Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich joins the show to explain his pushback to the county's affordable housing goals. Plus, Montgomery County residents are getting heated about a comprehensive review of school boundaries.
Just a few weeks ago, the National Philharmonic’s future was in question. The Montgomery County institution was facing a budgetary shortfall, and announced that it would be shutting down. Since then, the orchestra administration has announced that it raised the money needed to stay open, while a local businessman and musician presented a different fundraising plan that involves making changes to the orchestra leadership. We explore why the National Philharmonic has struggled financially in recent years, what ways forward look like under both proposed funding plans, and what’s next for the Philharmonic.
Then, we take a wider look at classical music across the Washington region, and talk about the best places to hear and learn about classical music close by.
Produced by Mark Gunnery
- Anne Midgette Classical Music Critic, The Washington Post
- Todd Eskelsen National Philharmonic Board Chair
- Leslie Silverfine Violinist and President of the National Philharmonic Orchestra Committee
- Jim Kelly Co-owner of Potter Violins, violist and Personnel Manager for the National Philharmonic
- Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez Artistic Director, New Orchestra of Washington
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. A couple weeks ago, the National Philharmonic in Montgomery County announced that it planned to close because of financial problems. But now, after a successful crowd funding campaign, the Philharmonic is safe for the moment, and an alternative funding plan is on the table, too. We find out what the future looks like and sounds like for the National Philharmonic and explore the state of classical music in this region. Joining me in studio is Leslie Silverfine, violinist and president of the National Philharmonic Orchestra Committee. Leslie Silverfine, thank you for joining us.
LESLIE SILVERFINEThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Todd Eskelsen. He is a volunteer and board chair at the National Philharmonic. Todd Eskelsen, thank you for joining us.
TODD ESKELSENThank you for the opportunity.
NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone from England is classical music critic for the Washington Post, Anne Midgette. Anne Midgette, thank you for joining us.
ANNE MIDGETTEThanks for having me.
NNAMDILeslie Silverfine, many of our listeners might not be familiar with the National Philharmonic. You don't just play violin with the Philharmonic. You are also president of the Orchestra Committee. So, briefly, what is the National Philharmonic, and how did it come to be in 2003?
SILVERFINEOkay. Well, it's been in operation for 36 years. It started out as the Montgomery County Chamber Orchestra. And I've been a member for 32 years. It then became the National Chamber Orchestra. And when we moved into Strathmore a little over...
SILVERFINE...2003, we became the National Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorale, joined together. So, that's how that came to be.
NNAMDIAnne Midgette, where does the National Philharmonic fit into the Washington region's classical music scene? How important an institution is this?
MIDGETTEIt's very hard to gauge the importance to a region of a regional orchestra. The National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center is the biggest orchestra in Washington. The National Philharmonic is one of the strongest regional orchestras in the region. There are a number of smaller, respectable regional orchestras. And the National Philharmonic -- particularly at the home base at Strathmore -- is solidly among them, certainly in terms of its size and standing, with a $2 million budget. That makes it larger than some of the other regional orchestras.
MIDGETTEThere are others, like the Annapolis Symphony, the Fairfax Symphony. There are a number of very good regional orchestras. Washington is lucky to be rich in local orchestras. It's partly because of the strong freelance community, with violinists such as Leslie Silverfine, whom I have not heard play solo, but I am sure represents the community.
NNAMDIAnne Midgette, a few weeks back, the National Philharmonic announced that it was closing because of financial problems. What kind of money issues has the Philharmonic been having?
MIDGETTEYou know, the announcement took me by surprise, because I hadn't been following it closely, but all orchestras -- to a greater or lesser degree -- are dealing with gently declining ticket sales. “That's not true,” I'm going to be hearing from orchestras who are thriving. (laugh) But there's a general decline in classical music ticket sales. And some orchestras have had a harder time with that than others.
MIDGETTEWith the National Philharmonic, it evidently came down to $150,000, which out of a $2 million budget, is not a terrible amount. It was, of course, colored for readers and audiences by the fact that the Baltimore Symphony is currently in lockout right now. And that's the other main orchestral tenant of Strathmore. So, it seems to paint a very challenging picture, although these two issues are not related, and the two orchestras are in no way related.
MIDGETTEIf it says anything about the region, it is surprising that wealthy Montgomery County is not able to come through with the fundraising, although, in the case of the National Philharmonic, it did. In the 11th hour, money has been raised from two competing parties, in fact, to keep it going. So, the orchestra's future, for the time being, is assured.
NNAMDITodd Eskelsen, you're the board chair of the National Philharmonic. From your vantage point, why do you think the Philharmonic has been struggling so much financially?
ESKELSENIt's a good question, and I think it relates to exactly what Anne said. Arts organizations, nonprofit arts organizations are fragile institutions. And in our instance, we had had a number of years where we had had challenges, and we had gotten some assistance from Montgomery County to come out of those. And we developed a plan going forward where we had our contributions in the two years after our plan, which were fiscal year '17 and '18. We were up 38 percent in contributions and 18 percent in audience members. But it was a big hole, and the last year was a difficult year, with audience numbers around Strathmore Hall down 25 percent or so.
ESKELSENAnd so we had no safety net, which required that as we looked at it and tried to figure out our long-term strategy and how we would move forward, even though we had substantial resources, they weren't sufficient to let us continue over the long term. And that's why we issued the press release. And we're hoping to stimulate the system to perhaps do something. And our community has come through in a huge way. As Anne said, two different groups have come together with monies that, combined, will do a great job to support us. And we're working for the good of the National Philharmonic to get both groups working together.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that you also feel that because music is not being taught in schools the way it used to be anymore, that it's harder for young people to develop an early appreciation for classical music.
ESKELSENI think it is, and we're trying to do two things with that, Kojo. Number one, we have a program of all kids, all free, all the time that Leslie in the orchestra has been doing from the beginning, basically. And so we're bringing in kids as we can. Secondly, the orchestra plays, every year, for every 2nd grader in Montgomery County. And we have an educational curriculum that they work through and they develop. And so the lack of education is a problem.
ESKELSENMy mother made me take piano lessons and...
NNAMDISo did mine.
ESKELSEN...I finally compromised with her, and I started playing the bass. And consequently, I blame my mother for being here, trying to get the orchestra to do something.
SILVERFINE(laugh) Could I interject something about this?
NNAMDIYes, go right ahead, please.
SILVERFINEThe issue of education and audiences is, of course, critical, and it's brought up a lot in orchestras. And orchestras across the board, of all sizes, are working laudably with students, young and older, to try to broaden education in schools. It is my belief, however, that this lack of education is a symptom, rather than a problem, given that, as Todd just said -- I'm assuming Todd and I are more or less the same generation -- we did have music education. And yet it's my peers -- I'm in my 50s -- who are not going to concerts. There's less of a pull for these concerts, and therefore, there's less education.
SILVERFINEAnd when you actually look at the state of arts education, there is quite a bit more in the schools than people think there is. Of course, we'd like there to be more, and it's not a great outlook. But it's not like it's completely vanished, especially from this region. There are other factors that are making people not want to go as much And by investing lots of resources in kids, as wonderful as it is -- and I cannot say anything bad about teaching kids music -- that's not going to solve the audience problem. And if it does solve it, it's not going to be for another couple generations, until the kids are old enough to start going. So, there have got to be other ways to develop orchestra audiences in the meantime, or not.
NNAMDIAnne Midgette, you've taken your readers to task for showing more interest in the news about the National Philharmonic's money problems than they did in the orchestra when it was doing better financially. What do you think the responsibilities are of music fans to local institutions like the Philharmonic?
MIDGETTEYou know, these institutions represent something very powerful to people, and that's good. So, when the orchestra closed, I got lots -- announced it was closing, I got lots of readers' mail, like this is the problem with society today. Young people today, Trump's America. And so I wrote the story about the announced closure, and, like, 26,000 people read that article.
MIDGETTEAnd then I wrote a story saying that the orchestra was going to keep going, after all. And about 2,500 people read that article. (laugh) So, people are much more into “decline of the West” sorts of stories and the hand-wringing stories than stories that do the -- you know, are spreading better news, but call on them in to do some work. And I think a lot of cases -- especially with classical music -- it's something people strongly feel they want to have in their society. But the people who are protesting the most loudly aren't always the ones who were actually going. They may not even realize it themselves, but it's true, certainly of classic radio stations, there's a lot -- and classical radio's a different issue, and a lot of them are doing very well, as well. But the people who are most vociferous aren't always the ones who are going.
ESKELSENAnd if I can jump in, Kojo.
NNAMDIWell, people don't read the news to find out what's going well. (laugh)
MIDGETTEThat's true. (laugh)
ESKELSENYeah, that's certainly been consistent with what we have seen, that an institution like National Philharmonic to continue to be there year after year and put on music and be in the hall, etcetera, takes behind-the-scenes work and significant long term perseverance. And, often, people -- because we have so many different things happening in this society, people have trouble giving the long-term perseverance. And with a fragile institution like the arts industries, you just have to do that. You can't make quick fixes.
SILVERFINEYou also have to realize that the National Philharmonic has a lot of competition. If you're playing in the same hall as the Baltimore Symphony and the orchestral audience is already limited, it's an important community fixture. But that community has a lot of different things it can do with its orchestral dollars. And sometimes, it thinks, well, I'm going to Baltimore. Somebody else ought to go to the National Philharmonic. You now, it's hard for the smaller orchestras, particularly in a large community.
NNAMDIHere's Susan in Silver Spring, Maryland. Susan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUSANYes, hi. I just want to say, I'm a classical music lover, and I do attend concerts regularly, mostly to the Baltimore Symphony at Strathmore. And I've lived in the area for many, many years, and I'm sort of embarrassed to say I've never been to a National Philharmonic concert.
SUSANWith that said, I wanted to mention, I think there's a lot of competition with BSO and the National Symphony, and I think those of us who like to attend concerts look at things like price. And National Philharmonic prices, unless you have a kid you're bringing for free, their prices are a little more expensive, even than some of the other orchestras. The NSO, for example, now, is even putting discount prices on Goldstar. So, it's a sad thing to think you have to cut prices to get people in, but I think that may be a reality.
SUSANThe other thing I wanted to say is I'm so thrilled to hear you talk about your educational outreach to young people. And I'm wondering if maybe you can get some funding through the, you know, Board of Education or the school budget, because you're doing a great educational program. Thank you.
NNAMDILeslie Silverfine, funding through the Montgomery County Board of Education?
SILVERFINEI hope so. I don't know anything about that. (laugh)
NNAMDIHow about you Todd Eskelsen?
SILVERFINEThat's not my field.
ESKELSENWe actually use that as a lead in much of our fundraising. And we have gotten -- in fact, the County Council executive in the last budget gave us all kids, all free funding. And in the most recent budget, he put it in, but the county council did not approve the whole set of county executive funding. And so that one fell by the wayside, as well.
ESKELSENSo, yeah, the pricing issue is an interesting issue, because the business model of the National Philharmonic and other orchestras is basically 50 percent revenue coming from ticket sales, and 50 percent revenue coming from donations and government support. And so, you have to price the tickets, and we're always looking for what is the appropriate ticket -- what is the optimal ticket size or ticket price. Orchestras are trying lots of different things to work on their revenue side.
SILVERFINEThe National Philharmonic also does put tickets on Goldstar.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone now is Jim Kelly. He is the co-owner of Potter Violins, and a long time violist and personnel manager for the National Philharmonic. Jim Kelly, thank you for joining us.
JIM KELLYThanks for having me.
NNAMDIWell, you presented your own funding plan last week. Tell us about it.
KELLY(laugh) Well, basically, I saw our disastrous financial problem, and then I found a solution. And so I presented the plan to the board about a week ago, Monday, after I had all of my ducks in a row, and included pledges that totaled about 275,000. And now, that's actually grown to 315,000. And with the major savings this year, that's with myself and the two maestros agreeing to work without a salary really presents over a half million dollars.
KELLYI've not focused on additional fundraising once I reached the 275 in solid commitments, because I did not want to continue asking people to support me as the NP president, as long as it was unclear whether the board would accept my plan. But I have more large donors to approach, which I will start doing, as soon as the plan is approved. But, right now, I think it's about building unity within the organization and working together. And Todd and I even have a meeting after this call. And I hope that that is the start of working together. And the good news here is that National Philharmonic's back. And, you know, we have to sort out the details on how best to move forward.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, you mentioned your plan. You're calling for management changes at the National Philharmonic, specifically for orchestra President Leeanne Ferfolia and the current board chair, our guest Todd Eskelsen, to step down. Why are those your stipulations?
KELLYThe past failures are too all-encompassing for the current management to overcome. The musicians and the chorale members have lost faith and all trust. The other stakeholders have been alienated, the County Council and Strathmore. Donors recognize that, and many are not supportive, like the ones whose checks I hold. So, there is nearly unanimous support for my plan from all stakeholders. and the current management needs to understand that they need to be part of the solution in accepting this plan and offer.
NNAMDITodd Eskelsen, what do you think about Jim Kelly's proposal? He's indicated that you guys have a meeting very shortly.
ESKELSENWe do have a meeting later this afternoon. I've been trying to sit down with Jim since I first heard about this possible plan coming in two weeks ago. He delayed a week in getting it to us, officially. And we are concerned that we don't have much detail. In fact, we don't know any of the donors. And, going forward, the big issue, or the thing that we need to concentrate on is the best interests of the National Philharmonic. We have a couple of different groups out there who have provided funds, made pledges. We raised $207,000, I think, in the crowd funding. Jim has monies, and I'm pleased to hear that it's now to 315,000. That would be great.
ESKELSENWhat we really need to do is to try to figure out a way to come together, to get all of that money pulled together. We also have identified and gotten commitments from another person who's willing to come in with substantial funding, if we can get together and move forward together. So, the best interests of the National Philharmonic would be for us to figure out a way to cooperatively work together.
NNAMDILeslie Silverfine, you are president of the National Philharmonic Orchestra Committee, and you and your fellow musicians support Jim Kelly's plan, to the point you say you will refuse to perform if that plan is not put in place. Why are the musicians unified behind this proposal?
SILVERFINEWe feel that, with Jim, we will have a working relationship, where he will listen to what we have to say, and we can work together for a better organization, one that will not fold without us being aware that it has financial problems. We were shocked that it suddenly came to that. We had just played a wonderful Beethoven Ninth to a sellout audience. And we fully expected that the audience would be made aware that we were going through financial difficulties and would have been asked to help support us through this hard time. Instead, they were just asked like anybody would ask to help on a regular basis.
SILVERFINEAnd, therefore, they were in the dark and they were shocked, while they were still buying subscriptions. And we were shocked, as musicians, that we didn't have a season coming up. So, I don't think it's fair to the musicians to come to that point. I think we should have been included in the process. And that's something that we have talked about with Jim, having quarterly meetings, and being very much up to date with all things financial and otherwise.
NNAMDIIs the manner in which you heard about the financial difficulties part of the reasons that the musicians don't have confidence in the current management?
SILVERFINEYes, it is.
NNAMDITodd Eskelsen, what's your response to what you just heard?
ESKELSENCertainly, if the message didn't get through, we have to bear some responsibility. We have tried to be transparent and open. And we actually did have, immediately before the meeting, the Beethoven concert, we actually had conversation with the -- well, Leeanne and I appeared before the musicians and made a presentation, at which we tried to balance the clear message that we needed funding, and we were close to having significant problems in the following season, with the attempt to give confidence that there was a way to work our way through this. So, we weren't as clear as we perhaps could have been.
NNAMDI(overlapping) What are the next steps here? You're meeting with Jim this afternoon. It's my understanding that there's going to be a board meeting tomorrow. Is the matter likely to be resolved then?
ESKELSENIt obviously depends on the discussions that we have with Jim. And we have a number of questions. We've asked Jim to come to the board meeting to answer questions about his plan. And the board will have a discussion, and we'll figure out what are the ways to go forward. We certainly can't continue this way, Kojo, because it's affecting donations and subscriptions and everything else. We need to figure out a way to get together, to be able to show the community that we're still here to perform great music, which is, in end, which is our product that we are producing.
NNAMDIAnd Anne Midgette, when can we expect the Baltimore Symphony to start performing again?
MIDGETTE(laugh) Well, that's a whole different question, although I would submit that as far as readership and audiences, this is a very interesting place for the National Philharmonic to be in, just to find out what happens. I hope everybody's going to be following the story for some time, as it unfolds.
MIDGETTEBaltimore is a different issue. The Baltimore management wants to shrink from a 52-week season to a 40-week season. With the National Philharmonic and other regional orchestras, you're talking about many fewer weeks. Although, for a freelance orchestra, the National Philharmonic represents steady work for its musicians in a way that very few other regional orchestras do, something Leslie Silverfine pointed out to me very clearly, which is one reason the players are so invested in keeping it going. There's not so many good positions like that.
MIDGETTEFor the Baltimore Symphony, the musicians feel the management is trying to cut them down terribly. And, in the bigger picture, how many 52-week seasons can America support is a really big question. It's a different level of orchestra, but it does come down to supply and demand, again. And, in that sense, the two are related, but it's a very different management-player issue in Baltimore.
MIDGETTEI would add that the reluctance to show just what straits you're in is very common in the nonprofit world, when you're relying on donors and saying to your donors, hey, we're in such bad shape we're about to fold, is not really a way to get people so inspired to give you money, (laugh) you know. You want people to sort of be able to contribute and feel confident and excited about the product. And, therefore, some of those messages can be blurred, whether to players or to donors. This is not an uncommon scenario, in that regard.
NNAMDIWe're going to have to take a short break very soon, but before we do, Todd Eskelsen, Kathleen emailed: we can't afford tickets and parking at the National Philharmonic. It caters to a population that isn't necessarily all-inclusive to different socioeconomic groups. I stopped going to the National Symphony Orchestra when Hollywood and Broadway took over the show. I wanted to hear the orchestra, not see a show.
ESKELSENFirst off, I think, National Philharmonic, the parking's free. We actually pay for the parking as part of our contract with Strathmore, so the parking is free. She should definitely come. Ticket prices, we're working on, and, again, we're trying different things. Repertoire is an interesting question. We've tried to expand into various areas, but there is a core of our audience that clearly likes classical music. And we attempt to provide that to them. You know, come, try, listen. If you see something on a program that you may recognize, come anyway, because you may really love it. It may be your favorite piece of music ever, if you just took a chance to listen to it.
NNAMDITodd Eskelsen is volunteer and board chair at the National Philharmonic. Jim Kelly?
KELLYYes. I just wanted to add, to piggyback off of what Todd had said earlier. My donors, some of them have requested to be anonymous, but they've been vetted by two other board members. So, this isn't a secret. And I also wanted to say that Councilmember Tom Hucker reached out to me and met with me, and we reviewed the plan together. And now I have a council letter stating their support. So, I just wanted to make that known.
NNAMDIJim Kelly is co-owner of Potter Violins and a longtime violist and personnel manager for the National Philharmonic. He'll be meeting with Todd Eskelsen this afternoon. Thank you both for joining us, and good luck with your meeting this afternoon.
ESKELSENThank you very much, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about a new orchestra -- well, relatively speaking in Washington. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the travails and triumphs of classical music in the Washington region with Anne Midgette. She is a classical music critic for the Washington Post. Leslie Silverfine is a violinist and president of the National Philharmonic Orchestra Committee. And joining us now by phone is Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez, artistic director of the New Orchestra of Washington. Alejandro, thank you for joining us.
ALEJANDRO HERNANDEZ-VALDEZThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAs I said, you're the artistic director for the New Orchestra of Washington, which is less than a decade old. With other local orchestras struggling so much, why did you decide to establish a new one?
HERNANDEZ-VALDEZYou know, when I decided to start the orchestra, I had been thinking about how, you know, the topic of discussion was so present even then, just classical music struggling, in general. During that time, I think it was the Minnesota Orchestra that was having all the trouble. Also, the orchestras in -- not only orchestras, but also opera companies, like the Baltimore Opera, had folded.
HERNANDEZ-VALDEZSo, I thought about that a lot, and decided that new models needed to be established. We are working with models that are almost 150 years old and obviously something is not working. So, if we don't try, as classical music presenters or performers, to rethink the issue, we're going to be having this problem over and over again. Because this is not a problem that only affects more orchestras or regional orchestras. It affects all orchestras. We're talking about, right now, two orchestras that are very different from each other. The Baltimore Symphony, a well-established orchestra, you know, of a good size with a great budget, etcetera, and a regional orchestra also, you know, a symphonic orchestra, but very different from the Baltimore Symphony. They're both struggling with similar issues.
HERNANDEZ-VALDEZSo, models need to change. Marketing has to be done completely differently. It cannot be the usual channels that orchestras have been following. I think a sense of community, a much, much stronger sense of community needs to be built, and a much more agile and very forward-thinking business plan needs to be put in place for all these organizations.
NNAMDIInstead of having your own dedicated concert space, you play at multiple places around the region. How does that change your relationship with your audience, and how does it affect your performances?
HERNANDEZ-VALDEZWell, the nice thing about that is that we're always reaching new audiences because, as you mentioned, we're not always in the same space. And we also try to find spaces on, like, Strathmore, that are small enough so that they can be filled, but big enough so that, you know, enough of a community can enjoy it. We make sure that our concerts are well-attended, and we also make sure that our prices are accessible. We cannot perform for free, because it would not be sustainable, but we certainly try to keep a good balance. And we also try to reach places in Virginia and Maryland and Washington, D.C. So, having different homes, it's been an advantageous situation for us.
NNAMDIThe New Orchestra of Washington was started by millennials, so you might have a good answer for Amber in Anacostia's question, because Amber self-identifies as a millennial. Amber, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AMBERHi. Thank you so much for having me. A complete dream come true. But I did want to know about the marketing tactics. I know some parties I've attended at the National Building Museum or the National Spy Museum (unintelligible) frequented. And a lot of my friends end up following those Instagram accounts, and that's how we'll find out about happenings at those museums. Additionally, there are certain blogs in D.C., like DCist, and Brightest Young Things. They definitely do sponsored parties.
AMBERAnd so I was wondering, in terms of -- I know it's a symphony, but in terms of events, or anything like that, do you guys have any other ideas for kind of bringing out your audience, both how you would do it through social media and blogs? Or do you have any, like, outside kind of community events people can frequent and learn more about your...
HERNANDEZ-VALDEZYeah, we have community events. We play in cafes. We play in bookstores. We try to do grassroots marketing, for sure. But we also reach out to group news from time to time for, you know, joint ventures. We obviously use the traditional social media channels, you know, Facebook, Instagram, etcetera.
HERNANDEZ-VALDEZBut, again, you know, I go back to my point. It's building a sense of community, rather than traditional marketing. You know, putting your orchestra on a bus, for example, you know, to announce it, that is just not going to work. And we want to give people a sense that our orchestra belongs to them. And the health of our orchestra depends on their contributions and being at the concerts and supporting the organization financially.
NNAMDIAnne Midgette, what do you think of Alejandro's idea, his optimism, launching a new orchestra. What do you think of the New Orchestra of Washington's mission?
MIDGETTEI think it's a great mission. I think Alejandro is 150 percent right that we need new models. Classical music really suffers from the fact that its institutions tend to be very old. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra just celebrated its centennial. That's great. I venerate the past. I love the music of Beethoven, which is also very old, but it does stifle the growth of the new. And the fact that we expect audiences to still behave the way they did two generations ago is unrealistic in a world where things move. And it's not even disrespectful to the music to think that there's many different ways it can be presented.
MIDGETTEI know that the New Orchestra of Washington does an annual Day of the Dead concert, where they'll play the Brahms Requiem, which is a wonderful, venerable classical music canon piece. And they do it in Day of the Dead makeup, with the chorus made up. And I have not been myself, but I've seen the photographs, which are remarkable. And as a way to connect people to that music, I think it's great.
MIDGETTEYou know, you think of stores or restaurants, classical music is the only industry that expects things to last so long, and sees it as an assault on the field if an institution closes, where tastes change and things must move on. And it's important to remember that an orchestra is not the same thing as the music. You know, Beethoven and Brahms are going to be fine. They can be played in different ways. And, yes, it helps to have people that play together year round, to play it really beautifully. But an orchestra, too, can fold, and not mean that nobody loves Beethoven anymore. Yes, it's a harder sell, in some ways, but there are two distinct issues, here. And classical music and the institutions that propagate it are not the same thing.
NNAMDILeslie Silverfine, any advice for Alejandro, this New Orchestra of Washington tries to establish itself on the music -- is in the process of establishing itself on the music scene, here?
SILVERFINEHe sounds like he's doing a fabulous job. (laugh) I think, as I understand, and correct me if I'm wrong, it's a smaller organization. Is that correct?
HERNANDEZ-VALDEZIt is a smaller organization. It's a hybrid between a chamber orchestra and a symphonic orchestra. Of course, it changes, depending on the repertoire, but the idea is to have a lean ensemble in which, you know, all of the individuals forming the ensemble can have a spotlight, of sorts.
SILVERFINERight. So, I think that presents different issues, if you have a smaller group. You probably have more flexibility.
NNAMDIWell, we heard, earlier, a caller who criticized the National Philharmonic for going Hollywood, but here we got a Tweet from Teckla who says, honestly, leaning hard into the John Williams film score stuff is how to get younger folks in the door. Whenever I see an NSO show where they played a score to a film, for example, it's full of younger people like me. Is that what the National Philharmonic was trying to do?
SILVERFINEI think they've done some of that, and, yes, I'd think they'd have a mixture of presentations, of different kinds of music. That's fine.
NNAMDIAlejandro, with so many other classical music institutions in the region, how do you decide what kind of works you want to program, as an artistic director?
HERNANDEZ-VALDEZWell, I try to program in a way that that is very organic, and that it reflects the community. As Anne was saying, you know, we try not to be static about our thinking. Just to give an example, we try to stay away from the traditional model of the overture, the concerto intermission and the symphony in the second half, which is what many, many orchestras keep on doing.
HERNANDEZ-VALDEZWe mix the new and the old in clever ways. Sometimes I break pieces apart. Instead of playing a symphony from beginning to end, between movements, you have other pieces that are contrasting. There are so many ways to be smart about programming. And I think one of...
NNAMDI(overlapping) And ways to get people in the door. I interrupt only because we're running out of time. You found a different approach to concert subscription than other orchestras. What is the Now Pass?
HERNANDEZ-VALDEZNow Pass is a subscription model. Just like you would subscribe to Netflix or other services, it's the same idea. And I think it's a way of reflecting current times. I think we've been very passive for the longest time in classical music, because we think it's so lofty that we do, that people must come to our concerts, or else civilization will, you know, break down. I think that approach has been dangerous, and has put us in the place where we are. So, we have to go to people, and be smart with simple things like this.
NNAMDIAnd, like I said, we're running out of time, but we got a call from a classical musician in the D.C. area who wanted to stay anonymous. He says: part of the issue for musicians is that there's a limited number of contractors who set these gigs up. And if you're really friendly with them, it's easier to get jobs. How can we ensure positions go to musicians for better reasons than just who you know? Is that what happens, in fact, Anne Midgette?
MIDGETTEWell, it's a problem with any system that relies on freelancers. I really wanted to remind your listeners, in fact, that these orchestras we're talking about, it's not like the National Philharmonic. It's made up of the same 80 people that are playing together all the time. The National Philharmonic, Jim Kelly told me, draws on a pool of about 300 freelancers on a regular basis. But not every person can play every night. So, of course, in a thing like that, when you've got to find a bassoon that can play, you're going to call a bassoon you know, who can play it. That's the same thing that if you're a contractor building buildings, you're going to call the plumber you know.
MIDGETTEIt's difficult to ensure a purely merit-based system...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Allow me to interrupt, because Leslie has something to say, and we're running out of time.
SILVERFINEThere is a core of in the National Philharmonic of 33 people who have earned their place there. In fact, I've taken an audition, and all those 33 people have taken an audition.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Leslie Silverfine is violinist and president of the National Philharmonic Orchestra Committee. Anne Midgette is classical music critic for the Washington Post. And Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez is artistic director of the New Orchestra of Washington. Thank you all for joining us.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, we'll discuss human trafficking in the D.C. region and what local industries can do to help. Plus, after a decade-and-a-half, D.C.'s Department on Disability Services is ending its relationship with Georgetown University. We'll dig into what this means for people in Washington with disabilities. Until then , thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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