NPF: ORCHESTRAL MANEUVERS

I have a long-running theory that I need some data on.

Every institution of High Culture in the US – especially things like operas and symphonies that tend to struggle for support – seems from casual observation to have one moneymaker on its calendar every year. That is, there is one performance aimed at the consumer who doesn't actually like orchestral music, or operas, or whatever, because it turns out that it's hard to sell a ton of tickets to things like "An Evening with Haydn's Unfinished Ode to the War of Jenkins's Ear" or whatever.

The most common manifestations of this are things like John Williams or Star Wars or Boston Pops nights at the symphony, or something else transparently poppy and aimed at the casual "Let's take the kids to see this" listener. Similarly, the Lyric Opera in Chicago has taken to interspersing its calendar of obscure operas with things like West Side Story or Nutcracker-like holiday shows.

Here are my questions, in no particular order:

1. Is there a name within the industry for this phenomenon? "Pay the bills night" or something?

2. Do performers within these groups hate doing this, or do they think it's fun? I can easily picture your average symphony musician or opera singer being disappointed (or worse) at the idea of having to sing Harry Potter songs or whatever to get butts to fill seats.

3. Do performers find this stuff easy compared to the other, less public-facing material? I also picture the entire symphony getting drunk before John Williams Night because they can play the theme from Indiana Jones perfectly while half in the bag, and why not have some fun with it.

Any insight that you can offer on these points is appreciated. I have been harboring these suspicions for years and would like clarification.

43 thoughts on “NPF: ORCHESTRAL MANEUVERS”

  • Ubu Imperator says:

    "Pops concert" is the typical term; there's no standard disparaging vernacular term. As for the performers, the liking or loathing it varies depending on a) how often they play this sort of thing b) what instrument they play and c) the individual snottiness quotient of a given player, which doesn't necessarily mean "how old the person is." I know of twenty-somethings who think playing film music or pop tune arrangements is an unconscionable lowering, while septuagenarians think it's The Shit that they get to play live against a screening of Harry Potter or back up the Moody Blues or give a salute to Broadway or whatever.

    And let me tell you, some of this shit is fucking HARD. Looking at you, John Williams. Norms hear that stuff and remember the big ol' soaring horn lines and brass chorales; meanwhile, the strings are playing about a million notes per bar and are praying for the sweet release of death by about halfway through the set. Even the allegedly "easy" stuff can be hard as well, because it's often underrehearsed. The assumption is that you should be able to come in and lay it down, no sweat, but if you throw in a soloist who you don't get much time with, or an unfamiliar guest conductor, then even a small error can sometimes drag the whole group right up to the edge of disaster.

  • Steve Holt! says:

    I can't speak for the big metro organizations, but in the mid sized cities (pop 250K or so) we have these kinds of events about three or four times a season as opposed to one Big One. Even orchestras on this level have some really great players who can breeze through this stuff, and they are pros so they don't really mind doing it. On the other hand, there are probably at least five or ten third section violinists who look forward to these kinds of gigs because it gives them a break from the Russian and 20th century stuff that they can barely get through. It's the conductors and musical directors who have to put on a brave face and marshal everyone through these gigs. I should say that it was one of these "kid's night" Mozart easy listening concerts that I saw at eight years old that inspired me to take up the violin, so they aren't so bad to have around I guess.

  • Brad Warren says:

    I've played for community orchestras in three different cities and only one did this. Considering that they were community orchestras, I couldn't really attribute this to a 'money-maker' event. And yes, it was the Christmas concert. I was really happy NOT to play Christmas music in December this year with a new group. Of course, I do this for fun, so playing Anderson's Christmas Festival piece is both fun and obnoxious. For professional musicians, you get paid. Think of it as we all do things we don't necessarily like in our jobs, but we do it because we are professional. I am not aware of it being given a cute pejorative name. Anyone from the NY Phil want to chime in?

  • As an aside, the LA symphony ‘dudes’ used to play the music for Bugs Bunny as their day jobs.

  • A good friend is on our local symphony board (small market, paid amateurs) and we've talked about this a bit. At least for us, without at these sorts of events, there is no way the orchestra will continue. Some of it is money, but some of it is audience. There is basically no under 65 audience for symphonic music here, so his broader concern isn't just fundraising, but having any kind of audience in the future. From what I remember of our conversation on this, the musicians were largely on board with pops/star wars/video game themes etc as a way to keep playing, but there was a fair amount of resistance from the board who viewed this as beneath the dignity of a symphony

  • With the understanding that my only basis of knowledge here is "dated a clarinetist", the answers are:

    1. Not that I was ever told.
    2. Depends on the performer. My friend loved it.
    3. Generally easier, yes.

  • If you haven't read the superb "Mozart in the Jungle," you absolutely should. In addition to being a great and quick read, it explores this problem in detail.

    As a former classical trumpet player, I agree with Ubu Imperator. Some of that pops music is extremely difficult. Some actually have some great trumpet parts – it's not often you get to belt out the high notes in a symphony orchestra setting.

    I went to see the NY Philharmonic play "West Side Story" along with the film. It was really, really great. They flew in the great Wayne Bergeron to play those trumpet parts and he absolutely crushed it.

    But anyway, read "Mozart in the Jungle."

  • I played in a couple small to mid-sized professional orchestras, and yeah. Pop concerts, we call them. I never heard anything snotty or derogatory beyond that. I liked them, with a couple caveats; John Williams wrote hard af parts, for one, and some of the music is so goddamned cheesey! But lots of movie music is fucking great. Now, backing up folks is a mixed bag. We had a concert with a bluegrass group who were really good players but didn't speak the language to explain what they were doing, sometimes, and it was hard to catch things like tempo or key changes that weren't reflected in their arrangement.

    So yeah, mixed bag but backing up the Texas Tenors made us more in money, goodwill, and sponsorships than the fucking stellar Firebird Suite ever did.

  • I served on the board of a mid-sized theatre company for a number of years, and there was a time period where we were staging Beauty and the Beast or Joseph and the Amazinf Technicolor Dreamcoat. It put butts in seats and kept the lights on – and made it so we could do edgier or more niche productions. I am also a performer, and always felt like it was a fair trade. And as someone above already said: we are professionals. And understand the business side of things. And damnit, if I still want to play the Narrator.

  • "There is basically no under 65 audience for symphonic ".

    That's nonsense! I've loved symphony since High School (CHS '67)! Oh, um, I'll just let myself out!

    "Mozart in the Jungle,"

    Was he passed in the jungle, by a tribe of cannibals?

    @ el jamon:

    They'da come in droves if youda played "The Camaro Cantata"

    Ubu Imperator sounds like the sorta guy I run into when I'm lucky enough to take photos of that style of music–once in a blue, polka-dotted moon.

    I think "Professional" means you do the job you've agreed to do.

  • 1. Every night is pay the bills night. The revenue comes from more sources than ticket sales. There are sponsors, donors, and branding, to name a few. I think the key here is diversity. One might never discover the sound or limitless capabilities of an orchestra or live music ensemble without these “pops” concerts. That’s a speculation and the decision upon Musical selection comes from the board and music director.

    2./3. I agree with the masses. Most of this music is challenging. The John Williams timpani and percussion parts are a blast to play. He has always written catchy music and it makes sense when you play it. We all have our favorites and then we have that one song we can’t stand. It’s the one that we swear comes up 5 times a season. Boston built a brand out pops music. Cincinnati did the same by recording it. I wouldn’t audition for either one of those ensembles if i had little desire to play that style of music. Europe might be a better.

    I always enjoy the change in pace when those gigs come up on the schedule. It keeps me sharp and pushes me outside of the orchestral box.

    What really sucks is counting 100+ measures of rests for one note and cutting off right before it. That makes you want to go home.

  • JB in Walla Walla says:

    I have played in four different orchestras. 1) We always referred to these events as the "Kiddie Concert; 2) They would usually have to beg us to play the concert, and it was often supplemented by many "non-member"; 3) There might be one rehearsal associated with the concert, NBD. 4) I would play for the scotch and cigar money.

  • Steve Zander says:

    As a professional violinist from L.A., I can tell you from experience that playing a Harry Potter film (or just about any John Williams score, for that matter), is one of the most demanding things I’ve ever had to do on my instrument.

  • Orchestra teacher, semi-pro violinist here.
    1. As many others have said, the generic term is "Pops" concert – denoting "popular" music. That being said, I'd only add that most world class and mid-level symphonic organizations don't have just one night of these anymore, most have whole series within their programmed year. Turning to your example – the Boston Pops is an organization of its own within the Boston Symphony Orchestra organization with it's own subscription programs etc. It's not just a one night or once in a while gig – not by a long shot.
    2. As someone else above said, it's all down to the individual – and the program. Personally I'd rather play a good film score than the second violin or viola part to Haydn Symphony #Who Cares or Strauss Waltz for WhoeverPaidtheBillsThisWeek. Which is not to say that Haydn isn't lovely no matter what the symphony number is, only that as a performer generally contemporary music is more challenging and thus (for me anyway) more enjoyable to prepare and present than many of the familiar baroque and classical "pops".
    3. John Williams is a beast. So is Sondheim, Corigliano, Morricone, and many other modern film composers. And playing *with* a film as it runs is f***ing HARD WORK. There isn't a quality conductor or musician in the field who sniffs at that as a gimmie night.

  • As an opera singer, we are pretty much told from the very beginning that we have to be able to do "crossover" work to survive. Both opera companies, symphonies and the individual performer depend on these types of gigs for income. Sometimes it can be very fun and freeing to break out of the traditions of classical performing although there is the fear of dumbing down an art form that is so full of expression. We all groan with disgust when someone says that "Phantom of the Opera" is their favorite opera (it's not an opera) or that Josh Groban and Andrea Bocelli are their favorite opera singers (they are classically trained crossover singers, not opera singers). However, at the end of the day whatever peaks people's interest in classical music and gets butts in the seats is a good thing. They might come to see West Side Story and then be so inspired they come back to see an opera next time. Lots of the world's best opera singer have been touring with Andrea Bocelli and/or doing "great American Songbook" concerts. Sometimes this crossover is easy for the performer but it depends on their voice and training. That being said, everyone was pretty shocked and horrified when Chicago Lyric did Jesus Christ Superstar.

  • I used to play in an orchestra and I actually found those gigs more fun than the obligatory "Overture, Symphony (or Concerto, if there was a guest), plus Godawful Atonal Crap by This Week's Important Contemporary Yet Entirely Forgettable Composer" concerts we played throughout the season. I got the feeling the audience did, too. Sure, there were some people who took the attitude that music by TWICYEFC was good for their soul or because they needed to maintain their cultural cred with their Scotch and Cigar Club buddies, but never once was I approached by someone who said "Hey, you know that 12-minute piece for strings and computer called 'Clouds' from last season? Instant classic! When will you play that again?" They'd rather hear something tuneful played well.

    Arthur Fiedler once said that there shouldn't be any dividing line between "Pops" and "Classical" programming. I wholeheartedly agree. You should be able to put a Haydn overture, Brahms' third symphony, and a suite from John Williams "Jurassic Park" on the same program without feeling like you're "dumbing down" or "selling out."

    There is always the argument to be made that we have to wait for history to be the judge of what from our time will be considered "classic," but we must also remember that what survives of the 17th-19th centuries was some of the most blockbustingly popular music of its time. (Example: Joseph Haydn had no idea how popular his music was until he went to London and ladies in the audience started collecting his discarded, sweaty gloves as souvenirs. He was a damn rock star, folks.) The idea that every concert must have something "popular" and something "important" means that casual listeners stay home because they KNOW that if they go to the concert which has on the program a Mahler symphony they'd like to hear, they will have to sit through Björnssen's Concerto for Banjolele and Nose Flute in Three Simultaneous Keys first, and they frankly don't feel like putting their ears through that sort of auditory commute. This kind of orchestral hipsterism is what leads to the end-of-year fundraising galas (brought to you by Insurance Company! Now a speech from their CEO before the concert starts…) and other marks of desperation. Sadly, the cycle continues.

  • Ed, you have a fucking fan base of serious music people!

    I can barely play or sing (doesn't stop me from doing so) and I'm stunned by the level of commitment that people who want to excel at any sort of music put into it. Even "Modern Country" has great players and they do a superb job of playing stuff which I hate to listen to.

    I watched the Hans Zimmer, Live from Prague concert on Netflix the other night and I can't honestly remember when I've seen anything that had better production values. It looked like a LOT OF FUCKING WORK.

  • Former somewhat semipro brass player here. Did time in community orchestras/bands, hired ringer in high school/community pit orchestras for varying degrees of pay and in a small musicians' union so I could get paid for certain regular gigs.

    Here are my takes:

    1. Never knew of any specific slang. Judging from others comments, it doesn't seem like there's any beyond "pops night". However, most of my public facing concerts sometimes mixed pops and repertoire together, especially the concert band ones.

    2. I never had any issue playing more pops oriented music. I mainly cared whether or not the arrangement had a juicy horn part that didn't make be blow a blood vessel in my brain, overall cheesiness of the piece be damned. I may have at various times sat next to some variety of pretentious asshole who wasn't too far off from those "Oh Hello!" guys in demeanor and acted above it all, but fuck that guy. His tone was wet fart through closepinned ass checks anyway.

    When I did substitute teaching in high schools, I knew one of the band teachers very well and would shoot the shit with him when I had a break in the schedule. Since this was circa 2004, we would listen to awful CD samplers of marching band arrangements for laughs. I swear to god, there was one that had a Mooney Suzuki arrangement. I also wanna say there was another with Rye Coalition arranged for marching band.

    3. Pops type of music can get ridiculously tough. Like many others said, genre doesn't dictate part writing whatsoever. Mozart horn parts are not much to write home about (in a symphony setting at least with modern horns) and John Williams can get stoopid difficult. There's also advancements in instrument technology that play a role in part writing/composition and why we perceive older pieces to be "easier" than others written more recently. I believe I wrote some shit about that on some snobby ass rockist forum way back when to school some bishes…

    When I look back, I would say that the most rewarding playing opportunities were not particularly public facing. I played in a conductors' training orchestra for about four summers doing a bunch of Mahler, Beethoven, Ravel, Debussy, Strauss, hard-ass contemporary shit, etc. I got a bit of a pep talk from George Crumb when I kept fucking up "A Haunted Landscape" my first year (he was a guest composer for the program). The youth symphony I played with in college also picked a lot of rewarding/challenging shit with little concession to pops type pieces, but it had a built in audience of parents/grandparents and other family members. However, I had the most fun playing in musical pit orchestras. The snarky peanut gallery comments flow very freely in those situations (especially if it's a real sunken pit). Bonus if the music was actually challenging/fun to play and not some bullshit like that George M. Cohan musical.

  • Speaking from my own (and my wife's) range of experience regarding acting and theatre…

    1. My wife, now retired from being a university professor of theatre (although not retired per se; the boom economy enabled her 401k to accumulate enough money to liberate her from teaching), was and remains a snob about art. (I consider it her most endearing quality.) She hated doing ass-in-seats shlock that "paid the bills." When designing, she wanted to interpret the literature with impressions that took the audience toward something they hadn't seen before. She is rare among theatre directors. Most are are more concerned with box office. Most designers are concerned with facilitating the flow of the play without creating confusing impressions. My wife now works as a painter and fiber artist.

    2. I have gotten to know quite a few actors over the years. The overwhelming majority of actors simply want to work. They'll play a jelly donut in a bad musical that has nothing to do with jelly or donuts if it will help pay the bills. Most actors do not have the economic freedom to have the seeming "artistic integrity" of, say, a Philip Seymour Hoffman. Plus, if they can get cast in a leading role in a Neil Simon play versus a lesser role in a literary play by an award-winning playwright, most will take the Neil Simon role every time.

  • Ubu Imperator pretty much got it all. My Dad and Uncle both gigged with the New Orleans, Mobile, and Gulf Coast symphonies (and occasionally Meridian and Birmingham, later.) Throughout, the pops/themed programming was something they rather enjoyed, luckily. It’s an audience builder and can be a gateway drug for those who didn’t cut their teeth on longhair music. They were less comfortable with contemporary classical, but I think that’s pretty common for a swath of septuagenarian musicians. Funnily enough, neither “liked jazz.” Dad rolled his eyes at jazz gigs I had through college but would drop everything for another afternoon of Tchaikovsky. And my uncle didn’t see a jazz performance until Gary Burton and Chick Corea in 2013. (Not a bad way to start, but I digress.)

  • I'm familiar with a bitter contemporary playwright who likes to bitch about "Blue Hair Lady Night," when local theaters put on predictable, boring "classics" to pay the bills to the detriment of showing anything written in the last 20 years.

  • Writing strictly as a music fan (pretty much all kinds, tho I draw the line this side of Yoko Ono), in a family of musicians who play/sing in all sorts of settings. They all dig/dug all kinds of music, and the thrill of getting it right inside a small or medium or large group of colleagues. And they all were really happy to play gigs of any kind – paid, unpaid, public, private…

    And they all love passionately the non-simple act of making music.

    Still really only 2 kinds of music – good and bad. Can be found in any genre, I s'pose.

  • Wow, y'all, great comments! And Ed, I believe (Martin Prince voice) that you meant "manoeuvres"…

  • I worked in the call center for St Louis Symphony in college and played in many student orchestras. Many great comments above and will add:

    1. Besides the novelties like film score concerts, the annual holiday music concerts draw larger crowds

    2. Within the standard classical series concerts, there are “hits” that will reliably draw like Beethoven’s 5th or 9th, Ravel’s Bolero, and Rhapsody in Blue, and orchestras often try to pepper those into the lesser-known material. Bolero is “junk classical” to many if not most of the musicians. It’s mind-numbingly boring to play, but audiences LOVE it. I remember watching the SLSO play it in 2004 after a weird hyper-modern opening piece no one wanted to hear called “Three Screaming Popes” (really). Bolero then got a loud standing ovation, and I could read the conductor’s lips as he leaned over to the concertmaster violinist and said “I told you they would…”

    3. A big part of the revenue is donations and not ticket sales, and many people will subscribe to a series and only attend the concerts playing the hits.

  • I've also wondered about this, but also about stuff like when Metallica roped the San Fran orchestra into playing with them. What goes through a violinists head when they have to learn like "Fade to Black" or something? Do they do it on a lark, or is it serious music to them? Not being sarcastic, I do like Metallica myself.

  • Hank Layfield says:

    I never played professionally but was in some high level amateur groups that indulged in some pops type performances along with more serious works. I don't recall a special name other than pops or sometimes words like fun or whimsical. We generally enjoyed it (a lot), and like anything else, technical difficulty varied greatly from one work to the next.

    I will say, though, that as a brass musician, my two most enjoyable experiences were Stravinski's Right of Spring and Conti's Rocky fanfare. Take that however you'd like.

  • My brother, who has been a concertmaster for several orchestras, seems to like them fine, except that the straitjacket of performing The Nutcracker, and only The Nutcracker, every Christmas season apparently isn't all that interesting or something to look forward to.

  • I think it was conductor William Steinberg who once whispered to his orchestra as they prepared for the second half of a concert, "First the hit parade, now the shit parade."

  • I don't know if there is a specific term for it, but every artistic non-profit quickly learns what will pay the bills. It's like ballet companies putting on the Nutcracker for Christmas or an art museum hosting a traveling Van Gogh show. Most of them love this. It's about their being part of the community. It's similar for young people's concerts. Young people are more likely to develop a taste for a performing art if they are introduced to it through more accessible works.

    Preserving and advancing music involves both advancing the frontier and paying the bills. That's why so many companies program a lot of favorites. There was recently a Washington Post article that pointed out that orchestral recordings were always more modern than the usual programming, but that technology has been changing this. The gap has been narrowing and concert performances are MORE likely to highlight new works now that most recordings are done in performance.

    Pleasing the crowds is nothing new. Arthur Fiedler took over the failing Boston symphony in 1930 and turned it into the Boston Pops. I've heard this was because champagne was served at performances, though some claim it was a reference to more popular music. By the time I moved to Boston in the early 1970s, the Fourth of July concert on the Esplanade was an institution with the fireworks starting during the 1812 Overture.

  • John Danley says:

    Whenever the Kronos Quartet starts performing Baby Shark Dance, please pass the thallium nitrate.

  • For many orchestras, ticket sales will never pay the bills — they are funded largely by grants and donations.

    I have played professionally for 20+ years and the only groups that I ever had problems with were those who foolishly thought ticket revenue from the evening's show would be enough to pay the musicians. If your check is not going to be on the stand at the show, RUN.

  • Cato the Censor says:

    An Evening with Haydn's Unfinished Ode to the War of Jenkins's Ear.

    How dare you make fun of my favorite classical music piece!

  • Curious compilation of comments. Just came home from a playing a concert of Mendelssohn, Dvorak, and Beethoven. My two cents:

    Musicians’ attitudes toward pops vs. prestige range all over the map. Some actually prefer pops, but most just play what’s programmed without much worry. In my experience, three types of cash-grab concerts irk players: kiddie concerts (one after the next with fleets of schoolbuses cycling 6,000+ kids in and out), outdoor concerts under the daytime sun in venues that aren’t suited for effective sound (no reflective surfaces, crowds of thousands scattered across lawns not really listening), and concerts featuring guest (pop) artists who lack training and can’t take or give usable direction. (Musical performance can be an purely oral tradition as well as an academic one.) If allowed, tenured players sub out many of these concerts.

    The concert series everyone dreads is an entire month of Nutcracker ballets (Tchaikovsky) around Christmastime. While it’s absolutely superb music, it inevitably wears thin year-in and -out. And as someone else said, pops concerts often suffer lack of respect so are handed off to inexperienced assistant conductors given the extra burden of too little rehearsal time to prepare. That same lack of respect can also lead some players to simply mark time, lowering musical results even further.

    I’m not aware of a catchall term or even a particularly pejorative one to describe concerts venally aimed at drawing audiences. In truth, all concerts have that aim, but different programs draw different audiences.

  • JoetheBassPlayer says:

    I play in 3 different community orchestras currently and have worked with several others as I have moved to various places.
    1. All 3 ensembles mix film , ballet. and some pop music in regular concerts–none have a designated pops concert. (2 have free admission and one charges a nominal ticket price, $10)
    2. As community musicians many of us play for local churches, theater productions, and jazz ensembles, so most of us appreciate any kind of good music.
    3. I believe that typically film scores and pop music are easier, but not due to technical prowess but length of the pieces. For some players learning to play swing or a jazzy style is harder than the note playing challengs.

  • I just want to say, as a total musical illiterate and only occasional concert-goer, I've found these comments fascinating and educational.

  • Concerning John Williams, I'm assuming his Star Wars and Raiders work is what gets played and what many have referred to as technically complex. What else of his work gets played? I would imagine Jurrasic park makes the rounds sometimes. Is that easier, or about the same? Is Howard Shore's LOTR score difficult like Williams? The Rohan themes from LOTR remind me of Bruch's Scottish Fantasy. Have you played music by James Horner, Jerry Goldsmith, or Basil Paledorous? Also, does Paramount, or Lucasfilm, or whoever get a fee for playing something of theirs?

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    My local symphony (which is excellent, the best thing about living where I do) has an entire pops schedule that runs alternately with the classical one. Hey, it pays the bills, I guess. As for whether the musicians like it, I would bet that they're just grateful to have stable jobs.

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