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Asking Stars Not Just to Play, but Also to Stay

January 3, 2010

The relationship between the rock stars of classical music and the orchestras and audiences that interact with them can generally be characterized as a series of memorable one-night stands. When the Lang Langs, Joshua Bells and Renée Flemings of the world arrive in town for an evening or two, tickets fly, and standing ovations shake concert halls. But no sooner has the applause died down than the artists are on a plane to the next city.

Lately, however, orchestras across the country have been looking for ways to deepen their relationships with top-tier musicians. Artist residencies, ranging from one week to two years, are now de rigueur. The baritone Thomas Hampson and the composer Magnus Lindberg have lengthy residencies with the New York Philharmonic; the Chicago Symphony recently announced the appointment of the Bay Area composer Mason Bates as a composer in residence; and last year the Los Angeles Philharmonic created the position of creative chair for another Bay Area composer, John Adams.

In a similar vein, the Berkeley Symphony recently hired the composer Gabriela Lena Frank as its creative adviser. She will help shape programming and guide outreach projects.

Now the San Francisco Symphony’s new Project San Francisco aims to enhance the audience’s appreciation of classical music through a pair of residency programs with the composer George Benjamin (Thursday through Jan. 16) and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma (Jan. 20 to 26). The program will include performances, educational activities and community events.

But whether the orchestra succeeds in enriching the experience of San Francisco’s rather conservative classical music audiences will depend on how much it can realistically hope to derive from the artists’ intensive yet still truncated sojourns. One thing is sure: the Symphony intends to make the most of its visiting artists’ time and energy.

In addition to conducting the San Francisco Symphony, Mr. Benjamin will play the piano in a chamber music concert alongside Symphony musicians; give a series of pre- and post-concert talks; take part in a colloquium with San Francisco Youth Symphony players; and mentor students from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Mr. Ma (also recently named creative consultant to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) will give orchestral and chamber music concerts, as well as a recital with the pianist Emanuel Ax. He will coach two student chamber music ensembles as well.

Building on the success of similar pilot residencies with the Chinese pianist Lang Lang and the respected though not widely known Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina, the orchestra is taking an approach to Project San Francisco that is artistically and fiscally canny. Ms. Gubaidulina’s two-week residency last February helped to familiarize Bay Area concertgoers with her work; the performance I heard, featuring the North American premiere of her “Violin Concerto No. 2,” was well attended. Meanwhile, Mr. Lang’s high profile most likely helped to offset the financial risk of devoting so many concerts to a relatively unknown composer.

The Symphony seems to be repeating this formula with the combination of Mr. Ma, a household name, and Mr. Benjamin, who is not well known to American audiences despite having a more than 20-year relationship with the San Francisco Symphony. Mr. Benjamin’s local recognition is likely to grow this June when he serves as music director of the Ojai Music Festival.

It is worth noting that tickets for Mr. Benjamin’s concerts are not being bought as swiftly as those for bigger-name artists; the same was true for Ms. Gubaidulina.

“Yo-Yo Ma’s performances are selling strongly, with very limited availability at the present moment, and George’s residency continues to sell, and we expect more last-minute sales as people learn about the concerts,” said Louisa Spier, a Symphony spokeswoman.

(In March the Symphony will announce next season’s residencies, the first of which will take place before the end of the year.)

Orchestral artist residencies are a relatively new phenomenon. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra broke ground in this area, starting in 2004, with its appointment of diverse artists like the soprano Dawn Upshaw, the conductor Roberto Abbado and Nicholas McGegan, music director of the Bay Area’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.

The San Francisco Symphony also played a role through its partnership with Mr. Adams, who served as resident composer from 1982 to 1985. “More typically, these composers in residence amounted to an ephemeral phenomenon,” said Joseph Horowitz, a classical music historian. “But Adams really became integral to the orchestra.”

While residencies seem to be fashionable, and are a positive step for orchestras, maximizing their productivity is hard. The amount of time an artist works with an orchestra and the depth of the engagement are probably the two biggest factors in determining the success of these residencies. The San Francisco Symphony is certainly capitalizing on the time it has with Mr. Benjamin and Mr. Ma. But packing so much activity into three weeks may end up exhausting both artists and audiences.

It takes time for concertgoers to familiarize themselves with an artist’s work. Ten days may not be enough to persuade ticket buyers to take a chance on Mr. Benjamin. Although logistically challenging, a slow-burning residency lasting several months or longer, like the one now under way between Mr. Hampson and the New York Philharmonic, may ultimately be more fruitful than the fast-paced model favored by the San Francisco Symphony.



  • It will be great to watch Chicago, i have bought tickets from looking forward to it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At April 23, 2010 at 12:21 AM  

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