My Two Cents: A Review of Sac Phil

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The Value of SacPhil Tickets
To start with, it’s necessary to explain how my husband and I wound up with two tickets to see SacPhil perform their concert Bascially Beethoven last night. Our neighbors, who are season ticket holders, decided to go on vacation this week. So, they gave their tickets — B5 and B6 — to our other neighbors, my fifteen year old cello friend and his mother. At the last minute my neighbor — the fifteen year old — got invited to go up to Portland with a friend for the school system’s “furlough week.” As a result, his mom decided it was better to help him pack and get ready — even though his train was leaving 3 hours after the concert got over — instead of going to see SacPhil. She also decided it was the right time to rearrange all her furniture. Even though none of this conflicted time-wise, she felt it was more important to take care of other things than go to the performance. And this is someone who is very involved with orchestral music — she’s one of the leading parent volunteers for DSOMA, our local school system’s booster organization for orchestral music. In fact, she is so involved that the school system’s orchestra director Angelo Moreno wants her as the first ever full time staff member for the organization to take on larger projects for the benefit of the the organization and the students it serves. Unfortunately they are having a hard time trying to convince the board of directors, but that’s beside the point. I want everyone reading this to understand how little value these tickets had to these two people to whom orchestral music has so much value.

The Venue
For the most part SacPhil plays at the Sacramento Community Center Theater. You can see more pictures here and here, which I think are more representative of what you will see when there, although it’s actually much more crowded when you’re at a concert — only a small percentage of the people attending can actually stand in the lobby at once. Also, there is only one set of restroom and as a result most people actually leave the building at intermission to go to the bathroom. In fact, there are signs pointing us to the Sacramento Convention Center building across the way so we don’t get lost. In short, the theater is really truly inadequate. It’s dated, crowded, and the seats are worse than in any lecture hall I ever had a class in while attending UC Davis. This makes going to the symphony a decidedly unglamorous event.

On the other hand, there are many beautiful facilities in the area, including the Three Stages at Folsom Lake College and the Mondavi Center in Davis. I’ve never been to the Three Stages, but from it’s photos it looks gorgeous. I’ve been to Mondavi and all I can say is that the photos don’t do it justice. Even the bathrooms are breathtaking. The first time I walked into one I was with a friend and all we could do for a couple minutes was exclaim “Wow!” and “Oh my GOD!” while looking around in wonder. SacPhil does perform concerts at both of these venues, but these are the concerts they consider less important, where they don’t have their oh-so-important guest soloists.

Pre-Concert
To start with, the entire concert was dedicated to a dead patron, one of their important individual financial supporters. I’m sure she was a terrific lady and that it meant a great deal to her family, who were in attendance, that last night’s performance was in memory of her. But here’s the thing: their patrons are getting old and dying. More on this in the next section, demographics.

The next part of the announcement was tacky and very telling of the financial situation of the phil. The announcer explained to us that only 40% of their revenue was from ticket sales and the other 60% from private donations. He then went on to tell us to look in our programs and notice the envelopes inside. Which he asked us to fill, whether with five dollars or five with a whole lot of zeros on the end. This did not happen last time — the envelopes were new as of last night — and was even weirder in the context of the dedication to the dead patron.

There was, however, one improvement. I’m assuming that after the Russian themed concert last October, before which the orchestra played the American National Anthem and had the audience sing along, a lot of people complained. It was genuinely offensive, especially after the announcer spent ten minutes thanking the local Russian community for coming out to the concert. This time there was no national anthem, the absence of which made the experience far classier. I’ll take tacky plea for money over offensive nationalism any day.

Demographics
Last concert I went to, there were a large number of the local Russian community in attendance, which is certainly diversity in the context of professional orchestras. I thought the phil did a great job reaching out to a local ethnic community with a program that might interest its members. That being said, the concert wasn’t even close to being sold out, to the point that no one cared that those sitting far away started moving a couple dozen rows forward.

Last night had decidedly less diversity, which is sad because the local media talked about a really awesome last minute addition to last night’s program (more about that later.) Young people — by which I mean people under 50 — appeared to be less than 5% of the attendees. I’m hoping the horrible lighting in the lobby made people appear a couple decades older so that in reality there were quite a number of young people there last night. Also, nearly everyone was white. Old and white. SacPhil didn’t do a good job getting a wider variety of people out, which they could have done with the addition of the piece by Nader Abbassi, particularly because he’s Egyptian and Egypt has been in the news more than just a little bit lately. I think there was a lost opportunity. That being said, a heck of a lot more seats were filled than last time.

The Program
The name of the event was Basically Beethoven. This might lead one to think that the concert would consist primarily of Beethoven. What one wouldn’t expect is this:
1. The Creation of the World – Darius Milhaud
2. Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491 – W. A. Mozart
3. New Conception – Nader Abbassi
4. Symphony No. 7 in A Major – Ludwig Van Beethoven

I understand the piece by Abbassi doesn’t fit and wouldn’t expect it too — it was a last minute addition in support of a friend of the phil. I’m cool with Mozart being played with Beethoven. I can make sense of that. What I couldn’t make sense of was the piece by Milhaud. He was a modern composer — he didn’t even die until 1974 — and his work was quite unrelated to Beethoven. The work was chaotic, silly, weird, mournful, sad, exciting, and boring. All at the same time. Also, it involved a saxophone, which was beautiful, but made me seriously wonder how it ended up as part of the program called Basically Beethoven. All together, the program made absolutely no thematic sense.

The Soloist and the Orchestra
The soloists, pianist Sara Davis Buchner, was a very good musician, as one would expect of a guest soloist. Likewise, the musicians of SacPhil played beautifully as one would expect of a professional orchestra. This, however, is not enough. While Mozart’s Piano Concerto was well done, it was odd with the rest of the night — weird modern piece, piano concerto, strings-only Egyptian piece, and generic Beethoven. Also, the hubby and I agreed there was just too much orchestra with the piano — it was hard to pay attention to the piano part because there was just so much sound from the orchestra competing with the piano. It was too bad because I’m not that in to piano concertos, but I will enjoy a well played piece on piano even if I’m not fond of the composition itself. Unfortunately, it was hard to hear her. Also, the beautiful shiny black Steinway had hand prints and smudges all over it. That seriously annoyed me. Details are important, especially when there’s not much visually going on.

A Diamond in the Rough
With all that I’ve said, it sounds like I must be quite disappointed with last night. I would be, except the phil offered one gem that was worth all the annoyances before and after: the piece New Conception by Nader Abbassi. After the intermission, the last minuet addition was announced. The conductor explained to the audience that Abbassi is a friend of SacPhil. He has been there several times to conduct and our conductor has visited Cairo to conduct his orchestra. The conductor then explained that in light off all that has been happening in Egypt, he wanted to do something for his friend that he’d been meaning to do for a long time — play one of Addassi’s compositions. He had a heck of a time finding a copy of the score with everything happening in Egypt, but, thankfully, there happened to be a copy in the US that he was able to obtain. Less than a week before the performance (yikes!) It was a piece for strings only, short and only a single movement. The orchestra was obviously not that into it, not like they were with their more familiar pieces, but they played it well. I absolutely loved the piece. It was delicate and powerful, tender, joyous, tragic. It was like the first time I listened to the Bach Suites. It filled me with feeling that’s still there. It was relevant emotionally and politically. Thank you Michael Morgan.

I have tried to find audio or video files of the piece and have been unsuccessful, much to my disappointment. I really wanted to share something of this with you and it saddens me that I can’t. I did, however, find a video of him conducting a piece by Egyptian composer Omar Khairat which I enjoyed very much. Here it is:

Gosh, before I wrote about that piece I thought I had a lot more to say. Now, I’m just thinking about Abbassi and wishing I could hear his piece once more. Thanks, SacPhil, for such a beautiful piece that I could never have heard anywhere else.

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9 responses »

  1. I think you’ve said more than enough–an it so much touches upon the general complaints about Orchestras and their audiences. I didn’t post anything about this in my post about Changing US Demographics and Classical Music about some of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s collaboration with Arabic musician, Simon Shaheen.

    Mainly because I couldn’t find an old online news article about the the apparently sold-out show they had when Shaheen had soloed with the Orchestra.

    Did find a reference to a Concerto for Oud and Orchestra that Shaheen had written and perfomed with the DSO, but that was part of a Concert of Colors event and was a free concert.

    One of the things alot of folks are saying that orchestras will need to do in the future is not rely on ticket susbscriptions–which means thy will have to market every individual show as an event. What better way to mix things up as the SacPhil did with the Russian audience (though failed to do with the addition of this piece by Nader Abbassi).

    Another example I remembered but couldn’t find a review of was when the ISO brought in Ice-T to perform with the orchestra–basically reading Langston Hughes Poems during a jazzy piece written to celebrate the writer and the Harlem Renaissance. Apparently, from what I remember, that concert sold out–and nearly half of the audience was African-American, which is unheard of (all the times I had gone to see the orchestra over the years, it was pretty much as you said–old white blue hairs).

    I suppose as it was a last minute change there wasn’t that much time to market aggressively to the relevant ethnic group or organizations, but sad nonetheless.

    What Symphonic Organizations don’t realize is how much Symphonic repertoire exists out there that is not a part of the normal Western musical canon. So sad that these organizations will likely never be adventurous enough to try and who knows how many will eventually fold as a result of being basically an aural museum.

  2. Here’s why they aren’t adventurous enough: it pisses off the old white blue hairs. The piece by Addassi was gorgeous and contained more emotional depth than all the other pieces combined. It also received the least applause. The old white blue hairs were very very irritated by it, but had to put up with it because the conductor, very smartly, emphasized the composer’s connection to us and all the awfulness that has been going on in Egypt. I’m really curious what percentage of an orchestra’s audience is affiliated with the tea party and how much the ethnicity of a composer is a factor in the appeal of the music.

    I have family members who are tea party members. They live on Long Island with big tea party flags waving outside their front doors. I have also been at dinners with them where they proclaim loudly “I LIKE WHITE PEOPLE” and explain why they don’t like other races. They like white people and white people things, such as going to white people operas or white people symphonies. Many of their fellow Long Islanders also remind me a great deal of the people who fill the seats at the symphony. So, I’m wondering if there exists any data on the political affiliations of the audience and of the donors.

  3. Hmm–I’m not really sure if there’s data on the political affiliations of audience/donors. At least I can’t remember having come across any.

    It’s an interesting subject, which may help to explain the US situation. Might not help with how Classical music is outside of the US, but then again, the audience situation is a bit different in, say, Europe and in China.

    As far as ethnicity of composer–one of the projects I’ve been working on is a historical analysis of the frequency of composers by region/country that have been accepted into the “Canon of Western Composers” and trying to pick out some more generally historical trends for how composers get accepted into the “community of legitimate composers” –it’s really exciting for me to do this for various reasons, but I hadn’t really thought about it from the aspect of much more recent composers.

    See, I did mention the Simon Shaheen example as one possible way for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to possibly connect with a huge population of Arab-Americans in the greater Detroit area. One particular response was:

    “I heard a statistic (sorry, don’t remember where) that Germany will be a Muslim nation within 30 years, and other countries are following suit…..and it never occurred to me that musical tastes and offerings will change as demographics change…”

    I don’t know if I was more saddened or angered by the ignorance in her response.

  4. Perhaps you can find contentment in the fact that you have helped to dispel her ignorance. I believe you’ve said that all these forums don’t seem to accomplish much, that you’ve been on them for 10 years and the same things around and around again about the same problems. But maybe the point isn’t to try to make big changes in professional orchestras. Maybe instead they can be a place of education, of spreading the idea that as our population changes so will people’s taste in music. You opened someone’s eyes on that forum, which is huge. We already know that people think the way she had been thinking, so if those same people end up on forums where you talk about this topic, you have the potential to give them a little piece of musical enlightenment. If enough people are changed on the inside, the outside — what’s happening with our orchestras — will change naturally.

  5. Yes, the cello chat forum–well, it’s another type of community and as all communities go, they separate themselves by ingroup/outgroup. For some time, one of the things I was studying (while on the comparative neurolinguistics trip) was how online communities exclude just by what is “said”–nice thing about the data set there is that it’s already been transcribed and is just a matter of typing responses (as in assigning responses to a ‘type’) and finding the patterns for interaction.

    For the most part, there are a number of strategies that are at play in both verbal and written speech for communities in delineating the border between in/outgroups.

    I’ve found it time and time again in any kind of forum/online community–though much of it has as much to do with how much the borders of the community are constrained. Forums, for example, have very secure borders which affects the type of interaction-while blog sites, like wordpress.com or livejournal.com tend to be a little more open. The anonymity factor also plays a part–so much easier to “speak your mind” (or troll if that’s what your inclination is) when the possibility of physical repercussions isn’t an issue (not alot different than how being in a car can insulate us physically until it erupts into road-rage).

    *sighs* yeah, I generally do take it with a grain of salt, though in this case, if you go to Pat White’s profile, she as much states that she’s “born again” so that helps to understand her viewpoint, especially as a couple of folks take her to task for her rather obvious criticisms of muslims.

    I guess I’m just curious to see how orchestras will change, and how much of that will be due to changing ethnic demographics as opposed to just changing societal values (not that the two are entirely separate, but I think you understand what I’m talking about).

    That’s one of the reasons I’ve added the list (on my sidebar) of “World Music Ensembles” — so many groups are starting form themselves, modeled after Classical music ensembles to an extent, but incorporating other musicians or musics into their format. Some are more traditionally based and have analogs in other countries (like the New York Arabic Ensemble) while others are formed by individuals that have decided to use their personal ethnic backgrounds to inform how they make their “classical music” (e.g. Ladom Ensemble), and then there are just the pure hybrids–like Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project an the Vancouver Intercultural Orchestra.

    What’s remarkable is that most of these groups didn’t exist before 2000–but now they are popping up every where. At the same time the more traditional groups are slowly programming music and guest soloists that are well outside of the strict classical field (like the Egyptian piece you heard the other night)into their standard seasons. Eventually some middle ground will be met!

  6. I’d love to see the Silk Road Ensemble when they play at Mondavi, but the tickets were literally sold out before they even published their season brochure and started putting individual tickets on sale. I’m glad all the season ticket holders are so excited about it, but it would have been nice for the rest of us to have a chance too. I’m sure they could have arranged for a second concert on another night and it would have sold out too. Oh, just looked. Looks like they may have put more on sale. Not that they’re affordable for me at this point.

    It’s wonderful to hear that there are so many ensembles popping. So here’s the thing for me: it never occurred t me that the weren’t all over the place before. While the weird little community of Davis has its faults, we’ve had a surprising amount of other cultures influence the music here. In fact, when I moved to Davis — in ’97 — I moved next door to someone in a world music band largely influenced by various African musical traditions. It was really cool stuff and was fun and they were a staple in the community. It was just part of my daily life at that point and I didn’t think anything of it. Then the only place I’ve lived as an adult is Santa Cruz, which attracts just about everything that’s not conventional. Even the university — my husband took a class on playing the sitar — twice! He got to TA it the second time and had a blast. It was taught by a guy who was a student of Ali Akbar Khan (can’t remember his name, sorry.) I do suppose, however, that I’ve lived in two really unusual places. Plus, we still experience problems here too and not only subtle ones. A few years ago after our community’s Islamic Center had been totally re-done and gorgeousified (yes that’s a word now) someone(s) decided to vandalize it. Davis likes to pretend how wonderful it is, but it has it’s share of bigotry too.

    That’s very sad about the commenter and the whole forum communities problem. I’ve spent very little time on forums and really only started seriously blogging a couple months ago, so it never really occurred to me that people would be even worse online than in person. Yikes! People in the world of cello blogging have been so wonderfully supportive and kind to me and to one another that I have forgotten why I never really cared for the various online communities in the first place. Interestingly, during the last couple months I’ve become less cynical and sarcastic in real life. Sometimes I think it would be so awesome if all my fellow cello bloggers weren’t scattered all over the planet so I could know them in real life but then I realize how awesome it is that I’ve connected with people who are literally on the opposite side of the planet.

  7. I also meant to say something before about the whole anonymity thing. I’ve tried that before, not so I would have no repercussions for my words, but out of fear of what could happen if people knew who I really was. I think it was kinda left over from my teenage years — petite naturally blond teenage girls really should keep themselves anonymous! Then at some point I realized that I just wasn’t being me and that I wasn’t going to have all that much luck connecting with others on the interwebz if I was always trying to hide myself. I think the only thing I’m really afraid of at this point is if my teacher were to ever come across my blog. I would be absolutely mortified. But, that’s not going to stop me from saying what I’m really thinking and feeling because doing so would close the doors to all the really cool people out there in the land of cello blogging.

  8. I’ve heard only great things about the Silk Road Project and its activities–glad to know it’s practically sold out!

    The left and right coasts always have the different things first. But I’m not talking about the “bands” or smaller ensembles so much as full fledged orchestras. Sure ALi Racy at UCLA and Scott Marcus at UCSB have both had their Middle Eastern Ensembles since the 80s–but those are University Ensembles. More of them are popping up around the Country. Issa Boulos and the University of Chicago now have their own Middle Eastern Music Ensemble, as does the University of Michigan, and UT.

    But the New York Arabic Orchestra–that’s a first, and not associated with a University, and while not a full orchestra, it is very much the size of a chamber orchestra. I remember when it formed a few years ago–was excited to hear about it and had considered making the 12+ hour drive a dozen times a year to NY just to play with it. I just couldn’t make that commitment as I was heavily touring at the time, so… *sighs*

    And I’ve been intrigue by the MESTO (Multi-Ethnic Star Orchestra) group and especially that Vancouver Inter-Cultural Group. It’s just a matter of time before someone (like me–heehee) decides to start a full sized ensemble, but one based on a purely non-Western orchestra model.

    Of course, other countries have been doing that for, well, decades. It think China’s have been some of the most successful. Groups like this:

    Are all over China, Taiwan, Hong Kong.

    I remember seeing a news show about Yo-Yo Ma playing a concerto for cello and traditional chinese orchestra during the 90s–it was a really cool piece and I have a video tape of the clip from it somewhere around here.

    If you hang around online forums enough, you get used to it. it was the same with the first forum I ever joined back in ’98. But that’s also what’s great about them, I still interact with folks I’ve met back then–many of whom are overseas. Have even met some of them finally–very weird feeling meeting someone you’ve been interacting with for years online only to get to finally meet them in person!!

    Anonymity has its benefits–I obviously can’t really talk about my students since I know some of them read my blog and are on facebook. Those are the hazards of having such an interconnected way of interacting–benefits and drawbacks for everything.

  9. Pingback: You’re young; You’re not important. Really, I promise, this post ends up relating to music. « The Adult Beginner

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