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Two Weeks Point to A New Direction for the DSO

by Jerome Weeks 26 Jul 2013 7:46 AM

The DSO left two weeks blank when it announced its new schedule in January, two weeks at the City Performance Hall. Those concerts are DSO CEO Jonathan Martin’s first steps in broadening the orchestra’s appeal with something fresher, more casual and more adventuresome.


jm2 closeDallas Symphony president Jonathan Martin in his office at the Meyerson. Photo by Jerome Weeks

Last January, when the Dallas Symphony announced its next season, there were two blank weeks on the schedule. These were set aside for concerts at the  City Performance Hall. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports those concerts are small signals of what’s coming from the DSO.

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The Dallas Symphony won standing ovations on its spring tour in Europe. But at home, it’s struggled to fill the Meyerson. DSO president Jonathan Martin says that’s one reason the new season he announced in January was mostly standard fare: “The steak and potatoes was largely driven by the very short-term need to give the box office a vitamin shot.”

But Martin says a sluggish box office provides strong motivation, not for the tried-and-true, but for some serious changes. “I wake up every morning thinking about it,” he says. “And I go to bed every night thinking about it. And for us to build audiences is going to require us to break out of our past behaviors in almost every single way you can define that – from new concert experiences to beginning to re-shape in people’s minds what a symphony orchestra actually is.”

Actually, the DSO is in better shape than some orchestras, despite a budget crisis in 2011. The past two years have seen symphonies in Louisville, Syracuse and Philadelphia go through bankruptcy. Last month, the Nashville Symphony managed to stave off foreclosure on its concert hall. The standard, dire predictions for the future of classical music and symphony orchestras in particular have become an almost weekly occurrence.

Leonard Slatkin lists the problems that have been plaguing the country’s orchestras and an art form that many see as increasingly old-hat: “Declining audience, aging audience, lesser contributions coming in, lack of education for our young audiences: The early going of the 21st century has been pretty rough on orchestras.”

Slatkin is the new conductor of the Van Cliburn Piano Competition. He’s also the author of Conducting Business: Unveiling the Mystery Behind the Maestro and music director of the Detroit Symphony. Two years ago, that orchestra suffered a six-month-long musicians’ strike that caused many to write it off as a goner. It didn’t die, it bounced back with increased subscribers – despite the Motor City’s own dire financial woes. Much of that, Slatkin says, was due to all the planning they did even as the strike went on. They wanted to come out of it with a real plan to move forward.

But having been the acclaimed, Grammy-winning music director of the St. Louis Symphony as well as orchestras in France and Washington, D.C., Slatkin says he’s wary of proclamations about a need for a wholesale “reinvention of the orchestra.” Some things — like the standard, classical concert format — have worked well for more than a century and a half. People keep arguing the novel’s dead, too, yet it somehow continues to work as an artform.

“What we learned in Detroit,” Slatkin says, “was that although the problems facing orchestras may be similar, each community has to solve the problems in their own way.”

The DSO is already doing some things Detroit has tried – like playing suburban venues without cutting into the number of music lovers coming downtown, which is what many detractors predicted. Taking the music to suburbanites has actually expanded Detroit’s audience, Slatkin says. Another project that Detroit has already implemented — live-streaming concerts online — Martin seriously wants to try. He’s also going to start breaking out of the four-performance format in the DSO schedule. One reason the numbers for the Meyerson ticket sales aren’t rosy is that the orchestra books everything for a four-performance weekend — no matter the work’s popularity, no matter how specialized an audience the DSO knows it’ll likely attract. That’s going to change — with variable weekends, depending on the musical works scheduled.

But it’s the two weeks at the City Performance Hall  that are the first small signs of Martin’s new direction for the DSO. They’re called the ReMix. The concerts are in a much more intimate hall, they’re shorter in length, start earlier and cost less. And the $19 ticket also gets you some “adult beverages.”

The first week in the City Performance Hall comes in October. Music director Jaap van Zweden will conduct an evening designed to spotlight individual DSO musicians — like principal Cellist Christopher Adkins, who’ll be playing Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante. Seemingly a small move, it’s actually a departure for the DSO. “This is going to be new for us,” says Martin, “but there’s so much talent on the stage of the orchestra that doesn’t often get to be showcased.”

le-Poisson-Rouge-1In March, the second week will feature the Four Seasons. Not Vivaldi’s Four Seasons but the one by Astor Piazzolla. He was the Argentine master of what was called the “nuevo tango.”  Tito Munoz will be the guest conductor. Munoz is music director of the resident ensemble at Le Poisson Rouge or The Red Fish, which is actually the French term for ‘goldfish’ – go figure (left, photo by Mark Shelby Perry). It’s a multimedia cabaret in New York, already legendary for its bold, eclectic programming of everything from opera recitals to electronic dance parties, from pop star Beck doing an acoustic set to the experimental Portland Cello Project.

“The vibe of Le Poisson Rouge,” says Martin, “of what [Munoz] is doing up there, is very consistent with what I want to try to do with this experience over time. So I’m thrilled that Tito has signed on to do this.”

Martin says ReMix will never replace the classic mainstage series at the Meyerson. Or the pops series. Neither is the DSO trying to appeal to young people by offering them a cheap six pack of DSO Lite. Martin thinks that entire approach is condescending — it waters down the DSO’s own product, as if to say, you can’t handle the strong stuff. No, what he’s doing, he says, is simply widening the orchestra’s range, showing what else it can do, offering high-quality performances in a fresher, more intimate, more casual and adventuresome format.

Whether or not audience members at the ReMix concerts go on to buy what’s on sale at the Meyerson doesn’t concern him much.

“The things that are barriers for many people are the things we’re trying to address,” Martin says. “The program length, the price, the stuffiness that some people may perceive. So if this were their destination forever, I’m happy.”

Tickets for the ReMix performances go on sale Saturday.