TAFTO 2007 Contribution: Frank J. Oteri

Although Take A Friend To Orchestra is in its third year, there has only been one instance of a contributor actually taking someone to a concert event. Fortunately, Frank J. Oteri marches to the beat of a quarter tone drummer and I’m glad to say that he jumped right into the spirit of TAFTO with both feet and took a friend to a concert in only the way he could. ~ Drew McManus

When Drew McManus asked me to participate in the 2007 Take a Friend to the Orchestra project, I interpreted the M.O. rather literally: so I endeavored to take a friend to the orchestra. This was actually something of a challenge since the majority of my friends are deeply involved with music–either as composers, performers, journalists, or are in some other way related to the biz–and therefore attending a concert wouldn’t be that big of a deal for most of them. But then there was Joseph Ornstein. Joe is one of my closest friends and his thoughts about virtually all subjects, including music, matter a great deal to me. And no surprise, he is also a musician. (I’ve regularly collaborated with him for well over a decade playing old timey/bluegrass-type music.) And he’s also a hardcore music fan: in addition to being an accomplished mandolinist with an impressive collection of musical instruments, he is an avid listener to recorded music from a wide variety of genres including some classical music from time to time.

Joe actually perfectly fits the demographic of an occasional classical music concert attendee. In his late 50s, Joe was exposed to classical music at an early age. Not only is he a music lover, he’s also an avid reader and is culturally astute, plus he lives in Manhattan’s Upper West Side only a short walk away from Lincoln Center. But Joe is an only occasional partaker of live music events and the orchestra is really not a part of his life. He recently heard a concert of a friend at a jazz/cabaret club and doesn’t remember exactly the last time he went to hear an orchestra. He thinks he attended performances by the New York Philharmonic many years ago, but the programs didn’t stand out in his memory.

The more I thought about Joe’s simultaneous passion for music and distance from it as a live experience (other than when he was performing), the more his behavior seemed to be a disconnect, and TAFTO seemed the perfect opportunity to probe further into this. Admittedly, a major contributing factor to Joe’s meager concert attendance record in all the years I’ve known him has been that for over 15 years he has worked a late-night shift and therefore most of concerts he’s been missing have occurred when he was asleep. He has recently retired so this is no longer a problem, so this event was also something of a re-entry for him into the life of someone with a normal schedule. But all of these things are ultimately circumstantial details, a slight plot twist.

Since the reason that I usually attend live music is to hear new music, I knew that I had to take Joe to a contemporary music program. So, since this project was about the orchestra, it was inevitable that I’d bring Joe to hear the American Composers Orchestra (ACO), a New York-based group that exclusively plays the music of contemporary American composers. And luck was with me. On March 26th, the ACO was celebrating its 30th anniversary with a concert in its Orchestra Underground series at Carnegie’s still relatively new Zankel Hall. So I arranged to get three tickets for Joe, myself, and my perennial concert companion, my wife Trudy Chan, an active musician and a promotion associate at the music publisher Boosey & Hawkes. The plan was to attend the concert and grab a bite to eat afterwards, a fun New York night on the town.

The program for March 26th sounded particularly exciting–it included a new concerto by and featuring jazz maverick Vijay Iyer as well as a work for orchestra with electric guitar and drumset by Steve Mackey. Plus, in addition to performances by the orchestra, the concert would also feature solos by classical guitarist Andrew McKenna Lee and Chinese pipa virtuosa Min Xiao-Fen. How could mandolin-playing Joe say no? As it turned out, he was really excited about it and took the night off from his job so he could be completely focused without worrying about having to get to work. And in the days leading up to March 26th, I’d more than done my homework, too. I had actually hosted a radio program about this concert for New York’s public radio station, WNYC-FM, in which I talked with Iyer, Mackey and the conductor Dennis Russell Davies, one of the ACO’s founders, who was returning to its podium for the first time in several years for this special event.

Joe had the ultimate inside track. In fact, after the concert, Joe even came along with Trudy and me to the post-concert reception and got to shake hands with Vijay, Steve and Dennis. Arguably the only people who were more connected to this experience than he was were the composers, the ACO staff and board, and the musicians who were playing on stage that night. Joe had a fabulous time. We spent over 90 minutes talking about it over dinner at a nearby pub following the reception and he continued to email me and leave answering machine messages with even further thoughts about the evening. Joe’s reaction was fascinating and offers some valuable insights that market researchers are unlikely to uncover. Here are a few choice highlights…

According to Joe, “The idea of going to sit in a place that’s basically not comfortable is tough. Sitting down for that long is not riveting. And there’s no room. You don’t know what to do with your legs and there’s the whole armrest thing. And coughing really doesn’t thrill me; somebody had a really big one. There is a thing about a cough being an expression of tension. If you’re uncomfortable you might be more tense and a cough can result from it. Mercifully there were no cellphones going off.” When I pointed out to him that the experience of going to the movies is similar, he concurred and pointed out that he also doesn’t go to movies. In the era of NetFlix, there are many folks who never go to the movies. I myself have not gone to a movie theatre in more than five years.

Yet despite the discomfort. Joe acknowledged that there are important distinctions between live and prerecorded music. “We can all agree that live music is better than canned music. There isn’t a recorded medium in the world that sounds like real. Recordings can sound great but they don’t sound live. Maybe it’s psychological; I don’t know. Seeing the musicians makes the whole process a human process rather than an engineering process. All other things being equal, comfort level etc., live music is better. One of the great things about hearing a live orchestra is you get these sounds that really have space as opposed to just direction.”

Luckily I chose a contemporary music program; Joe was incredulous that people regularly attended programs of the standard repertoire. He also admitted to being put off by what he perceived as a snob factor in such classical music programs: “This was atypical of what I think of as an orchestra and it’s nice to know that there are orchestras doing this. I’m not really likely to go see a Beethoven concert; I’d go the library and get a CD. If you’ve heard Beethoven a hundred times, you’ve heard it a hundred thousand times. Not the first time. But if you’ve heard it a hundred times, the next hundred times are going to be pretty much identical. People who go to the three-B concerts are snobs generally speaking. And if they aren’t, I don’t know what the hell they’re doing there. I really enjoy reworkings of the old masters on different instruments, like the Koto ensemble that recorded Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. That’s a legitimate excuse for doing the same old. But there are people who will not even listen to Bernstein conduct Beethoven, though they’d put his Mahler up against the guy with five letters and one of them’s a Z. With the three Bs there’s a built in snob quality. You go to the Philharmonic on a Thursday night and you’re going to see it.”

Yet at the same time, Joe had no problem with the formality of classical music presentation, both for the musicians on stage: “It’s better than everybody wearing different clothes. It’s OK when the soloist is wearing something different, but generally if you’re an ensemble you ought to wear a uniform. You have to treat your audience with respect.” And the audience? “I still like the opportunity to put a tie on. One of the positive things about the snobbiness of going to a concert is that you get to put a tie on.” (Ironically, Joe wasn’t wearing a tie this time around.)

What’s a fair price for this experience?

“Thirty-five bucks, even fifty, sounds reasonable. You’re getting a lot of good music. And if there’s a clinker, you can always ride it out. There’s no reason why you should enjoy every single piece.”

What else worked for him?

“It said in the program approximately how long everything would run; I loved that. OK, this is twenty-three minutes; I’m in.”

Might concerts be too long?

“Generally I was able to stay focused. It might be nice to be able to grab just an hour of something real and then go off and have a beer. When there are so many pieces, it’s a lot to absorb.”

So, did I convert someone buying an orchestra subscription series? Not quite: “I like to think that I would do it again; I’ve just been out of the habit for so long. It terms of the whole thing, if I had someone to go with, it wouldn’t be so hard. If you can’t share it with someone, it’s just not really as much fun. Almost everything that’s fun is more fun with someone else. I actually do remember going to some subscription concerts of the New York Philharmonic during the Boulez days. It was mostly the old stuff, but there was some new stuff because he was Boulez and he could do it. I recall him doing one of his own pieces for nine instruments. I loved this piece; I thought it was really swell. But he got booed. The Thursday crowd didn’t want to hear anything that didn’t have a tune, which was very important to me to learn in my own growing up musically. Just because they didn’t like it doesn’t mean that you don’t have to. Like just because all my friends think that Barry Manilow is bogus doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy the hell out of him, to pick an anti-Boulez. People love Kenny G. and they’re entitled to. It’s perfectly valid. If Mantovani moves you (and I don’t know how he could), but if it puts you in a frame of mind… If somebody moves you, that’s what it’s all about. I don’t care.”

First off, let me say that I often won’t even try to take an uninitiated friend to an orchestra concert, in part because many of my friends already are enthusiastic concertgoers.

Maybe I find that there is so much less to talk about with those who seem apathetic or antagonistic about symphony concerts…heck, I’ve found that I’m related to some of them.