Under Pressure To Find Value In Live Performance

Thanks to YouTube I have been thinking a lot about the experience of live performance. A couple months ago, for reasons I can’t remember, I watched this cover of Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” done by David Bowie and Gail Ann Dorsey.

I thought their rendition was great and a couple weeks later, I wanted to hear it again and ended up with this version.

It was soon clear that it wasn’t the same performance. I liked the first version much better. One of my first thoughts was how interesting it was that the same song, same performers, same tour could have a vastly different quality. It seemed to me a good argument for seeing live performance. Often people say they don’t want to see a play or hear a piece of music again because they have already seen it. People in the arts generally counter that different groups render different interpretations. If that doesn’t work, we break out the old opportunity for disaster option noting that you never know what will happen at a live performance. Even better in this case with almost all things being equal, one performance is so much more exciting than the other which proves another degree of value for live performances. I started checking to see if Bowie was coming to town soon.

Well, come to find out it is not quite all things equal. The second video is from 1997 and the first from 2003. (In my defense, not all of the copies are well dated.) I imagine part of the reason I like the 2003 video is that the sound is much better. I also believe Dorsey got more kickass in that time.

Which brings me to the second revelation about the experience of live performance–the importance of reference points. My sense of where the videos fall on the quality continuum is based on my experience with the original version by Queen and Bowie vs. 2003 Bowie and Dorsey vs. 1997 Bowie and Dorsey. What I have no ability to judge is the relative value of a piece of classical music played by the NY Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, much less the same piece by a single ensemble now and six years ago.

From my perspective, no symphony would allow themselves to take the liberties in interpreting Beethoven Bowie and Dorsey took with Queen’s original music. But I could well be wrong. I have no experience upon which to base that assertion other than my belief that symphonies are too tradition bound to do so. This lack reinforces the importance of regular and repeated exposure to the arts. It also reveals why the belief that people will become enamored of the arts if only they will step through the door is erroneous. People can only judge something is good if they have a basis upon which to make the judgment.

The general implication of making a statement about exposure to the arts is that it has to be in schools. Students are a captive audience and unformed vessels ready to receive. The parents are lost to us. They are too old and too busy at work to pay attention to our lessons. Yes, that is mostly true. But when they take breaks from work they go to things like First Friday’s downtown where they will stop and satisfy their curiosity about Southeast Asian dance if the opportunity presents itself in a easily accessible place.

Cheap dates are important in this economy so First Friday type events may present an opportunity for increased exposure. Expose people often now and maybe they will be prepared to pay for the experience by the time the economy turns around and increases their disposable income.

April is Take A Friend To the Orchestra Month (TAFTO) and provides a good opportunity to position events and opportunities that encourage friends to experience an event together.

(You don’t actually have to be an orchestra to take advantage of April in this manner. Just don’t tell Drew McManus I gave you permission.)

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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