Blogging the 2011 League Conference: Networking Opportunities

Today is the last day of the Orchestra League conference in Minneapolis, and already at 3 p.m. this afternoon the exhibit hall had turned into a wasteland of scattered brochures and blue taffeta falling off the sides of tables and booths. As I walked out of the hotel this evening, people were stuffing bags into taxis airport-bound. Many took buses to St. Paul for the closing reception and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra concert, which I was not able to attend due to other conflicts.

However, the day was still packed with meetings and activities. My day started with a red-eyed 8am breakfast, at which time I discovered that $1 well drinks, that seemed like such a great and utterly non-New York invention last night, perhaps had their downside! But I forgot all about last night during the most interesting session of the week, a tool-box on “Creating a Passionate Environment for New Music.” Panelists were Jesse Rosen, president of the League; John Nuechterlein, president of ACF; composer Stephen Paulus; and Katy Tucker who works in promotions at G. Schirmer.

Jesse Rosen gave an interesting presentation on the marketing campaign for the NY Phil’s recent production of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre. Apparently just a few weeks before the performance, only 30% of tickets had been sold and Alan Gilbert (NY Phil Music Director) called a meeting to talk about what could be done. The PR department was taken down to the scene shop to see and touch the sets and costumes, which led to the creation of a humorous social media campaign with ads featuring Alan Gilbert with his “friend” Death – and actor dressed as the Grim Reaper. The NY Times picked this up and wrote about the campaign, and ultimately all three performances sold out. Stephen Paulus pointed out that it was interesting that it was the article about the campaign—an extra-musical factor—that led to the extreme interest, as opposed to features on the work itself. A brilliant networker and marketer, I think that Stephen made an excellent point that often it’s the side factors—things about the personal life or outside interests of the artist, for example—that often get people’s attention. This is a way to create buzz, he said, which is essential to making the performance of a new work (or even a not-so-new, but locally unfamiliar work) a real cultural event in a community.

This led to some interesting discussion on how to create interest in new music, including the dangers of even referring to it as “new music,” including, predictably, the question of how programming it affects the bottom line. John Neuchterlein took this up and talked about the Composer Institute, which started out as a reading session and has now become a week long event concluding in a concert by the Minnesota Orchestra. He said that orchestras have to take the “long view” and really think long term about how to bring more new music into their programming and that not doing so will ultimately backfire. He also talked about “Earshot”—something I felt like I had heard of but didn’t really know the details of—which is a program of the American Composers Orchestra that will help an orchestra create a Composers Institute-like program in their community and often includes funding! I really hope more orchestras will take advantage of this program and I wish that organizations like the League would find ways to make programs like this more visible. One orchestra manager said they had used Earshot in Buffalo and it was a big success—they had Robert Beaser and Steven Stucky come in for performances and created a lot of buzz.

I chimed in at this point that I was hearing from various orchestra executive directors and managers that many of them would like to do new music but they get resistance from the board or simply the audience, but that the places where this attitude had been changed was where they brought composers to the orchestra, engaged with the community and got the “story” of the piece across. I remember when John Corigliano’s 1st Symphony was commissioned by Chicago and Meet the Composer—over 100 orchestras played this piece. John went almost everywhere and gave pre- and post-concert talks as well as other special sessions to discuss the piece where he told the story of how this work was inspired by AIDS and the death of friends and musicians in his life. The work certainly stands on its own without a program and probably would have had some success if he hadn’t done that, but the places where people heard this resulted in such an emotional experience that people were literally crying, hugging and thanking John after performances—I went to several and saw and felt this myself. Obviously not every piece has such a strong program but even so, by having a living composer get something about his work across to the people hearing it, the impact can be much greater for everyone—including the orchestra’s bottom line. This is where programs like Earshot, Meet the Composer, as well as orchestras’ own marketing and education departments who simply MUST think creatively and run with ideas for utilizing living composers, come in.

Another thing that came up along these lines was a “commissioning club” in Minneapolis started by David and Judy Ranheim, plus a few other couples, who contribute money to a fund, meet, listen, and create commissions for composers whose work they like. Often they take into account the fact that a composer needs a boost, which leads them often to look outside of the standard field of establishment composers. Then they try and follow their composers and help to create multiple opportunities for performance. They are extremely passionate about what they are doing, so I asked them to talk a little on camera for us about it as well.

Later, I had a great chat over wine with Stephen Paulus, who is one of the most helpful and supportive composers and people I know. He gave me some wonderful advice about how to reach out to potential commissioners, not being afraid to gently ask for what you want—and sometimes re-ask. We laughed about this one, because when I initially emailed him about meeting he didn’t write me back. So then a week later I wrote him the same email again and he responded right away: “Perfect example!” he said. Stephen is extremely passionate about music being alive and breathing and also about composers being able to live off of what they create. He has been such a great treasure to the Minneapolis community, truly helping create a passionate musical environment here. He graciously agreed to say a few words on camera for us. I asked him specifically to comment on whether or not he thought the conference was a helpful place for composers to come to.

From a manager’s perspective, the conference has been pretty successful for me—more than 20 meetings—whew! From a composer’s perspective, I did personally have some good networking opportunities, but not a lot was covered in the sessions that were particularly helpful. I think composers should come to this conference at least occasionally, just to show their faces and meet people. The ideal situation would be if they came representing orchestras as resident composers, and then started demanding more exposure. But aside from that, I would suggest coming every few years, getting the registration list as early as possible, and reaching out to conductors or others you think could be helpful, and asking them in advance for meetings. Face-to-face meetings are always the best way to start relationships.

I’ve been getting texts by the bucketful about flights to NY being cancelled! Fortunately I am going tomorrow, so keeping fingers crossed. Another year at the league under my belt and I had a great time writing this blog for you. I hope it’s been helpful and gave a bit of insight to what goes at the annual event.

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