak prices for salad entrees when you really wanted that steak.

Comments (7)

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Gator from Out West! writes:
September 7, 2009
That article presented me with a new views of how concerts and the music within are managed, or mangled...
I never really thought of the "cost" of one work vs an other. Great submission!

bill eddins writes:
September 7, 2009
but what about the fact that mozart and beethoven are clearly superior composer to Mahler? time after time Mahler is held up as some God by musicians but at every orchestra i know Mahler is a loss-leader. sure the hard core come out to hear it but everyone else stays home. personally i'm with those who vote with their feet. i wouldn't waste 2 bucks on a mahler symphony, but the chance to hear beethoven or mozart played well live? sure!!! sign me up!!!

Brian Bell writes:
September 8, 2009
I think it was Wanda Landowska who once said that masterpieces are not wolves that devour each other. And this dismisses Holly's very valid (and colorfully rendered) point about budget limitations obscuring the artistic missions which one can easily glean from this season's concert brochures. I read with amusement Mr. Eddin's brave diatribe against Mahler Symphonies some months back, and while I can understand why he has been put off by decades of overblown renditions, he owes
to it to himself to take the score of the Mahler 5th off the shelf and look at the incredible counterpoint in the last movement, which is almost never effectively rendered in the vast majority of performances. Then he could see why Mozart would've gladly traded in the first dozen of his youthful efforts at the symphonic form for a finished movement like the
Mahler 5th finale.

Ron Spigelman from Springfield MO writes:
September 9, 2009
Great article and the point could be reversed that what if Beethoven was programmed but a donor came knocking and paid for Mahler and so that change was made? Either way if programming is the determinant factor for attendance then that orchestra is a leaky boat anyway since trust hasn't been established with the audience (say like a great restaurant when you know the specials will be great no matter what they are). Overall experience needs to be focused on more, but there is also what I call creative substitution i.e Mahler 4 can be done with a regular sized string section as there is no heavy brass, so even though it is a change, it is still Mahler (at thousands less provided you go "local" with the singer). Once way back I was told to substitute a Strauss tone poem and so I picked the Op 7 Wind Serenade so again, the composer stayed on the program. If the restaurant runs out of filet mignon, then they would be smart to have the rib-eye ready to go but with a killer marinade!

Yvonne writes:
September 11, 2009
While I share some of Bill's Mahler-fatigue, as a concert planner I would say that Ron's comments are spot on: there are always musically creative ways to rework advertised programs when – heaven forbid – that is required.

It's a very delicate subject, given what we know of audience buying habits: namely that they choose concerts on repertoire more so than any other factor. Even when the proper trust has been established, this is still a choice based on trust (i)in the orchestra's programming(/i).

(One thing that disturbs me in Ron's comments is the impression he gives that an orchestra would change a program from Beethoven to Mahler if "a donor came knocking and paid". Surely there is no orchestra of integrity that would, having programmed and (i)advertised(/i) a composer for sound artistic reasons, agree to changing the program just because a donor approached with an offer of money to pay for it. This would be indicative of a very dubious and worrying relationship with the donor.)

But really, while it's amusing, the restaurant analogy in the original post is a weak one in that it sets up a false argument.

Restaurants, quite transparently, price dishes according to the cost of the ingredients. So if a restaurant offers you caesar salad because the filet mignon is off the menu they will offer it to you at an appropriate (lower) price.

Orchestras, for the most part, do not price concerts according to the cost of presenting them. The main exceptions are: one-off galas in which a star guest artist is promoted; series of short (no-interval) concerts, which tend to have cheaper admission, even though they still occupy a full call/service and are unlikely to represent much of a saving in the budget; and concert series in which a subset of an orchestra is used (e.g. a baroque series in a symphony orchestra's season), where there are some savings being made in personnel costs. But for pretty much everything else, the costs of presenting different programs are amortized across the whole season, and the actual ticket costs are constant. The expensive guest conductor doing Richard Strauss in concert 1 is offset by the local soloist and no augmentation in concert 2, and so on.

For this reason music-lovers (or at least none that I know!) don't look at the stage and say, "Oh, only 60 musicians (or "only" Beethoven) tonight, I've been ripped off!" in the way that you would if a restaurant brought a caesar salad to your table for a filet mignon price.

Now we might object to a (i)substitution(/i) on the basis that we were really looking forward to (or had purchased on the basis of) a particular work. But this disappointment has very little, if anything, to do with the perceived cost-value of the presentation.

Drew McManus from Chicago writes:
September 11, 2009
I think Yvonne is missing the thrust of the restaurant analogy here. Unsurprisingly, they do price items based on ingredients (although not as transparently as might be suggested here) but her objection actually reinforces what I thought was the main point.

I would also point out that the amortization component Yvonne refers to isn't as straightforward. In the context of a 52-week orchestra with 80+ salaried musicians, what she points out is more likely but for groups with smaller seasons and fewer salary based players, it is far more difficult to say that it amortizes in the end. And since the majority of professional orchestras don't fit into the 52 week/80+ musician model, it isn't as likely that the numbers work out.

From my perspective I am bothered by instances when groups titled as a full symphony orchestra perform the majority of their masterworks concerts with chamber size ensemble. I've written about this before and it amounts to as much as a subset of bait-and-switch. There's obviously nothing wrong with chamber orchestras but don't project an image of something you aren't. A good example is the Orchestra of St. Luke's; their name is generic enough and they maintain multiple ensembles that are named appropriately. Consequently, they make this clear in advertisements so it is obvious what you're getting when buy a ticket.

I have vivid memories of attending my first orchestra concerts, most of which were organized by teachers (public school and private instructors). I remember one occasion where the teacher (who taught guitar and jazz studies and was not a regular orchestra ticket buyer) made a point out of saying that he wanted to go to something "big, with all the players on stage." So to a point I would agree that some concertgoers don't care much if there are 60-100 players on stage but there are certainly those who do. And if this is a trend among newer ticket buyers, it is something that could work in a counter-productive fashion in the current climate if orchestras are trying to simultaneously attract new patrons while cutting back on larger scale works.
I'd love to see if there's a study that helps clarify if this is an issue orchestra newbies care or think about in sizable numbers but I would bet that most orchestras are simply happy with ignorance.

Lastly, I had to chuckle when I read Yvonne's comment indicating that orchestra programming decisions aren't influenced by donor wishes. I think we'd all love to believe that the art is as pure as the picture she paints but the reality is quite the opposite. This business is not much different than any other with regard to the modern "Golden Rule." Dubious and worrying donor relationships abound in this business but that doesn’t mean they are always bad. It's not much different than the audition system: it isn't great but it's the best solution anyone has come up with to date.

Michael Palmer from Atlanta, GA writes:
January 1, 2010
While I take Holly's point, it risks a decent into superficiality to pit Mahler against Mozart and Beethoven. Without taking a thing away from Mahler (and I think he would agree), there is nothing comparable in his output (much as I love his works) to compete with the second movement of the "Eroica" (for instance).

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