An Orchestra Where You Don’t Have To Read Music? Depends On Who Is Invited To Play

H/T to which included an article about the Philadelphia Public Orchestra, (PPO) being billed as the World’s First Public Orchestra. The way the article describes it, this is a pretty radical departure from the Western organizational and operational model.

The PPO will have a bottom up approach where the musicians choose the composers suited to their needs rather than the musicians being chosen to suit the composition. Similarly, the musicians will guide and administer the direction of the organization.

The Philadelphia Public Orchestra’s manifesto, written by Meyers, makes it quite clear that the musicians themselves will eventually and collectively steer the ship: “After the orchestra has been established for at least one season, the orchestra members ideally take control of all decision-making.”


“So yes, we launch it together, and there can be an advisory board to help it exist, and then the orchestra should take over and let the musicians, the performers, think of who they might like to ask for a commission, what themes are interesting to them. …”

The structure also seems designed for the inclusion of musical styles and instruments outside of the traditional Western orchestra in that its not necessary to read music.

“The bottom line is, this is a public orchestra, where people can come together and participate from their own comfort zone and within their own traditions,” Tidd explains from Rotterdam, where he’s on tour. “People who read music represent a very small percentage of the music happening in the world, including in America. Some people learn stuff by ear. Others use modified forms of written music — chord charts, graphical scores, all kinds of things. Removing the need to read music makes it more universal.”


To some extent, says Tidd, the application process will prioritize those who have never played in a traditional orchestral setting before and haven’t had access to this kind of project.

“We’re not trying to have 25 members of the Philadelphia Orchestra here,” Tidd emphasizes. “This orchestra will be very diverse.” (As of 2020, the Philadelphia Orchestra had just three Black members.)

It will be interesting to see who applies to play. The Philadelphia area has a plethora of cultural and musical traditions, but I would imagine they will have to continually practice some degree of outreach and invitation to a wide variety of musicians in an attempt to attract the breadth of participation they probably desire.

The ensemble will likely need to also engage in a lot of work to find some common ground upon which to operate. One of the last shows we had prior to Covid was a group of Tuvan throat singers. They mentioned that when a national orchestra was being formed in Tuva one of the issues they ran into was that since everyone’s instrument was made to suit the preference and physical stature of the performer to some degree, there wasn’t a common tuning standard. Now obviously this was only an issue when trying to perform a formal composition. Tuvans have long met and performed their traditional songs in large groups without the difference in instruments being a factor.

The PPO could easily end up being comprised of musicians performing on instruments originating from China, Japan, India, Indonesia, Africa, Oceania, Indigenous people of the Americas, etc. As the article says, some traditions use notation styles that differ from Western music and others don’t use written notations at all.

I don’t have any doubt that the PPO can arrive at some extremely interesting compositions, but there will probably be a continuous, evolving conversation about what the vision of the ensemble and the music is supposed to be. Should every musician perform in at least one piece per concert, for example? Will there be a focus on music and/or instruments from a specific part of the world or demonstrations of cross-cultural works that might surprise audiences? (Do Balinese gamelan and mariachi mix well?)

Actually, Jon Silpayamanant is the person who would know better than I how these negotiations can be accomplished. He has been writing about the music practices of many cultures and bringing them together in performance for a couple decades now.

Verdi At Bat

Maybe we should be keeping an eye on Tulsa Opera. Back in August I wrote about a film that was screened in my venue about Tulsa Opera’s casting a transgender person as Don Giovanni. A couple weeks ago, I saw link to an interview with Tulsa Opera Artistic Director Tobias Picker about a production of Rigoletto they staged in October on a baseball field so that they could have socially distanced performances.

The Tulsa Drillers minor league team offered the use of their field to the opera. Looking at the pictures attached to a review of the production, it looks like the opera embraced the opportunity fully. Performers strode out on to the field wielding baseball bats, toting beers and wearing jerseys proclaiming their membership in “The Dukes” baseball team.  The conductor wore a Maestro jersey.

The English translation appeared on the screen of the jumbotron and apparently the program consisted of “packs of trading cards that included photos of the cast, along with their operatic “stats” (character descriptions and past roles).” The Tulsa Driller’s announcer served as narrator.

I found a couple short Facebook videos of the production so you could see it in action, but there are also quite a few photos attached to the review.

It looks like Tulsa Opera only had one performance, but they managed to get an audience of 1800 people. (There are indications they had some preview performances so attendees at those performances might be part of their total production attendance.) The show was cut to a 90 minute performance and was followed by a fireworks display.

You have to applaud their creativity and efforts to find a way to mount a socially distanced production. I haven’t come across any definitive numbers indicating whether they attracted people who don’t normally attend opera.  I have to wonder if they found it rewarding enough to try something similar in the future.

The Past May Hold Answers, But They Are Imperfect

I came across an interesting contrast in perspective about solutions for a post-Covid world last week. In American Theatre, Jim Warren, the founding artistic director of the American Shakespeare Center proposed a model for theatre to ensure long-term, consistent employment for artists by returning to the rotating repertory model and having artists fulfill administrative roles.

For those that are not familiar with the rotating repertory model, it is a practice where the same core group of performers appear in every production in a season instead of contracting a separate slate of performers for each production.   So if you have a core group of 18 performers, 10 of them may be in the production currently appearing on stage while 8 of them are rehearsing the next production and there may be an overlap of 4 – 5 working on both productions, though with less demands on their time and energy in one of those productions.

Warren also suggests artists take on administrative roles:

Perhaps we need to return to structures similar to what we had at the birth of many theatre companies, when actors split the duties of marketing, fundraising, education, bookkeeping, making websites, and every other job that needed doing. Perhaps we could hire actors full-time to create the shows, use their individual superpowers in other areas, and then hire part-timers to handle the overflow of admin work when we need more help.

The end goal is to provide everyone with a 40 hour work week, health coverage, paid vacation and sick time.

These are not insignificant goals. As Drew McManus has been writing about over at Adaptistration, the current trend in the orchestra world is to dissolve contracts with musicians and try to run the organization solely using fee for service arrangements where musicians are only paid when they perform. (While maintaining their skills and expensive instruments at a high standard while waiting to be called.)

However, there were some people who took umbrage with Warren’s proposal, particularly with the idea that current administrators must go and that most actors are equally adept at administration as performance.

Others challenged the assumption that pre-Covid many arts entities had the resources to provide their administrators with a 40 hour work week, health coverage, paid vacation and sick time.

Warren admits that he had been striving to create these working conditions for years prior to Covid and many of his solutions at the time were imperfect so there was certainly an implication that there was still a lot of work to be done on these ideas.

I don’t think anyone is necessarily debating that the goals he sets are not worthy, but given that no one was satisfied with the status quo in the decades prior to Covid, a solution is going to require casting gazes further and broader than before. I was initially tempted to say the solution would require multiples of effort beyond what had been invested before, but I think it is really more a matter of the will to blaze new paths into the unknown than mustering additional strength to lift or surmount obstacles.

Dip Your Toe, But Probably Not The Time To Take The Plunge

As I was driving into work today, I heard an NPR story about the 92nd St Y, an event/education space in NYC, and how they have gone virtual during Covid-19.  According to NPR, in a typical year 92 Street Y has about 300,000 people participate in their events. In the last 6 months they have had over 3.4 million people engage with their virtual programming.

My first inclination was to think that if they had successfully monetized their offerings, it was likely due to the fact they are located in NYC and are such a marquee name that Hugh Jackman takes classes there.

It turns out that even with those numbers, they haven’t been financially successful.

BLAIR: And they’re selling tickets. Some programming is free, but they’ve also generated over $3 million in revenue. Still, CEO Seth Pinsky says, despite the income and the massive audience increase, they’ve had to furlough staff and cut salaries.

PINSKY: The hardest part of all of this is that, in spite of all the successes that we’re having, the economics still don’t work. And we’ve been operating on fumes.

BLAIR: Pinsky says he hopes, going forward, the 92nd Street Y can crack the code on how to make this new virtual, now global model a sustainable one. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

It should be noted that while $3 million seems great revenue for a lot of us, it is all relative. According to 92nd Street Y’s  financial reports, (much love to them for making it so easy to find), they had $45 million in earned revenue in fiscal year 2019.

For as much as people are saying virtual content is the future, you don’t want to necessarily go all in on this right now. Though obviously, investing energy in in-person content ain’t generating $3 million right now.

Broadway producer Ken Davenport is of the mind that the more paid virtual content that is offered, the quicker that mode of engaging with content will be normalized. He uses the example of younger people paying to watch people stream themselves playing video games.

I am not sure that is the most apt comparison when it comes to streaming live content. I think using your computer to watch someone play a game you, yourself can play on a computer involves a different mode of thinking. There is no live substitute that exists for that experience. Even if you attended a video game tournament in person, and people pack arenas to do just that, you would still end up watching the action play out on a huge screen.

That said, Davenport seems to think there is a separate audience out there that may not necessarily overlap with existing audiences. I am put in mind of the fact that among the top impediments to attending a live event are not having anyone who will accompany them; transportation/distance difficulties; not having the time. There may, in fact, be a local demographic that will engage with a performance that is livestreamed for them.

Davenport writes:

Well first, if you’re a TheaterGoer and you see a TheaterMaker doing something with a price tag attached (and it’ll be much less than a live ticket – because they have to be), considering paying.  You’ll be helping a TheaterMaker.  And TheaterMakers?  Help your peers.  Attend their shows.  Support and you’ll be supported.

But if you want more specifics, then here are my three giant takeaways for TheaterMakers that you MUST do to get on the ground floor of the paid streaming revolution that is coming.

  1. Build a following. You need your own tribe, your own fans, your own community to have a successful career in streaming your art. (That tribe can be any size, but you need to know where they are and be able to communicate with them daily – and yes, social media is great, but nothing beats email.
  2. Stream something. Anything. Start experimenting. Plays. Concerts. One person shows. Try to make it a unique experience for the streaming market so it feels created for it.
  3. Repeat.  Keep doing different things until you find what works for YOU. And after a while you will find something that supports your live stage work. Wouldn’t that be nice?

At my venue we are going to experiment along these lines with a speaker series in October. We will have a live event that is streamed. We are putting the stream on sale a little later than the live event tickets under the philosophy that live streaming is an overflow space to some degree.

After the speaker finishes, there will be a curated Q&A. A half hour after the Q&A we will host online discussions of the topic in Zoom breakout rooms as a way to simulate an after event discussion. The half hour is to allow in-person attendees a little time to get home and log in. The goal is to try to bring the two methods of interaction together in one place. I will let you know how things turn out.