Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Carmina, put your Brahms around me?

In discussing the coming season, we have a decision to make.  If you were to put cost of production aside, which major orchestral work would you project to draw the largest audience:  Carmina Burana or the Brahms Requiem?  Comments are welcome.


  1. Brahms would draw ME, Carmina wouldn't. But that may not be the case for the general population.

  2. Last year (2 yrs ago?) we did Carmina with the OSO and 8,000-9,000 people heard it.Why do it again so soon? We don't want the fans to become satiated. But I grudgingly have to admit it's probably the bigger draw. I'd prefer the Brahms. Or the Verdi Req! I am new at blogs and not sure where my name comes in. This is Mary Lane!

  3. Hello Choir Community, I have shared the following comments in the past to specific members of the choir and I humbly share my thoughts with you. I share them with the Choir my most utmost respect for this institution.

    We tend to either break even, or break the bank, when the Choir has concerts at the Schnitz. It does not seem to be an economically viable option for the Choir. We have to pay rent, pay an orchestra, and perhaps pay soloists. It is a lot of effort with economic returns that are questionable and always frightening. In short, I would suggest that we rent a space that is cheaper and smaller than the Schnitz (such as St. Mary's) and have performances on different or consecutive nights. Also, to further get more different folk to attend our concert, I would suggest that we do one of the pieces with an area choir and/or existing musical ensemble (singing with high school students this Christmas showed us that they can fill up St. Mary's!). In other words, our music programming may need to include pieces that can be performed with invited guests. Invited guests are another way of drawing a different demographic and money pool to our concerts. We truly need to cater to new markets. Though we are wonderful at inviting our friends and family, we need to reach new audiences and welcome new singers.

    Finally, to answer Mark’s question about whether to “Carmina Burana” or to “Ein deutches requiem” our way into the next year . . . We just did “Carmina” with the Orchestra. Could we really afford to do it again since the orchestra must be well rehearsed for this piece? It was obvious that we needed more time with the orchestra during our last Mozart experience. Are we going to have enough money to train an orchestra to play all those symphonic interludes in Carmina? I would ask: Can we make money by always singing choral pieces with an orchestra that is under-rehearsed and that takes a good chunk of our funds? We already sing with the orchestra once a year and we don’t have to pay for that!

    Though Brahms work would be an option, I am concerned that by singing so many requiems and masses year after year we are liturgically plotting our own death in terms of public expectations and in terms of exciting and varied programming. When was the last time a choir this size committed to exploring new programming, for example, opera choruses, or even other choral repertoire? Rossini has plenty of scenes for Choir and soloists. I would even suggest including Brahms “Lieder Waltzes” if we sing his Requiem! Or perhaps do scenes from various oratorios that deal with a specific timely theme . . . For example, explore “war” and “peace” in various oratorios and choral settings. Or now that we are in a time of so-called “hope” and that we have an African-American President, why not explore choral music that speaks about “hope” and/or that reflects African-American experiences? In short, why not explore music from the Americas for a change? Whatever the music and/or themes, it would be ideal to see varied programming that shows our wide spectrum of sound and that explores new ways at looking at familiar music. I am not sure if the Choir is ready to commission new pieces (and the cost and musical risk that it entails), but making familiar programming sound unfamiliar and new would add excitement to our concerts. For example, when we did Mozart’s Requiem, it would have been ideal to sing pieces from his late operas and let the audience connect his sacred and secular music. Or perhaps we could have programmed for the first part of the concert various renderings of death and grief from composers such as Gluck or Haydn, or even offer our audience a requiem from a contemporary of Mozart’s! In short, as much as I love singing for this choir, I want to think that as a prospective new audience member I would also love to attend our concerts. —In solidarity, oscar.

  4. Will this appear on the blog? Testing. This is WAY too complex. Mary Lane

  5. my vote would be for the Brahms. We should let Carmina rest for a bit.

  6. I vote for Brahms as well. I've never performed it before.

  7. I agree. We've been with Orff too soon ago to be revisiting the Carmina. Brahms Requiem is a better choice.

  8. Agree with Dale. We sang Carmina to 9,000 people very recently. Even die-hard fans can become satiated. If this (my third) post doesn't appear on the blog, I give up. Mary Lane

  9. Everyone needs to keep in mind that I have to see a post before it will appear on the blog. That way we can keep opinions that are off topic under control. Yes, it's controlling but this is not to be a totally open forum on whatever. It's to be about the Choir and what it can do.

    So, those of you who posted will now see what you noted all of a sudden... because I came to my computer and approved the comments.


  10. Between those two options, I would agree on the Brahms, but I am disappointed if the Bach B minor Mass is off the table. We have not done it in the eight-plus year I've been in the Choir, and I think it would be a huge draw -- either at the Schnitz or at the Cathedral.


  11. I would enjoy doing the Brahms again. I think that the Requiem is one of the finest examples of Brahms' work. I might suggest having some other Brahms works to go with it, or works by composers of the same period. The one thing I did not like about our last concert is that it was too short. It worked out , but would prefer we do our usual 2 hour concert and give the audience their moneys worth.

    Wayne Carlon

  12. Both pieces are appropriate for a symphonic choir, feasible without an extension to the Schnitzer stage, and popular among classical music listeners.

    In the annual lists of Top 100 requests to KBPS, Carmina Burana and the Brahms German Requiem rank nearly equally. In 2008 they were 33rd and 34th respectively. Averaged over the last six years (2003 to 2008), CB was 25th and BR was ahead at 22nd.

    It's fair to ask whether radio requests correlate with live concert attendance. I believe they do, but would welcome any opposing evidence.

    Our Schnitz reservation of November 15, 2009, is only 18 months after our last performance of Carmina Burana with OSO in May 2008, but it's 54 months after our last performance of the Brahms Requiem with OSO (February 2005).

    Tom Hard

  13. To respond directly to the question put forth, without consideration of cost or personal preference... I believe that while both works draw good audiences, the Carmina would generate a larger audience and revenue stream as it tends to reach a wider demographic in our geographic region.

  14. Replying to one of Oscar's thoughtful comments, "We already sing with the orchestra once a year and we don’t have to pay for that!"

    We do, unfortunately! OSO pays PSC much less than it costs us to sing in their concerts: typically only half of our direct costs, or a quarter of our total costs. This means that PSC subsidizes OSO. Moreover, such an unfair relationship is typical of independent choirs negotiating with major American symphony orchestras.

    I agree that running our own concerts of major symphonic choral works in the Schnitz is stressful, due to the financial risk. However, the financial results of our Mozart concert were much better than if we had performed the same work with OSO, and also better than we would get with a concert in a church, with or without an orchestra.

    Tom Hard

  15. As you know, I'm the only one around here who can't sing. All I can do is raise money and do PR. I've been doing that for nearly 30 years (as scary as that is). And I've never seen such a nasty economy as this one. Money for funding arts is thinner than it was 20 years ago and there are HUNDREDS of THOUSANDS more organizations seeking that money than there were when I had "big hair".

    So I'm thinking just about trying to keep us financially afloat. To do that we must play either at the Schnitz or the Keller because there simply aren't enough seats in a church venue to sell to get us to a level where we can break even. (The Keller, btw, is booked by road shows about 99.9% of the time.) Mark and Tom have developed a spreadsheet referred to as the "Concert Supposer" that clarifies all our expenses and potential income - this is the first tool we've ever had to really guide us in that way and it's really eye-opening.

    All that said, we still need to sell 1600 tickets to make money, as a ballpark figure. So getting the bodies is the real challenge. There are three prongs to this: 1) In this economy, people are hesitant to spend hard-earned cash on things they aren't comfortable with. 2) We have about 800 ticket buyers from all sources who think of us as a known commodity. We need twice that amount. 3) That other 800 has to come from other sources, namely, aggressive marketing, and it's easier to market the familiar rather than the esoteric.

    I'm just a fan. A proll. A groundling. I'm essentially uneducated in music. But I'm a ticket buyer because I love classical music even if I can't sing or play it. And there's more of my type than there are gifted, educated singers such as yourselves. Folks like you ARE attending our concerts, there just aren't enough of them. So we need to market to the masses to build our audience - not just to break even, but to identify and enchant the next generation of classical music fans.

    Carmina is a known commodity. Everything from movie scores to beer commercials use it. Ozzy Osborn used it and the prolls went wild. People like it. It is very expensive to mount because of the orchestra, but it's very sellable. Heck, the honking huge orchestra is one of its selling points!

    While Brahms' Requiem and Orff's Carmina may rank nearly equal in classical music ratings, those ratings are by nature skewed toward those who already "get" classical music - not groundlings. Take that same list and give it to a pop or country music station and I don't think the Requiem will rank so well. (I also agree with Oscar - we don't want to be known as the Choir of the Dead - except at Monsterworks, but that's another story).

    I think we need a workhorse rather than a showhorse. In order to survive financially, we need to sell tickets, to bring in new audiences and build our following. Carmina lends itself to mass marketing. It is redolent of fun and flash and power, beer commercials and timpani drums. We can dress it up and make it a pageant. We can sell it.

    I think most great artists at one time or another "sold out" to the common interest or starvation and lowered the common denominator in their work when times were lean. Shakespeare, it is said, hated the stuff the queen commanded he write, but the people in the cheap seats (groudlings) adored it and it still sells tickets. I think there is a lesson in that. And I do not think Carmina is a sell out artistically but it has the potential to be one financially.

    There are never any guarantees we'll get underwriting or have a completely irresistable marketing campaign that will lure the masses but we'll try our very best. Give us a concert we can intrigue the largest amount of people with and our chances are better at getting funding, new audiences and a stronger following.

  16. For a full concert of singing, the choir has direct preparation costs of about $24,000. This is true for an a cappella concert as well as a blockbuster. This does not include performance hall rental or orchestra or hall labor to produce the concert. It's just for our singers, directors and accompanist plus rehearsal hall rental. We've never managed to collect more than about $18,000 in ticket sales for a church concert (Wintersong '08) A more normal church concert income is around $14,000.

    So, unless we decide to increase ticket prices quite a bit (which would result in a decrease in attendance, I'm sure) we're not going to make enough to pay our direct choral prep costs in a church. In the Schnitzer, have the range of ticket price available ($10-$75) and the high prices sell well. We attracted over 800 last season for the PDQ and about 1,500 for the Mozart this season... which put us close to a break-even point. So, monetarily we have far better potential in the Schnitzer... thus, we need to pick a work that will draw an audience. Hence the above question. - MAP

  17. based on the excellent point by Cindy, I think I would have to change my vote to the "Carmelized Banana" instead of the Requiem. It would be lovely to afford to just do the "classics", but as Cindy pointed out, we have to get butts in hte seats, and preferably have the audience buy the tickets rather than "paper" the house.


  18. Interesting conversation - and a lot to consider. I am in agreement with John Salmon - let's not take the B Minor Mass off the table - and I love Mary Lane's suggestion re: Verdi Requiem. I personally prefer the Carmina over the Brahms, however agree that it's too soon to perform again. Not sure how these all measure up in terms of being able to pull in the numbers we are hoping for.

    Sandy Bumpus

  19. Are there really no other halls in town that are larger than St. Mary's but cheaper (and better) than the Schnitz? This just seems nonsensical. Is it really more economical to MAYBE break even (and often not even that) at the Schnitz than to sell out completely at some smaller venue -- say 750 seats?

    I also would like to re-think the Schnitz performances. The Schnitz, acoustically, just sucks. We all know that. It was never intended for choral acoustic music, and really, I don't think it's very good for OSO, either (but they're not my problem). Why are we beating ourselves up (and often losing money) to sing in a hall where we just don't sound as good? There has GOT to be a venue somewhere in the greater Portland area that is more appropriate for our purposes.

    Having said that, if we REALLY don't have a decent venue in town for classical music, and we're stuck with the Schnitz, and we HAVE to chose between Carmina and Brahms, I'd vote for Carmina. We did Brahms just 1 year before Carmina with the OSO, didn't we? And I really think it's more popular.

    But I'd also like to 2nd John's vote for Bach B Minor Mass. First of all, I think that one will sell out even better, since it hasn't been heard in town for so long. Also, I suspect the acoustic problems (choir/orchestra balance) would be less prounounced. (After all, I don't think there's as much percussion in the Bach....)

    Also, thanks for providing this blog space!

  20. This has been -- and I trust will continue to be -- a good exchange. I appreciate Cindy's perspective on keeping financial issues in mind, and the audience we can draw. It's particularly appropriate during the current financial woes, with many people (including some in the Choir) out of work.

    I'd still come down on something other than Carmina. I think it would be a mistake to slip into just recycling the same works every two or three years, whatever their popularity. That's an overstatement, but I think the point is important. We would be in danger, I'm afraid, of boring both our audiences and, more especially, the Choir (even the Beethoven 9th is getting to seem "old hat" to those of us who have done it many times). We as singers need to continue to be challenged and to grow. And, to be sure, we *are* being continually challenged by Steve to improve our artistry, even on the "standard" repertoire. But that's not enough. I think it is as true for a choir as it is for any living organism: if you're not growing, you're dying.

  21. It looks to me like we have two issues running side by side: the program, and the venue.

    I think we need to rethink venues--the Schnitz is too expensive, but St. Mary's is too small--but to take the program first, I like Oscar's idea of doing a themed concert. In particular, I like the idea of an American music concert.

    Basically this probably means a Boston Pops' style concert with several pieces, with music by one composer/arranger (Moses Hogan, for example), or by several composers, but themed.

    Whatever we choose, I think we need to keep this in mind: People of all levels of musical experience respond well to a musical storyline--so that the choir isn't just performing beautiful music, but telling a story or making a comment that speaks to the common human condition.

    The Mozart Requiem has that element to it--because of "Amadeus" and because of the poignancy of its connection to Mozart's life and death--and we did quite well, selling it.

  22. Posted for Jim Hook by MAP:

    Several issues have been articulated clearly:

    1. We are what we sing
    2. Audience development is important
    3. Artistic development of the choir is important
    4. We must be fiscally responsible

    To develop an audience, we must start where they are and take them on a journey to someplace new and exciting. If we stand still we don't hold them. As we program a season, or a set of seasons, we should be furthering this journey. We have tended to have very self-contained thematic concerts. In many ways this is good, but we do very little when preforming a classic to build curiosity or understanding about our more risky programs, such as commissioned works by contemporary composers. Can we program in a way that points forward to our future concerts? Do the folks that attend a Schnitz concert or Wintersong understand the program we are proposing for the rest of the year?

    Clearly Carmina and the Messiah are two of the most accessible choral works we know. PBO already has a lock on the Messiah gig. If we program Carmina again this soon, are we in effect making Carmina our Nutcracker? Does Carmina have Nutcracker legs? Does Nutcracker really develop new audiences, or is it just a cash cow that gives predictable revenue? If we pursue a Nutcracker strategy can we maintain the artistic development of the choir?

    Personally I think we must have variety in programming. I do not think we can meet the needs of the singers for artistic growth if we program too conservatively.

    I am afraid that we may accidentally pursue a Nutcracker strategy and not explicitly address the risk of a lack of artistic development of the choir. I am not ready to support a Nutcracker strategy, but I think that is effectively what Cindy and Mark have argued for. Eighteen months after the next Carmina it will always seem like a good time for another full house at the Schnitz to balance the budget, and we still won't be able to do it by programming outside the KBPS top 10.

    I take the concerns about fiscal responsibility very seriously. I am concerned that we have not found a sustainable mode of operations. Can we do more to control the costs? In the Mozart concert I felt the choir overprepared on most of the music. I only needed my score for the Amen, the two Hosannah's, and the word underlay for the last fugue. Can we decrease the number of rehearsals without sacrificing quality of performance?

    At one point we radically expanded the number of staff singers in the choir. This raised the level of the choir. To what extent can we maintain the new level without as many staff singers? Have we raised the level of the volunteer choir? Or just compensated for the amateurs with professionals?

    Can we set rehearsal preparation standards for the whole choir at the level of a professional choir? Do we want to? Can we afford not to? If we did it would shorten preparation time and reduce cost. It would be a very different choir, however.

    These are not questions anyone wants to ask, but they are questions we have to ask. Are we spending money on the right things? Are we getting good value for our expenditures? Can we survive spending less?