TAFTO 2005 Contribution: Bill Eddins

Conductor and pianist William (Bill) Eddins has been a really popular guy this past year. Most notably, he was appointed as the music director for the Edmonton Symphony and as such has been the focus of dozens of newspaper articles worldwide and oh yes, he’s also the principal guest conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland (not to mention the co-author of the blog, Sticks and Drones). As a passionate believer in taking the lead when it comes to bringing music to the people, Bill is well equipped for the task. He possesses first rate musical credentials, enough performance experience to fill a few lifetimes, a razor sharp wit, and (much like the late Douglas Adams) a well honed personal philosophy about Life, the Universe and Everything. ~ Drew McManus

“Louise, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Humphrey Bogart

(The Scene: Late night…… wispy fog…… clock tolling the hours in the distance…… cat knocking over a trash can……. entrance to a dark alley………… Humphrey Bogart look-alike in rain coat and Fedora hat……..)

“Psssst!!……. Hey buddy!….. Yeah, you der…….. c’mer…… over here………. yeah, dat’s right, over here……… say, buddy, I’se got an offer youse can’t refuse…….. yeah, dat’s right……..Say, do ya wanna go to an orchestra concert?……..”

OK, it hasn’t gotten quite this bad, but that day might not be too far off. Every week that I’m on the road someone, at some point, will get to the moment in the conversation where they discover that I’m a musician. Usually they are very intrigued. Then they learn I play the piano, which frequently generates stories of how their parents tried desperately to get them to learn the instrument but they didn’t have the time/patience/whatever. This last part is always accompanied by a certain wistfulness in the eye that betrays that they wish they had kept at it. But then comes the fateful moment that they discover that I play gasp! Classical music. Not only that, I’m that rarest of the specie Homo Musica Musicallis a CONDUCTOR!

Instantly the barrier comes up. They look at me like I’m some Old Testament prophet baying at the moon. I guess the fact that I’m a black guy from Buffalo dressed in jeans, dark sunglasses, a t-shirt, and sporting a silver cuff in my left ear had thrown them off. Gee I wonder why? I look in the mirror and I could just swear I look like a typical conductor. Well, the next several minutes is spent with me trying to assuage them that: 1) No, I don’t sleep in a coffin during the day; 2) Yes, I love garlic; and 3) what I do is not the cultural equivalent of selling your soul to Bill Gates (I use Macs anyway). If I manage to calm them down enough then I can move on to #4 “Say, would you like to come to one of my concerts?” Critical to this idea is getting the mark’s email address so that you can hound them mercilessly over the next couple of days.

Hound them, you say? Of course. You see, the response to the “would you like” question is always that they’ve wanted to attend an orchestra concert forever, but they’ve felt intimidated by the idea, the setting, the music, the etc. So if you don’t hound them, answer every question, calm every fear, threaten their soul with eternal damnation, etc., they’re probably going to get cold feet. Now this is our own fault the ridiculous self-important aura that permeates how we in the Classical music business are perceived by “civilians” has been excellently described by other TAFTO contributors, so I shan’t go into it here. Suffice it to say we still have a lot of work to do before the average Joe will be willing to take a flyer on an orchestra concert without having his sanity questioned by friends and family.

But how do we (and by “we” I mean either musicians or music advocates) get a friend to come to a concert? Familiarity helps. Let me quote from a recent email I received from my friend Margaret L. who lives in Australia and had a run-in with Messiaen’s Catalogue d’ iseaux:

“The Music Festival day was incredibly stimulating and actually very demanding on the ear, the brain and all the senses. The performance space is in the wine barrel storage shed which gives a wonderful acoustic and the performances are very intimate (about 260 people are fitted in very tightly) and very immediate. (We) had to work harder than perhaps we would have wished on the Messiaen Catalogue d iseaux. This was helped by

  1. The pianist, Michael Kieren Harvey is Australia’s leading Messiaen interpreter and in fact premiered the whole work at a recent Tasmanian arts festival
  2. Is an old friend, having stayed with us a couple of times during the Barossa Music Festival, so we are forgiving
  3. Talked us through the work first and played the signature motifs of the various creatures, colours and geographical bits identified by M in the score before playing the whole piece. At least one felt that one was given some signposts. “

The important points: interesting setting; very intimate; familiarity with performer; and the performer thought enough of his audience to help them through this amazing piece. Now all this isn’t easily done with an orchestra (sticking a symphony orchestra into a wine barrel storage shed is a recipe for disaster on about 17 different levels), but several orchestras have programs designed with these ideas in mind. Case in point, the Minnesota Orchestra’s Casual Classics series which I started in 1995….. or was it ’94? If you’re going to bring someone to an orchestra for the first time this is a great way to introduce them to the idea. And as much as I am a fan of his music I might not recommend starting off a newbie with Messiaen, though one never knows, do one? I remember back in the college days getting an aging hard rocker hooked on classical music by sitting him down, turning off all the lights, and cranking the Rite of Spring. Three years later that guy had a bigger classical collection than I will ever have.

Next: find out what type of music people like. You would be surprised what orchestras are involved in these days. My own orchestra (Edmonton) actually has a Country Music Series, and I’ll be hanged if it isn’t the most popular thing since sliced bread. Please don’t be afraid of a good Pops show. My friend Doc Severinsen was in town (Minneapolis) recently and there are few people who can put on a show like he can.

Please, try to find interesting performers. Due to the near monopoly of the Big New York Talent Agencies many of the truly interesting artists can, unfortunately, be few and far between. These Agencies have a vested interest in making money, as opposed to making music, and their monopoly means that artists that don’t fit neatly into the Paradigm can end up on the sidelines. Despite that, interesting folk such as Robert Bonfiglio (harmonica), Manuel Barrueco (guitar), and Margaret Tan (toy piano) do occasionally creep through. These are wonderful musicians who are not the “usual” and a performance of theirs can be quite surprising for the orchestral neophyte.

Don’t forget to hand the newbie a copy of Sam Bergman’s TAFTO contribution. They’ll be laughing so hard they might forget to be nervous about attending the concert.

Fergodsakes please, please, please take the newbie to a concert with American music. Or if you like, American music. Just as long as it’s from this hemisphere. People relate to music that reminds them of their own society. As much as I personally love Mozart most newbies I know are bored to death by the guy. He reminds them of elevator music. But there isn’t anyone who’s lived in the USA for at least five years who isn’t familiar with Bernstein, Copland, Gershwin, etc. They just might not know it yet.

Now some advice for the newbie: don’t be shy about having a good stiff drink before the concert. God knows half the people on stage had one so you might as well follow in their footsteps. We are professionals after all. Goodness, in Germany they actually have bars backstage for the musicians!! Talk about gilding the lily. Oh, and if you’re being taken to a concert that features Mahler you’d better make it a double.

Also HAVE FUN!!! I can’t help but believe that Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, whomever, would be down right sick to their stomach with the hero-worshipping over-glorifying idolizing holier-than-anybody veneration that’s thrown at them these days. They wrote music to be enjoyed. Please do not approach them as if they are the 2nd coming of Christ. As it is many of the best composers were Jewish, so that’s not going to fly at all.

Now, if by some odd chance you liked the concert then please applaud, whistle, holler, jump up and down, but definitely do not spare one second worrying about the “stick-in-the-mud” next to you who believes in (the next phrase said in a exaggerated British accent) “proper concert hall etiquette.” Said person needs to get over their bad self.

If you didn’t like the concert then by all means boo lustily. Just as long as it isn’t at one of my concerts. If I hear any of that I’ll sick the guy in the Fedora on you.

“Pssst…… Mac……. c’mer…….. I’ve also got some tickets to a modern music festival…… cheap!!”

Peace wfe