Dear PSO: It’s time to beat up on Cleveland
Pittsburgh musicians should take a cue from professional sports and battle rival orchestras
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s immediate financial crisis is over, with help from three local foundations, and its magical musicians have just returned from a triumphant tour of Europe, making our great city known overseas for something other than robots.
But the orchestra’s long-term financial picture remains uncertain, as concertgoers are reminded by each program, one page of which features the words “Support Your Annual Fund!” suitably surrounded by a large amount of red ink.
The PSO has upped its community engagement, offered free concerts and played extra encores to expand and endear itself to its clientele. But its core product still requires customers to sit quietly and passively and listen to great music, which seems so passe these days.
Each time I wonder how to keep this marvelous institution from becoming a museum piece, I recall the Post-Gazette reader who wrote during last year’s strike, presumably in a backhanded reference to some North Shore buccaneers masquerading as ballplayers, that the PSO has never had a losing season.
That’s exactly the problem: They can’t lose because they don’t compete.
Professional sports are the greatest marketing success in modern America. The Pirates may lose a lot, but they also have two more digits in their annual salaries than the world-class performers at Heinz Hall. To survive in our polarized, contentious culture, the PSO and orchestras around the country must trade in their outdated ways and adopt the model of big-time sports.
Imagine the buzz throughout our city — imagine the explosion of civic pride — if the PSO announced this month that beginning next fall, it would compete in the Northern Division of the National Symphony League (NSL) against its rivals from Baltimore, Cleveland and Cincinnati.
Even better: It would hold frequent inter-division matchups against the Boston Symphony, known for attracting young fans with its original composition, “Pop Go the Deflated Footballs.”
Let’s consider how symphony orchestras could easily appropriate the sports-marketing model.
Audience participation: In the NSL, instead of politely clapping, fans could boo raucously as WQED’s Jim Cunningham intones, “Please welcome tonight’s visitors, the Cleveland Orchestra!” The opportunity to scream obscenities at an opposing trumpeter should capture a whole new market segment.
Uncertainty of outcome: Sports excite people because the result is unknown, sometimes until the very last second. In contrast, with the PSO, how each piece turns out is decided long before the first note is played (300 years before, if they’re playing Bach).
To create uncertainty, the NSL will need rules, referees and scorekeepers. Presumably, competing orchestras will play the same music and be judged on a set of established criteria.
Since the average Joe can’t distinguish one professional musician from the next, the judging will be incomprehensible to most fans, but that has never stopped figure skating or gymnastics from generating worldwide controversies. If the NSL referees create controversy, that’s great — then the fans can scream obscenities at them, too.
Something to talk about: To survive in a Pittsburgh workplace, one must always have an answer to the city’s most common question, “How ‘bout dem Steelers?” A response like “I went to the symphony concert, it was beautiful and inspiring” just doesn’t cut it. But “Yeah, and did you hear how Randy Kelly crushed the Cincinnati violist with his tremolo?” will fit right in.
Being talked about has its negatives; for the first time ever, the radio waves will overflow with calls to “fire Honeck” after a bad loss. But I think Manfred has a thick skin.
Star power: Despite their recent group branding efforts, the “Musicians of the PSO” remain individually anonymous to all but a few admirers. The NSL’s head-to-head solo battles will change all that. Soon Dick’s Sporting Goods will be selling PSO uniforms with player names and numbers on the back, like C1 for principal cellist.
Gambling: The NFL of course doesn’t know this, but gambling is a big part of its success. In the NSL, people could wager on a game’s overall result or place innumerable side bets on things such as which team will attempt “Flight of the Bumblebee” at a faster tempo.
Sadly, some purists will resist these upgrades. They still think that symphony orchestras are supposed to exemplify music’s amazing ability to embody the full range of human emotions, to bring a deeply divided people together in peace and harmony, and to combine virtuosity and expressiveness in spectacular performances at which everybody wins.
Those purists are hopelessly behind the times. They probably also think our president is supposed to behave in a dignified manner.
If you agree that cultural institutions that undergird a harmonious society are no longer needed, I’ll hope to see you at Heinz Field for an NSL game soon. The acoustics don’t match Heinz Hall, but the crowds will be larger.
PSO music director Manfred Honeck might get fired if he loses too many games, but he seems to have a thick skin.