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The Alliance (Don’t Call It a Merger) Between the Hartford Symphony and the Bushnell

Sep 18, 2014

What are some of the emerging specifics of the partnership? Will we, as audience members, notice any of them?

In a few weeks – October 16 to be precise – the Hartford Symphony will open its new season with a program that is vintage Carolyn Kuan: the “1812 Overture,” a concerto for a traditional Japanese instrument called the koto, and a big concert version, with massed choral forces from around the city, of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” 

I say vintage Carolyn Kuan because the HSO’s music director, now entering her fourth season here, has shown that she likes to mix things up programmatically, likes to explore the East-West thing, and generally likes to make big statements. This opening concert (repeated Friday October 17 through Sunday October 19) does all three things simultaneously. I’m looking forward to it.

But as a new HSO season begins, there’s another storyline unfolding: how is the symphony's new partnership with the Bushnell playing out? What are some of the emerging specifics of that partnership, and will we as audience members notice any of them?

To quickly recap, last March, the two organizations announced they would be entering into a new arrangement whereby the Bushnell would essentially take over the management of the orchestra. Both groups were at pains to insist that (1) this was not a “merger” (both boards, for instance, would remain intact), and (2) that this new deal, which had been discussed on and off for years, was not being entered into, because the orchestra was “ailing.”

It was simply a way to formalize the close relationship the two groups have had for decades, and well as to find new efficiencies with respect to staffing, fundraising, administrative activity, etc., etc. 

Steve Collins.
Credit Connecticut DECD
"It takes a while for a 200-year tradition to get turned around, but it's happening."
Steve Collins

The wheels are turning. Over the summer, the HSO moved out of its old offices on Pearl Street and moved in, like a cross-town relative looking to strengthen family ties, to the Bushnell.

Importantly, the HSO has hired Steve Collins, previously the well-regarded executive director of the Waterbury Symphony, to be the HSO’s new all–purpose administrator. (Under the terms of the alliance, Bushnell CEO David Fay is now the de facto CEO of the Hartford Symphony.)

Collins’ official title is Director of Artistic Operations and Administration. In practice, this seems to be “The Guy Everybody Now Turns to When There is an Issue That Requires Some Knowledge of Professional Orchestras.”

“I don’t think the ticket buying public will notice anything right away about the alliance, as we’re calling it,” Collins told me. That makes sense – the new season was decided on and announced long before the Bushnell alliance was consummated.

Looking ahead, there’s a lot of interest in how the new deal will manifest itself.

Will the partnership result in new approaches to programming and repertoire?

Is it realistic these days to hope for an increase in HSO activity, including performances outside the Bushnell itself?

Will the hoped-for new administrative stability mean the HSO will be able to attract significant new donors?

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra performs.
Credit Hartford Symphony Orchestra / Facebook

Those conversations are just beginning, according to Collins. "We’re just starting to wrap our heads around what directions we might explore," he said. "But we know that orchestras can't just continue with the status quo anymore. And the potential creative aspect of this partnership is one of the main reasons I’m here."

Refreshingly, Collins sounds pretty convincing when he says he doesn’t buy the notion that orchestras are doomed.

"On the contrary, I’m extremely optimistic," he said. "There’s a tremendous spirit of innovation that’s being applied to the business end of orchestras, as well as to programming and the rest of it. It takes a while for a 200-year tradition to get turned around, but it’s happening."

Hopeful words. We’ll check in regularly to see how it’s going.

The Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
Credit Matthew Straubmuller / Creative Commons

Kennedy Center Honors

I’ve always liked the Kennedy Center Honors. I like that you can have an award that both Pete Seeger and Aretha Franklin could win -- in the same year, no less. Mostly I have liked that over the years, “serious” artists, by which we mean mostly classical music or dance figures, could sit up there alongside movie stars and pop entertainers. And the serious folks were more than mere tokens. One year, the roster of five awardees included Leonard Bernstein, Agnes de Mille, Lynn Fontanne and Leontyne Price. 

President Barack Obama speaks with Kennedy Center honorees from the band Led Zeppelin: from left, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, and Jimmy Page, in 2012.
Credit Pete Souza / White House

But over the past decade or so, there has been some creep. Now we seem to get, at best, one “serious” person out of the five.

If the serious person is from the dance world, then the music world gets shut out and vice versa. Meanwhile some of the popular entertainer choices have been a tad sketchy. I mean, I enjoy “Cracklin’ Rosie” as much as the next man, but I wonder if  Neil Diamond should be copping one of these things (2011) while such classical worthies as Riccardo Muti, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Seiji Ozawa, Menachem Pressler, Martha Argerich and Pierre Boulez, to name a top-of-the head few, are still waiting by the phone.

In any case, Alex Ross of The New Yorker (who, by the way, I will link to often because he’s simply the best writer on serious music that we have) has written a thoughtful meditation on this topic, responding to this year's just-announced group of honorees. 

Remember deMaine

Some of you will recall that back in the '90s, the Hartford Symphony cello section featured a gifted, high-energy young player named Robert deMaine. Anyone who heard Robert play in those days was not surprised when he later turned up as the principal cellist of the Detroit Symphony. Nor were they surprised when, just last year, he moved along to become principal of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, now indisputably one of our major orchestras.

Cellist Robert deMaine.
Credit Craig T. Mathew / Mathew Imaging/Creative Commons

Recently, The L.A. Times ran about a compelling story about Robert in which he talks not only about his career, but also about his battle with alcohol addiction, now thankfully behind him. It’s a nicely done piece, and reminds us of the dark backstage issues that many musicians and performing artists deal with.

Robert will give a recital Friday night (9/18) at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, with Fabio and Giselle Witkowski taking turns at the piano.

Best conservatories? Ya Gotta Have Hartt

Like most people, I tend to view stories that attempt to rank institutions (or Bond movies, or Beatles albums) according to a simple rule: if they reinforce my own pre-existing opinions then they are smart and meaningful.

An orchestral performance at The Millard Auditorium at The Hartt School in 2009.
Credit DC 160 / Creative Commons

With that in mind, I’m pleased to report on a rankings piece that placed my alma mater, The Hartt School, in some pretty fast company. Musical America, the granddaddy of trade publications about the music profession, has just published its proprietary list of the 54 Best Music Schools in the World.

The schools are not ranked within the 54, but right there, alongside Juilliard, Eastman, Oberlin and all the other usual suspects, is Hartt. I don’t think I saw their ranking methodology, but I feel sure it was smart and meaningful.

Leon

Leon Fleischer in 2011.
Credit Corrie M. / Creative Commons

Leon Fleisher, the indomitable American pianist who has struggled with physical ailments for decades -- notably debilitating afflictions of his right hand -- has a new CD out.

It’s called All the Things You Are, and yes, it features a lilting little solo piano arrangement of the great Jerome Kern classic. It also features music by Bach, George Perle and others.

It is all, miraculously, played by the left hand alone.

Fleisher is 87.

Steve Metcalf was The Hartford Courant’s fulltime classical music critic and reporter for over 20 years, beginning in 1982. He is currently the curator of the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series at The Hartt School. He can be reached atspmetcalf55@gmail.com.