Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Using the Left Hand

It was said of Maestro Eugene Ormandy that his was the most expressive right hand in classical music.  As music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra he could pull more lush sound out of 110 players—particularly string players—with just his right hand than anyone else on the planet. 

A short man, accustomed to getting his way, he spoke softly, wielded a small stick and demanded perfection from every musician that worked under his direction.  His left hand, for the most part, hung by his side and only rarely made a small gesture to players to indicate their cue.  These, however, were nearly always invisible to the audience.

Only once, in four summers of singing with the Saratoga-Potsdam Chorus under his direction, did I see Maestro Ormandy use his left hand to dramatic effect.

We had rehearsed Verdi’s Requiem for weeks and there was a particular choral entrance he wanted emphasized.

“I’m going to wind up and give you the biggest cue you will ever see, and I don’t want just the basses to enter.  I want the tenors and altos to also come in on that note.  I want the audience to be knocked flat by this entrance.  So watch for it.  Don’t be late…”  So there we were, rehearsing again and again that five-second moment that would make or break the performance.

The night of the performance, Saratoga Performing Arts Center was sold out.  7500 in the shed and another 2500 on the lawn; a beautiful evening; the soloists sounded amazing.  Our big moment arrived and we geared up for the entrance.

A couple of measures before we were to sing, we all realized something was not quite right.  Having been drilled by our chorus preparer, the late great Brock McElheron, we kept the mantra “hearts on fire, brains on ice” close to our thoughts.  Sure enough, it happened.  Maestro Ormandy, with a look of intense concentration on his face, took a short step back and fired off perhaps the biggest cue he had ever given to the largest chorus he had ever worked with…

…a full measure early.

Not a single person came in.  Ormandy, leaning forward to brace himself against the expected wall of sound, almost fell into the second violins.  Then, with his cue fresh in our minds, all 300 of us, with the full brass, wind and percussion sections of the mighty Philadelphia Orchestra, entered in full voice. Maestro Ormandy, in the process of recovering from his near fall forwards, was now knocked backwards—nearly into the front row of the audience.  What saved him was the railing that stage management had thoughtfully built into the podium.

Reeling, Ormandy recovered his footing and, by now panicked, wildly looked around trying to fix what surely had been one of the greatest missed entrances of his career.  But as a few more seconds passed and those incredibly fine-tuned ears of his reasserted themselves, he realized that we had come in exactly on time, in exactly the manner he wanted us to, and that the only thing wrong was that he had given us our cue a measure early.  All was, astonishingly, well.

A few more bars passed, the chorus continued through the “Salva me…” section of the Requiem, and then it happened.

Up came the left hand.

In full view of the audience, and in the slowest and grandest of all gestures, Maestro Ormandy pointed his left index finger at his left temple, his thumb “cocked,” and pulled the trigger—all with the most beatific smile on his face. 

His full and very public acknowledgment of his mistake, while the orchestra was still playing and we were all singing, was one of the greatest moments of my life.  It left me reassured that any of us, no matter our aspirations, can find ourselves having to confront failure.  The lesson was not in avoiding the failure but in moving past it with grace, dignity, and greater wisdom.  In that sublime moment, Ormandy demonstrated his humanity and his greatness.

I wish all politicians, all public servants, could have lived through this experience and seen for themselves how Maestro Ormandy handled himself.

The quality of our political discourse, including the debates we are seeing from our Presidential candidates, is disheartening.  Even worse is the quality of discourse on the internet by people on all sides of the aisle who parse every action, every statement, and every fashion choice, and lob the most withering, incendiary comments that demean and denounce the candidates from the safety and privacy of their living rooms.

The chief executive of any enterprise, whether it is a small business, a symphony orchestra, or the President of the United States should be judged not just by what he (or she) knows or by his past actions, but by the qualities and capabilities of those with whom he surrounds himself, and the degree to which he is comfortable in taking responsibility for their actions.

I no longer believe we elect a President.  I believe we elect a Presidency.  We elect a point of view; a set of values; a change of scenery.  The President, while aspiring to be as communicative, as expressive, and as clear as possible with the right hand, must also know when to use the left hand.  And so, for the record, should all of us.

A President or CEO that has not learned yet the importance of his/her left hand is lacking some critical skills…

…and probably should attend the symphony more often.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Vermont: The State of the Arts, 2012

[This post first appeared in the Burlington (VT) Free Press, January 1, 2012]

 I am frequently asked, what is the current state of the arts?  My response? 


Vermont is the State of the Arts.

2010 Census figures are not available, but based on 2000 data, Vermont is first in writers, seventh in visual artists, and fifth overall in the per-capita ratio of artists-to-citizens out of all 50 states.  I believe, however, that visual artists are extremely under-reported in Vermont, and that once the 2010 data is out we will find ourselves ranked first overall. 

From communities as diverse as Brattleboro, White River Junction, Island Pond, Rutland, Bennington, and the greater Burlington area, Vermont’s artists leave an indelible impression on citizens and visitors alike.  We are a creative state whose character is hewn as much from the keyboard and the brush as it is from the soil and the forest.  For most Vermont artists, the natural landscape informs their creative core (corps?).  For others, Vermont’s independent streak inspires provocation and even outrage, as certainly art should from time to time. The critical note, here, is that of all states I have heard about, Vermont artists describe themselves exactly this way:  “I’m a Vermont artist”—using Vermont as an adjective to encompass the depth and variety that very name conjures in the imagination. No other artist from any other state does this, to my knowledge…at least not with the same degree of commitment.

Arts institutions in Vermont—the “healthy” ones—are nimble, have strong community support, and make the most of digital media and social networking tools to reach out well beyond our border.  Virtually all who regularly apply to the Council for funding fulfill the “artistic excellence” requirement with ease. Grants, therefore, tend to be awarded based organizational capacity and the value and impact that their activities have in/on their communities, not on the past record of accomplishment; a subtle but important difference.  If nothing else, it indicates a sector that is fully mature, with very high standards, and aware of its important role in bringing quality programs and services to the public.

From the consumer’s perspective, therefore, the arts in Vermont are thriving.  There are many arts events to choose from, not just on the weekends, but on any day of the week.  And with very few exceptions, they are all of really high caliber. A glance through any community newspaper will prove the point.

The view is very different, however, from the creative/producing end.

Whether the root cause is the economy, donor fatigue from massive weather cataclysms, or the increasingly vocal, but very ill-informed, national movement to remove all so-called “nonessential government services,” the issue for all is survival.  The Kennedy Center’s Michael Kaiser believes that the key to survival lies in the diversity and excellence of programming coupled with an ever-expanding commitment to marketing and promotion.

Therein lies the rub. Arts organizations are mission driven.  If there is an extra dollar left over at the end of the year, the mission mandates that it be spent on programming.  The result is that Kaiser’s advice to focus on diverse, excellent, new programming with an emphasis on marketing is difficult to sell to trustees and audiences.

What the sector really needs are tools for analyzing the impacts of artistic activity on education, community economic development, and social services.  With the Pew Trust’s Cultural Data Project just getting started here in Vermont, and the new fields of “Social Impact Analysis” and “Brain-based Learning” coming into their own, we will soon provide policy analysts and state/local officials with much better information about why they should be advocating for significantly more resources to be spent on supporting and promoting the sector. 

Artists and arts organizations are generally pretty capable at corralling what they need to put on a show.  What they are less good at is reaching audiences in Boston, New York, Montreal, Albany, and the Berkshires (!) to let them know what is available less than a half-day’s drive away.  This is where the state’s interests and the arts sector’s interests are currently most in alignment and where immediate returns are already beginning to be found. (There are many others, but this is the lowest of the “low-hanging fruits.”)

Vermont’s arts sector is, from an economic policy perspective, one of its last great un(der)-tapped resources.  With the right kind of collaborative, strategic and socially-integrated investment, the arts sector could easily thrive and become integral to Vermont’s economic vitality, not just a pleasant, icing-on-the-cake afterthought.