Critics: The Higher Calling

 music critic

LOCAL REVIEWERS OF LIVE PERFORMING ARTS—with a few truly professional exceptions—fall flat on their faces thanks (or no thanks) to a fundamental failure to grasp the essential demands of the job. Strangely, many of them find favor with some Monterey Bay Area publishers, but bring little training or discipline to the job.

Two weeks ago on this page, we carried a link to an op-ed in the New York Times by its Chief Music Critic, Anthony Tommasini, in which he underscored exactly what is wrong with today’s reviewers: they write about themselves instead of the subject at hand. Yet rather than using the opportunity to examine his craft, Tommasini—you guessed it—wrote about himself.

There are many ‘tricks of the trade’ when it comes to good writing. But let’s narrow it down. The first rule of a critic or reviewer is exactly the same as for news reporters: write an accurate description of what happened while answering the five required “W” questions—who, what, where, when, why? Narrow it further to adjectives and adverbs. According to the basic rules of grammar, these words modify nouns and verbs, respectively. But when it comes to criticism, their use must be descriptive of and specific to the event. All other adjectives and adverbs instead are only about the writer.

Of course adjectives and adverbs are inevitable; every writer uses them. But when a reviewer chooses non-specific ones, as some locals do notoriously, they cease to convey any sense other than the reviewer reviewing him- or herself. And beyond that facile threshold, the writing crosses into the realm of meaninglessness, an unquestioned and unexamined leap of faith. Words we too often see—‘interesting’, ‘beautiful’, ‘glorious’, ‘fabulous’, ‘exciting’, ‘treasure’—have no business in the critic’s vocabulary. Worse, they make a review useless.

So what makes a review useful? Many argue that it’s opinion, that a reviewer’s judgment influences the reader’s decision to go or not to go. Of course, that makes no sense when the event in question has already passed. If we rule out the ‘value’ of a review to the performer or presenter—itself a judgment call—then that leaves only the reader. In fact, all good journalists know that they are writing for the amusement or entertainment of just one reader. Within that ‘dialog’ the review either lives or dies.

It lives when the writer is able to shed new light on the topic at hand, either by narrowing in or broadening out to a fresh way of looking at it. Or, more important, putting the event into a larger context. How, for example, does local socially-inspired choreography look from the perspective of a worldview?

When a review instead gets mired down in a swamp of empty adjectives and adverbs, then the reader has to decide if the reviewer’s self-review offers any real value at all.

For me that’s bridge too far.

Scott MacClelland, Oct 17, 2017

A Tale of Two Symphonies

By Scott MacClelland

THE 2017-18 seasons of the Monterey and Santa Cruz Symphonies are now published and current subscribers are being actively solicited to renew their subscriptions. This task falls mainly to the marketing staff, which basically comes down to two people: Nicola Reilly in Monterey and James “JD” de Leon in Santa Cruz. Though they are both fairly new in their posts, each brings a considerable depth and background to their tasks and both will be spending part of their summer putting new faces on their respective institutions, most obviously with new websites.

NR (1)Reilly, a violinist who, alas, is too busy to play in the Monterey Symphony, has academic credentials in marketing and administration, served as program coordinator in global health for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was marketing director for the Seattle Chamber Music Society from 2006 to 2012, for the Medieval Women’s Choir during the same period, and, from 2013 through 2015 the Carmel Bach Festival. (Between her posts with the Bach Festival and the Symphony she worked for CSUMB as development director for the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.) Now, she works on targeting new and future audiences and dives deeply into databases past and present. She says most of their subscribers are resident of Monterey County—with very little attendance from out-of-county—including Carmel, Pebble Beach and other Monterey Peninsula communities. As to attendance, she told me, “My hunch is that we’re selling in excess of 75 percent of our houses.” While at the Bach Festival, she says they learned that direct mailing worked primarily as “a reminder” to their subscribers and tickets buyers. Still, “Direct mail is what works.” She also says the Symphony has reached an agreement with KAZU’s to broadcast their concerts on the station’s HD channel. “A long term goal for me is making our content available.” (As an important commitment, the Monterey Symphony now holds its solo artists over in order to play selections from each of their subscription concerts to public school students.)

IMG_3596With a composer/conductor father, de Leon’s life has been full of music. In his youth he learned to play several instruments. At 17, he applied his talents as a graphic artist and designer to creating art for book covers, movie posters, magazines and advertising. At 19, he bought his first house at Pleasure Point where he could indulge his passion for surfing. Soon he made a poster on a commission from Jack O’Neill, the surfing guru whose wetsuits changed the whole game for generations of surfers and others in love with water sports. That led to a long-term position in O’Neill’s art department creating logos, graphics, display ads and packaging. Once promoted to senior designer in product development, de Leon created designs for everything from backpacks, sunglasses, wallets and watches to an entire line of wetsuits plus related accessories. “I was so stoked that Jack decided to provide me with a job doing what I love, including a 500-yard commute to my office and the requirement that I surf every day as a part of the deal.”

Then, in 2000, he founded his own business, 57 Design, with offices in Capitola, and began to enlarge his creative portfolio with branding, websites, advertising and product design. Until he added the Symphony to his clientele, seven months ago, he has done creative work for Nike, Harley-Davidson, Dell, Covewater, Surftech, Santa Cruz Waves and many more.

Expect to see noticeably different outcomes in marketing between the two Symphonies. For example, during the current Santa Cruz Symphony season, de Leon started publishing glossy, full-color, 8 ½ by 11-inch brochures—several of them—promoting the next two or three concerts. (The current one is 8 pages. When we talked I wondered how much such a piece costs. He said about the same as the old 8 ½ by 5 ½-inch post card.) Pursuant to a redesigned website, he has beefed up the current one and uses it as an email blast, including short videos of music director Danny Stewart and concertmaster Nigel Armstrong talking about different composers and artists on the upcoming concert programs.

Meanwhile, Reilly has continued using more traditional marketing strategies and demographic-tracking techniques. These include display advertising in various local media, local corporate partnerships and the inevitable grant-writing. “We use a great level of social media,” she says, pushing their new “Symphony of Flavors,” a preconcert reception held at Sunset Center. “It’s really successful in continuing to spread the word.” Having decided that their run-out concerts in Salinas had become unsustainable, they are now beefing up attendance by Salinas and Salinas Valley residents, including a new $10 student ticket. “Another goal is to provide transportation through community groups in Salinas and South County. We want to eliminate barriers to attendance.” (At a recent Carmel performance, I sat behind two full rows of dialed-in middle-schoolers from Gonzales.)

Obviously, de Leon has his finger on the pulse of social media and has accelerated its use on behalf of the Santa Cruz Symphony. For technical guidance and advice, he turns to ACSO, the Association of California Symphony Orchestras. Having grown his business by constantly designing new but ephemeral glitz and sizzle, he is more at home creating on the fly. “Before you’re done talking about a new trend, it’s over,” he says. “Proven marketing should work across any medium.” Referencing the great success Stewart and his Symphony had with Yuja Wang’s appearance early in the current season, not to mention Beethoven, he says, “My job is make rock stars.”

The Monterey Symphony has an annual budget of $1.8 million and, in addition to other projects and performance events, puts on six subscription concerts per season. Their concert booklet handout, folded to 8 ½ by 5 ½ inches, is updated throughout the season to cover the two most current programs and other current news. The Santa Cruz Symphony budget stands at just under $1 million, and, also with other projects, offers five subscription concerts per season, with performances in Santa Cruz and Watsonville. (Next month’s extra, featuring a return of pianist Yuja Wang, is being promoted separately.) For years, their concert program book has listed each entire season in one unchanging 8 ½ by 11 inch handout. Musicians in the Monterey Symphony are paid better than those in the Santa Cruz Symphony. Both organizations have long-embraced youth programs, including school performances that require busing, and working affiliations with youth orchestra programs.

In their way, both Symphonies offer an excellent product that over recent seasons has only gotten better. Each has a talented music director at the helm. (The Monterey Symphony even has an internal mechanism—a music committee—whose input is constructively embraced by music director Max Bragado-Darman.) Each has something valuable to ‘sell.’ As a man seasoned in the difference, de Leon says, “Fashion comes and goes, style remains.”