Wednesday, March 22, 2017

An Open Letter to Groupmuse

Tomorrow, March 23rd at 8:00 pm, Tall Wind, the newest program by my chamber group Cursive, will see its one-night-only performance (deets in this link).  Cursive is a group dedicated to the ideals of this blog, shining a light on excellent classical music that has been swept under the rug by the establishment and history, though with a focus on music from the latter half of the 20th century.  This is our third program and features some of Seattle's best and most adventurous new music performers playing scarce works such as Tison Street's Variations for flute, cello and guitar and Chinary Ung's fabulous Tall Wind.  It's been a dream come true to be able to mount programs like this repeatedly and I hope all my musicians the best for tomorrow night.  I've been having a bit of trouble finding ways to use this blog to promote our cause, a risk that one takes when most of the programmed pieces lack recordings.  However, a situation presented itself just today which required my action and helped me expound on Cursive's cause.

Groupmuse is a community project that creates a framework for local chamber groups to do house concerts in any home in the greater Seattle area that signs up to host.  All the money gathered from seat sales goes to the musicians and hosts and audiences have an easy, safe way to get the chamber music experience in a comfortable and relaxed environment.  It's a great deal for everybody, especially the musicians, except for one caveat: at least half of the program has to be "standard rep".  Their reasoning (viewable here in their mission statement page) is that "standard rep" works have stood the test of time for their "substance and profundity", and that ensuring that some older works make it on to every concert keeps the artistic quality high.  For many soloists and groups they were going to perform a standard work anyways, so this isn't an issue, but it is for groups like mine, other modern groups and groups that just don't like having to make every program built around something you hear on the radio every day.  I've never considered submitting a Cursive program for their consideration because I know it'll be rejected solely based on the rep, but that doesn't mean that Groupmuse upholds this policy 100% of the time.  

The only Groupmuse performance I attended was one by Trio Pardalote wherein they performed Hans Krasa's Theme and Variations and Jean Cras's gorgeous String Trio, the latter being the reason I wanted to go.  Neither of these works is in the "standard rep" but both have what could be called cult followings.  It was a great concert but was a bit deceptive, as it gave me hope that I could make a program that was as "standard" as that and get it selected.  I made a piano recital program of British Impressionist works, pieces that were not only rarely heard but that general audiences would probably really like, and submitted it only to have it rejected multiple times.  One could argue that I'm not a big enough name to be selected, or that the videos I had of myself performing on my Groupmuse page weren't good enough, but what cheesed me off was how the rejection notice came with the suggestion that my program could have been rejected because it didn't have enough standard rep on it.

Today I got an email from Groupmuse with a link to a survey asking if we had any suggestions for changing the model.  One of the questions was if Groupmuse failed to meet any of its mission statements - my response (slightly reformatted and revised) is below, and I'd like to submit it as an open letter, not just to Groupmuse but to the music community at large.  The issues addressed here matter not just to Groupmuse but to the whole classical music industry, and I hope that it will help focus the reasons I run Cursive, and write this blog, for readers and colleagues.

An Open Letter to Groupmuse:

You asked me in your survey if there were any issues with your business model, such as if your concerts didn't meet the goals stated in your "Mission & Values" page on your website.  My main issue is with the insistence that at least half the music performed needs to be "standard rep" classics, a claim that wasn't necessarily upheld at the Groupmuse I attended.  I was at Trio Pardalote's recital where they performed the Jean Cras String Trio and the Hans Krasa Theme and Variations, both excellent pieces but neither or them "standard rep".  What is or isn't "standard rep" is subject to change, and they way that someone like myself who's well-versed in classical music and was at that last concert interprets this clause is that you're trying to make sure that at least half the program consists of work(s) old enough to have been written when the "standard rep" pieces were new(er) works.  

I fully understand why you'd want this, as works before modernism largely fit the popular image of what classical music is supposed to sound like and lack things that audiences new to modern music might find ugly or offensive, such as strange harmonies and rhythms or unpleasant thematic material.  The mission statement talks about supporting "substance and profundity", which is all well and good, but just because something was written before 1910 doesn't mean it has either of those qualities.  Plenty of vapid classical music has "stood the test of time" simply because general audiences like it, and the establishment knows this and programs those pieces anyway.  That isn't to say that more modern music can't be vapid - there have just been more composers making music with each passing year.  There will always be vapid music, profound music and stuff in between.  

What your policy does is keep groups from performing music that is possibly unpleasant, or is written by a composer whose name doesn't appear at least once during every orchestra season.  It ensures some kind of consistency in drawing an audience, as the general public hasn't been encouraged to venture any farther than that in the classical genre, but it does little to expand the possibilities of local classical performance or do justice to works that deserve play but aren't famous.  Classical performers and record labels have been doing a lot of work in the last few decades to unearth excellent works that have been forgotten by the public and classical establishment and give them a new lease on life; whole record labels and groups have been established solely for that purpose.  Doing this isn't just for the sake of the music but is also a good business strategy as per supply and demand - create demand for your product by supplying something that the public can't get anywhere else.  

This is why I came to the Trio Pardalote concert, because they were playing great works that nobody else in the area is performing.  There's so much great music out there that doesn't get performed frequently that every chamber group in the community could perform full seasons of extremely obscure music, with no overlap, and have enough left over to do the same for decades.  That doesn't mean they have any encouragement to do so or even scratch the surface of this hidden rep.  If you want to keep the music pleasant, or stylistically consistent with music more than 100 years old, that's fine, but you ought to change your "mission statement" to reflect what you're really going for.  On the other hand, if you're really looking for substance and profundity, you could aim for programming that kind of music while still leaving the door open to music that's new to audiences, both recently written and written long ago.  I was there with the audience of the Trio Pardalote concert, one that was both engaging and fulfilled the "substance and profundity" goal, and the audience loved it.  

There's so much out there that general audiences could appreciate if they were shown the way.  People need encouragement to explore the arts, both creators and consumers, and there's no reason Groupmuse can't be an open and supportive environment for exploration.  Your structure is fantastic - it's a great deal for the musicians and creates a framework for fun, relaxed concerts in otherwise unlikely venues.  Why not open the door to performers and audiences who want something more than what they hear every day on the radio, who want a concert-going experience that doesn't kowtow to what the establishment thinks is "standard", who want to make their own way through the vast and wonderful world that is classical music?


Peter Nelson-King, founder of Cursive