Friday, December 11, 2009

Interview w/ Magik Markers: Some Kind of Blood Orgy

As published by LA Record:

Formed in 2001 in a Connecticut basement, Magik Markers have covered a lot of ground, figuratively and literally. Now based in New York, noise rock duo Pete Nolan (drums, percussion) and Elisa Ambrogio (guitar, vocals) recently became a trio, adding John Shaw (bass) to the lineup. The band recently performed in an Estonian occult film and bobbed around in the Dead Sea. This interview by Linda Rapka.

I saw you perform a couple years ago in New Orleans at a fabulously grungy dive called the Hi-Ho Lounge. There was only a handful of people there, but you guys still tore shit up. Do you like playing smaller venues?
Pete Nolan (drums): We love dives. And we love New Orleans. This guy Rob down there always shows us around. He took us to this place Ernie K-Doe's — the guy that sang that '50s song "Mother in Law." He was this crazy flamboyant character, like Little Richard meets Sun Ra. He's dead but his widow has this bar where there's this weird effigy to him and they carry it around in parades and stuff.

Back in Hartford you guys used to throw shows in Elisa's dad's basement.
It's the best kind of show. It was a total party zone—authentic out of the '60s. There was a Hubert Humphrey poster on one wall, black-lit spray painting everywhere and this really cool figure of this Randy California/Hendrix-looking guy playing guitar. It was a cool zone but it was a wreck when we lived there. It was her grandparents' house so it had filled up with shit. There were all these boxes — mostly of lottery card receipts. I cleaned out maybe 50 boxes of nothing but receipts for lottery cards. It really was a complete shitpile of crazy. There was an army of dirty stuffed animals. It was a cool zone but I had to basically put a bunch of shit in one corner of the room and sort of drape it away and then we could have shows there.

What were the basement shows like?
It was Hartford. Some of the shows we only had like ten people there — Hartford G's smokin' blunts. But the premiere show for the Magik Markers was a total blowout show. This band Tart played, and the Bunnybrains. That was the only show we played there. Our first and last. And then they actually lost the house.

How did Magik Markers end up being in a film in Estonia?
Last year we played in Estonia with this director Veiko Õunpuu. Apparently he was really into our Boss record, and he made this crazy movie called The Temptation of St. Tony and wanted us to be in his film. These things come out of left field. We were just in Jerusalem — we were in Jesus' tomb! — and then we walked from there to play a show. I really am baffled by some of the stuff that we've done. It's a strange sort of occult movie about some businessman who somehow gets involved with the underworld scene in Estonia. We were on the border of Russia, and all the shooting was in this Stalinist European ballroom. There was this dinner party going on and we were the house band. After we played, they brought out all these girls who were dressed up as signs of the zodiac, and a devil character made this speech saying, "We believe that the zodiac is going to fall, and we want you to vote for what sign you want to go first." They all voted and they took the girl in the back and chopped her up in pieces, and they all ate her. Some kind of blood orgy ensued after that. On the film set itself they were just drinking vodka like animals. Everyone was wasted. We were totally freaked out. We didn't know what the hell was going on.

Not every band goes from Jesus' tomb to a blood orgy in Estonia within a year.
It's hard to turn down opportunities like those. That's the thing — if you can go somewhere and see something that you've never seen before, on a personal level that's helped me develop. It can spur you on and spur your imagination on. We were just at the Dead Sea, floating around. It was really sting-y. I had all these cuts on my face from shaving and it burned.

I thought the Dead Sea was supposed to be healing.
Yeah, it was healing. I was being cured like a ham or something.

With all your world travels, what made you name your new album after a local quarry?
That's all Elisa's thing. Her big thing is that no band has ever come out of Hartford or claimed they're out of Hartford. Anyone from Hartford moves to New York and says, "Hey, we're a New York band." She's like, "No, we're from Hartford." When the record came out the Hartford Courant did this huge story about us — in the paper our faces took up half the page. They were like, "Wow, you're from Hartford? You named your record after this quarry?" It was major news in Hartford.

The producer on the new record is Scott Colburn, who's worked with bands like Animal Collective, Arcade Fire, Clinic and Feral Children. How’d you hook up with him?
The label asked who we wanted to record with. We kind of could do whatever we wanted. We were thinking Scott Colburn, and I was really into it because I'm a big Sun City Girls fan and I knew he was their producer. It was almost from a geeked-out fan perspective that we wanted to work with him. I didn't even realize that he'd done stuff with Animal Collective. He had a great zone. We were right in his house up there in Seattle. His house is a converted church. He's a total audio nerd. He really knows how to suck the best sound out of a room, and a band.

The band puts out limited-release CD-Rs of live shows and studio recordings on your label, Arbitrary Signs, between official albums. What drives this need for perpetual output?
We always wanna have something new for when we hit the road. Every time we go on tour we make something new and we're always recording, and so much of it's improvised and in different styles.

Is it like keeping your own musical scrapbook?
Yeah, it definitely is kind of like a documentary kind of thing. It's kind of slowed down a bit 'cause we only get together when we're touring. We have to make more of an effort to get together and just jam. I think these days we're probably gonna do more LP stuff just 'cause with the CD-R thing... those are just gonna be blank in like five years. It's an obsolete document. The last time we had a serious practice I had to take a bus up to western Massachusetts and be away from my family for four days. Just so we could practice. I don’t want to make such a huge effort and make a freakin' CD-R.

What makes it harder for the band to get together now?
Oh Jesus. Honestly, I don't even know how we've kept it together for so long. I think the only reason is 'cause we pretty consistently get some cool opportunities. There seems to be some people who are hip to what we're doing, so we want to now perpetuate for that reason.

Does the term "noise band" annoy or offend you?
No, that's super cool. I think it kind of is, at this point, dated or whatever, but there was a period in time when there was a lot going on across America — people doing this noise music. We're definitely rooted in that. Our first tour we toured the United States and played just like eight shows and sort of tapped into these places. Like in Baltimore, we played this place Tarantula Hill with Nautical Almanac and all of these sort of weirdos with similar abstract intents. We definitely have had an abstract intent all along.

With your new album, Balf Quarry, it seems you're moving away from noise and more into fully developed rock. There are even a couple of piano ballads.
We want to make records that are more like the kind of music that we want to listen to. We've had some time to devote to making records in our studio. Elisa's spending a lot of time with lyrics. It's not really so far off from where our intent is always: sort of improvised. We don’t usually go into a studio with too many songs pre-made. We usually have two or three ideas and then we kind of make up the rest. It's a pretty organic process. I think it's cool — it yields all kinds of results. The fact that we're just a two-piece makes it so we do a lot more layering and overdubbing and stuff like that.

You just added a third member to the band.
For a while we'd gone as a duo but now we're always a three-piece. We wouldn't do it any other way now. We just got this guy John playing bass — he's done a couple tours with us. I think we've maybe progressed to a whole sort of different thing. We've got a split record coming out with Sic Alps for this tour and on that record we recorded it all as a three-piece. It's all live recordings. In a way, it's harkening back to how we used to record — all live — and it has the feeling of a live band. It's something else. It's more psychedelic — more like these heavy jam zones, really cool guitar.

How did you end up playing drums with Jandek?
I've played with that dude a few times. The first time, he was supposed to play a show here in Chinatown in New York, and I was the last-minute guy. I'm pretty into Jandek. I've got a lot of his records, so it was a big deal for me to play with him. I didn't know what was expected, and we went and had this practice for like three hours, and he was so bummed.

Jandek was bummed with your playing?
He was just like, "Yeah, I don't know. I don't think I can go through with it." I was just like, "What the hell am I supposed to do? I'm sounding awful." But then we played the show and it turned out really cool. We played for an hour longer than we were supposed to. Then he had a show in London so he got me and Matt Heyner from the No Neck Blues Band to come over. That was really fun. We got loose with him there — we went out afterwards and got kinda drunk. Dude likes to party.

Is it true that early Magik Markers lyrics consisted of reciting the periodic table?
Maybe... I really don't know. Most of my memories of early Magik Markers shows, I can remember Elisa coming out like we're the MC5 or something, and Leah [Quimby, original live bassist] and Elisa, we didn't have any clue how to play, but we would fuckin' come out with that power anyway.

And blood, too. There was always some bloodshed at your shows.
Sometimes. Yeah, I guess maybe every time. I remember we always used to play a song called "23 Sprig Street," and another called "Marianne Faithfull 1966," but it would always be a completely different song. Elisa fucking has some profound improvisational lyrical moments. I think there's a really great thing on YouTube of us playing early on in London where she’s really going off. She'd torn the neck off her guitar and she's on the mic going way out and me and Leah are just like bashing away. It's really cool.

Has there been much onstage bloodshed lately?
Uh... yeah. I mean, yeah. I don't think we've changed as much as people think we have.

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Kenneth Pattengale @ Hotel Cafe 11/25/09

As published by LA RECORD:

Where a twentysomething white kid from almost-suburban small town Eagle Rock got the soul of an old Delta blues player is anyone's guess. Kenneth Pattengale displayed his love of traditional American music combining elements of blues, Tom Waits, and good ol' fashioned country & western at Hotel Café Nov. 25. The show kicked off a monthlong residency celebrating the release of his seventh album, Speak!, and pulled in a decent size crowd—though Butch Walker held the headline spot that night, those ticketholders had to wait outside until Kenneth cleared the stage before allowed into the venue. With a five-piece band featuring fiddle, upright bass, accordion/keys, acoustic guitar and lap steel guitar (and sometimes percussion provided by Kenneth's stomping foot), Kenneth delivered impassioned vocals recalling Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and at times even Louis Armstrong. His music has an Americana feel without the mama-ran-off-with-my-brother-in-law lyrics, instead telling uplifting stories such as his dream of always wanting a daughter. "I feel like I'm trying to rush through this set," he said toward the end of the show, knowing there was a full queue outside awaiting entrance for the next act. "That is the wrong approach. I should revel in my time up here." You can experience the revelry at the official record release show Dec. 2, at noon Dec. 5 for an interview and live performance on KCRW, and throughout the month during his residency at Hotel Café. A free copy of Speak! will be given out at every performance.

—Linda Rapka

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Jason Falkner @ Spaceland 11/7/09

As published by LA Record:

It’s no secret I have a bias when it comes to Jason Falkner. As webmistress of the powerpop master’s unofficial website for the past eight years and having attended nearly all of his L.A. shows within that span, I consider myself something of a Falkner connoisseur. It’s a harrowing task having to review one of your favorite artists, because you actually have more of a propensity to critique them. There’s no wiggle room; I know full well when Jason is in top form, and when he’s not. What’s more, since Jason spends most of his time producing (just this year he’s completed records with cult favorite Daniel Johnston, Dutch artist Anne Soldaat and put out his own self-produced album, All Quiet on the Noise Floor), he only plays a handful of shows any given year — most of which are in Japan, to the vexation of his loyal local following. An L.A. show has become something of a sacred event, so it was no surprise that Saturday’s sold-out show at Spaceland was as packed as I’ve ever seen. Opener buzz artist Nico Stai pulled in quite a draw and primed the crowd with his no nonsense rockage.

Admittedly, I was nervous when Jason took to the stage, knowing that as a working reporter for the evening I had to be brutally honest, no matter what. A third of the way through opening song “Honey” from his sophomore album Can You Still Feel?, I knew I need not fear a thing. The band was the tightest I’ve heard in nearly a decade. Jason is known for an ever-revolving roster of backing band mates (save for steadfast drummer Petur Smith, who’s commanded the kit since 2005), but this time all familiar faces graced the stage with guitarist Andy Blunda, who joined on last year, and bassist Jeff Lee from the 2005 lineup along with Smith. But it wasn’t just about the band. Unabashed about hitting those album-perfect high notes on the vocals and delivering guitar solos with abandon, Jason gave a rejuvenating performance compared to his more cautiously subdued performances of recent years—as noted after the show by his brother Ryan (aka Beck’s spazzo dance man, Juice). The set was chock full of goodies off his new album, which is currently only available as a Japanese import. Tunes like “Emotion Machine,” “Evangeline” and “Counting Sheep” seemed already familiar to plenty of audience members, as did Be Bop Deluxe cover “Jet Silver and the Dolls of Venus” and resurrected early ’90s demo “My Home is Not a House” from his days with The Grays (Jon Brion, Buddy Judge, Dan McCarroll). He also pulled out rarely performed chestnuts “Hectified” from his 1996 debut Author Unknown and “The Plan” from his sophomore 1999 release. Upon his return from a brief tour of Japan and Shanghai, Jason plans another L.A. appearance at the Echo in December. Take it from me, bias notwithstanding, it will be a good one.

—Linda Rapka

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Friday, October 30, 2009

¡Bienvenido Gustavo! LA Philharmonic Musicians Welcome New Music Director Gustavo Dudamel

Gustavo Dudamel photo by Sylvia Lleli. All photos courtesy of LA Philharmonic

Glad All Over

The musicians of the LA Philharmonic agree: Gustavo Dudamel lives up to the hype. And they couldn't be happier.

By Linda Rapka, Overture Managing Editor

"I've never been to a classical show before," I overheard a young woman say during the live simulcast of Gustavo Dudamel's inaugural performance with the LA Philharmonic. Her eyes, like everyone else's, were transfixed on the hypnotic girations of the young conductor as his image danced across the multiple TV screens throughout the Music Center Plaza. "This is pretty cool."

This seems to be the consensus among the musicians of the LA Philharmonic about their new music director as well. The exuberant 28-year-old conductor from Venezuela, now at the helm of one of the most revered orchestras in the world, has stirred the entire city into a frenzy of unparalleled excitement. And not just in the classical world. People all over the city, from all walks of life, are taking an unprecedented interest in the phenomenon that is Gustavo.

Beyond the Hype

Much credit must go to the LA Phil marketing department for capitalizing on Dudamel's rock-star-like ability to capture the public's interest. But the buzz doesn't end with the marketing machine.

"They're not manufacturing interest," said Dennis Trembly, principal bassist who has been with the LA Philharmonic since 1970. "They're not hyping a mediocre commodity. He's the real deal, so he's easy to sell. The marketing people get the attention of the general public who never otherwise cared about the Philharmonic, but once they've got that attention, if Dudamel wasn't justifying the raves, people would immediately lose interest. Once they're exposed to him, the response and the enthusiasm is genuine on the public's part."

"I think from the audience point of view he's probably a lot of fun just to watch," said Barry Gold, a cellist with the orchestra for the past 27 seasons. "He's very active on the podium. My wife often says when he's conducting it's like he's dancing salsa or something. The sounds just permeate his body, it resonates his whole being, so he's moving to the music. He's just so full of enthusiasm, and when you combine that with this great ability that he has, it's really unique."

"I think we're riding a tidal wave of a lot of media right now," said personnel manager Jeff Neville, who also sometimes performs trombone with the orchestra. "But there's a lot there to back it up, because if there wasn't that would fizzle out really fast in this business. It's just growing. The fact that with his background, coming out of the El Sistema program in Venezuela, and that he started to conduct an orchestra down there at age 15, I think the development and the mentors that he's had in that program really got to him because of his down-to-earth personality. There's this humbleness that he has. I can't think of another 28-year-old person who would be music director of a world-class orchestra."

Who is This Guy?

Having begun his conducting career at age 15, Dudamel honed his skills, while still a teenager, as conductor of his native Venezuela's Simón Bolivar National Youth Orchestra. He made his U.S. conducting debut with the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl in September 2005, and in April 2007, during a guest conducting engagement with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Dudamel was named the LA Phil's next music director. In September he succeeded Esa-Pekka Salonen in the 2009-2010 season, conducting two unprecedented inaugural concerts with the LA Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl and Walt Disney Concert Hall in October.

Now in its 91st season, the LA Philharmonic has seen its fair share of music conductors. Walter Henry Rothwell became the symphony's first music director in 1919, followed by 10 more renowned conductors serving at the helm of what has become recognized as one of the world's foremost orchestras. And while the Los Angeles Philharmonic has long been regarded as one of the most contemporary and innovative orchestras in the world, the arrival of Dudamel has, in no uncertain terms, given the orchestra an added measure of repute.

"It's one thing to hear the buzz about a conductor beforehand, and in our line of work we tend to distrust that," said clarinetist David Howard who's played with the orchestra for 28 years. "But the actual experience with Gustavo is magnificent. When I meet people who find out what I do for a living, they say, 'Oh, that must be wonderful.' And yeah, it is wonderful… but this is wonderful."

A Touch of Apprehension...

Despite the bravado about Dudamel, replacing Salonen, who led the orchestra for 17 seasons, naturally caused some level of uncertainty for the orchestra — especially with contract negotiations taking place at the same time, having been completed just last month.

"Obviously when you change music directors there's always a little apprehension because we have a new boss on the podium," Neville said. "They've been used to Esa-Pekka for the last 17 years and they knew what to expect from him, and now all of a sudden we have a new boss, and this boss does not have a track record behind him. So it's kind of like they're out setting new breaking ground.

"All the musicians were very nervous because of the economic environment that we're all experiencing at this particular time," Neville continued. "But riding the wave of the expectation of Gustavo over the last couple of years has really generated, economically, a positive force for this orchestra."

How They Got Him

The move to get Dudamel to Los Angeles happened largely under wraps. It was so secretive that only a few members of the orchestra even knew the search for a new music conductor was on.

"It wasn't publicized that we were in this search because Esa-Pekka hadn't announced that he was leaving," Neville said. "Esa-Pekka was committed to making sure that this orchestra was handed over to the right person, so a lot of things happened underneath the surface. There were members of the orchestra too that didn't necessarily know this was going on. It was basically handled on the committee level."

The orchestra's Artistic Liaison Committee, made up of elected orchestra members, played a key role in the push for the organization to snatch up Dudamel as quickly as possible.

"In the search process in trying to get Gustavo here, the musicians worked with Deborah (Borda, LA Philharmonic President/CEO) and management and the board in bringing him here," Neville said. "The musicians were a very important part of that, because Gustavo didn't want to come to a place where he was not necessarily welcomed or did not have the input from the players. In some orchestras, all of a sudden an announcement is made, 'This is our new music director,' and the musicians really haven't had the input that they should have."

"Gustavo's ratings were so extraordinarily unanimous and enthusiastic that neither Deborah nor the committee had to convince each other that they'd better take this seriously and act fast to acquire this person," Trembly said.

"The fact that we collectively, the management as well as the orchestra, found Gustavo and literally watched his meteor rise over these last several years, and the fact that we moved ahead as quickly as we did to pursue him and woo him and get him to come here, has been very exciting for us," Neville said.


The enthusiasm surrounding Dudamel goes beyond just what's generated by the media. Every member of the orchestra we spoke with expressed having experienced a palpable energy they say emanates from within the young conductor.

"You can't ignore it," Trembly said. "It radiates toward you. He enfolds you with his energy. It's almost an intoxication."

"He wants 100 percent from people all the time," Neville said. "He's driving himself along those lines but he also expects the response from the orchestra as well."

"It's very inspirational," Gold said. "We want to go to that place that he's trying to take us. With him it feels so collaborative. With every conductor we try and do our best to focus in on their directions and where they want the orchestra to go musically, but with Gustavo, he's coming from such a unique place that's full of energy, and love of course. Every note has to have this… meaning."

The saying "you give what you get" plays out in a very real way in the symphonic world. When the stars align just right, what a music director puts out will come back from the orchestra. In Dudamel's case, it's working.

"His enthusiasm is the overriding quality of him," Trembly said. "It's genuine, sincere, intense enthusiasm, and that's wonderful to be around. He loves music and what music can do for people, and he loves people."

This love of people is real; Gustavo regularly hugs the musicians during rehearsals. His personality fits right in with the positive atmosphere the orchestra members have enjoyed for years.

"You really sense from your colleagues that they are giving for Gustavo 150 percent," Gold said. "And the camaraderie offstage has always been there. It's a very friendly orchestra to be in from my perspective. When Gustavo's offstage he's very friendly, extremely approachable, he doesn't go off and function in his ivory tower. He likes to be there for us."

So Happy Together

A music director's dynamic with the orchestra is a crucial part of the overall organization's success. So far, the musicians of the LA Philharmonic don't seem to have any complaints about Gustavo.

"What most people look for in a conductor is clarity in ideas and the technique to describe what he wants to the orchestra," said first violinist Mitch Newman, who's been with the LA Phil since 1987. "And not to only communicate that verbally, but with their gestures and body. It doesn't necessarily have to be with the baton, but with something that lets the orchestra know exactly what the conductor wants. Gustavo does very, very well with that. He works very hard when he's there. He's completely involved in what he's doing."

"With Esa-Pekka it was all about clarity and the proper balances," Gold said. "With Gustavo, that's an important ingredient, but he takes that mixture and tries to throw in a little bit more seasoning that he has being Latin. There's more of a hot-blooded feeling. He's going for a different type of sound. And being a string player himself, he really lets us play. Even in the softest dynamic, he's constantly saying, 'Play forte with the left hand, but pianissimo with the bow.' So the intensity of the sound is always there."

"He's definitely after a certain sound depending on what piece he's working on," Neville said. "He really works on it until he gets the sound that he wants, and if one way he's trying to explain what he wants doesn't necessarily work he finds another way. It's not a demanding way from him to the musicians; it's a very 'work with me on this' approach. Because he asks things in a very down to earth, one-on-one basis, he gets a wonderful response from the players. The musicians want to work with somebody like that, and it's enjoyable because they obviously want to play the best they can."

"To Gustavo, music means more to him than just an art form," Newman said. "It's a way of communicating. And he's a great communicator. I don't think to him it matters what kind of music it is, as long as he's able to bring something to life and have a group of people, like an orchestra, touch another group of people."

"In this day and age, a music director really has to be more than just a person on a podium, he has to be a personality in the community," said John Lofton, who was appointed bass trombonist two seasons ago. "Dudamel is in a situation where he has much of the charisma and desire to really connect with people. He really wants to be considered 'one of us,' the musicians, and really work with us to make really good music. And he does seem to have this desire to be a part of the community, to reach out and help young people experience some of the joy that he experiences in the music business. Something about that really transcends across the stage and to the actual people. That's what he's really been very effective at; bridging that perceived gap."

"In these troubled financial times for the nation, for our orchestra in this troubled profession right now to be at such a solid footing, financially, artistically, and in the community, and having this wonderful concert hall to work in, the stars are all aligned," Trembly said. "All the factors are positive for us. We're very, very fortunate."

Published in the November 2009 issue of the Overture, official publication of Professional Musicians, Local 47.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Jarvis Cocker @ the Wiltern 7/27/09

As published by LA RECORD:

I have seen the true King of Pop, and he’s not much like Michael Jackson — although they did once cross paths at the 1996 BRIT Awards when Jackson did his best to impersonate Jesus Christ during a performance of his “Earth Song,” and Jarvis Cocker and Pulp mate Peter Mansell stormed the stage. (Jarvis repeatedly shook his bum at Jackson and was later detained by police on suspicion of assault. He was never charged.) In his first proper L.A. concert since playing Coachella two years ago, Jarvis proved his monarchical status at the Wiltern on July 27. With not one Pulp tune for safety, Jarvis culled the set entirely from his own solo library, relying heavily on recently released sophomore album Further Complications—including the Stooges-inspired “Angela,” the purely joyful rocker “Further Complications” and the sax-driven “Homewrecker!” And he reached all the way back to 2007 with songs off his debut Jarvis for the swaggering pop perfection of “Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time,” the deliciously “Crimson and Clover”-like “Black Magic” and the punk-thrasher “Fat Children.” As a dancer, he’s peerless, though he ain’t no moonwalker: Jarvis jerked about his freakishly long limbs with stone-cold geeky conviction. The band sounded so good and brought such a euphoric new dimension to the tracks that I couldn’t even hate Loud Drunk Guy behind me. He drowned out Jarv’s between-song quips with declarative bellowing. (“Stella makes you get in a FIGHT!” “Come ON, Jar-vis!” “Homewrecker!!!”) But anyone who sings along to Jarvis song—every single one, mind you—with such passion has to be a good guy, right? Jarv closed out the show out with “You’re in My Eyes (Discosong),” the final track off the new record, which was augmented by an actual disco ball shooting wondrous flickers of light into the audience. (P.S. I don’t know what the guy from the Weekly is talking about, saying the audience was not familiar with the material. Everyone around me—dead center in the pit—was singing along. If you don’t believe me, just ask L.D.G.)

—Linda Rapka

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Orchestra Musicians Face the Music

Published in the May 2009 issue of the Overture, official publication of Professional Musicians, Local 47.

Orchestra Musicians Face the Music

An astonishing number of orchestras across the nation have re-opened their contracts in reaction to the economy, subjecting players to salary and benefit reductions, cutbacks, and shortened seasons.

And those are the lucky ones.

By Linda Rapka, Overture Managing Editor

Symphony orchestras across the nation are downsizing, negotiating salary cuts, cutting rehearsals and performances, and in some cases shutting down altogether. In the face of shrinking endowments and dwindling ticket sales, orchestras are asking for unprecedented concessions from their musicians. And they're getting them.

"Nearly every orchestra from ICSOM and ROPA has had some discussion either about its regular contract expiration or some modification to an existing agreement," said Chris Durham, newly appointed director of the AFM Symphonic Services Division and former violinist and orchestra committee chair with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. "It's a large number."

About one-third of orchestras within the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, which represents 51 orchestras across the nation, have agreed to re-open contracts in the past year. So have many within the Regional Orchestra Players Association, which includes more than 70 orchestras.

Though re-opening contracts is undesirable for musicians and their local unions, when the only other option is bankruptcy, there isn't much choice.

"In my career as a musician, I've never heard of this many major orchestras re-opening their existing agreements," said Peter Rofé, LA Philharmonic bassist and longtime negotiator for Philharmonic musicians and member of the AFM Symphonic Audio/Visual Agreement committee.

Even the mighty "Big Five" weren't immune — the Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra and Boston Symphony all re-opened their contracts in recent months, accepting concessions and givebacks.

"In general, when the economy suffers, orchestras have a tough time," said Meredith Snow, LA Philharmonic violist and ICSOM delegate. "I don't know that there are any orchestras out there right now that aren't struggling with management."

Urban, rural, big and small, orchestras of all sizes and varieties are feeling the pressure. Concessions, cutbacks and compromises are being made by management, musicians and unions alike.

"In the symphony world, ticket sales surprisingly are doing pretty well," said Durham. "The main area of decline is loss of revenue generated by endowments because they've gone the way of everything else in the stock market. In some cases, an orchestra's endowment is down 25 to 30 percent."

Feeling the Pain

In recent months, the Baltimore Opera Company has filed for bankruptcy; the Santa Clarita Symphony canceled their 2009 season; Honolulu Symphony musicians are struggling to get paid; and the Pasadena Symphony Association announced a recovery plan that cuts season programming, switches venues and slashes ticket prices.

Orchestra musicians in Cincinnati, Virginia, Grand Rapids, Atlanta, New Mexico, Utah and Buffalo have also taken recent hits, including pay cuts of up to 11 percent, slashed benefits, reduced number of services, and unpaid furloughs.

"We have had 43 requests for negotiating help from all conferences (ICSOM, ROPA, etc.), unaffiliated orchestras, and five theaters — the most ever," Durham said.

Musicians who have seen their paychecks slashed are increasingly taking to other methods of survival. Some are taking "day jobs," finding career paths unrelated to music, or turning toward teaching.

Scrambling to Survive

Before a request from management to re-open an existing contract can be acted upon, it must be approved by the local union and by a majority vote of the orchestra players. Generally, approval is granted only when management has done everything in their power, including laying off administrative personnel, taking pay cuts, and/or doing extra work for no additional pay, to deal with their financial problems before asking concessions of musicians.

"Before re-opening a contract, musicians have to look at the orchestra's finances to make sure they aren't being given a song and dance from management," said clarinetist Paul Castillo, former ROPA delegate, Local 353 Secretary/Treasurer and Local 47 Trustee.

Once a contract is re-opened, management often looks toward concessionary bargaining, where musicians are asked to accept cutbacks to the existing terms of employment. Common requests include deferred or skipped payrolls, fewer number of services performed, pay cuts, and reduced health care and other benefits.

"Concessions from musicians have to be looked at as a loan," Durham said. "Part of the problem is that management can't go to get money because the bank won't give it to them. At some point there should be a recovery plan to restore that. But musicians probably take up 30 percent of budget. They shouldn't be responsible to fix 100 percent of the problem."

Another recent trend is for orchestras to extend their existing agreements.

"Because the local situations are so different in every community, some places are simply inserting an extra year in the contract," said Bruce Ridge, ICSOM chairman and double bassist in the North Carolina Symphony. By extending a contract, an agreement previously expected to be renegotiated (usually synonymous with increased wages and benefits) instead retains its existing terms. This effectively amounts to a wage freeze, a term of contract fervently frowned upon by ICSOM bargaining committees.

"In 2008, there was much following the rules of concessionary bargaining. Now, we're really in a crunch," Castillo said. "We're now grasping for wage freezes, which is not a good precedent to set."

Before Taking That Cutback...

While there is no doubt we are suffering one of the worst recessions in history, musicians and Locals should not simply take it for granted that cutbacks are, in fact, necessary.

"The American Symphony League has this apocalyptic 'new economic reality' view where they're saying all orchestras across the board need to take cutbacks," Snow said. "But this isn't necessarily the case. Places like Detroit are hurting more than L.A., which has a stronger economy."

"It's very unfortunate the League is doing it this way," Durham said. "Some employers look at this as a financial opportunity and ride on the surf of the orchestras having problems. In some cases it's simply not true. I've been involved in situations where employers have requested re-openers and we've refused."

"You can't take it on blind faith," Snow said. "Everybody's hurting, so chances are it's true, but management may be asking for more than they need."

Panic Attack

Orchestras are cautioned to be careful not to get caught up in the panic of the global economic meltdown.

"We are seeing an attempt by orchestras to change the rhetoric of the industry in what some managers are calling the 'new economic reality,'" Ridge said. "Our response is, What's so new about it? Recessions occur. And we are responding. Our heads aren't in the sand. But we cannot allow the permanent reduction of an operating budget by, say, a third, with the idea that it will continue like that in the future. We have to continue pushing for growth."

"We don't need to make radical changes and long-term shifts," said Durham. "We need to make changes one step at a time, and only when it's verified that there's a problem. It's too easy to give up hard won gains because of a short-term problem."

Gains Against the Grain

Bleak as the outlook is for some, not all orchestras are in dire straits.

"There are several orchestras that are having great success," Durham said. "Certainly Los Angeles has a strong orchestra, and San Francisco just reached a very positive agreement. In the theater world, most for-profits are bargaining raises."

In February, the San Francisco Symphony ratified a new four-year contract providing for wage increases and significant gains in local media provisions. Last month the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra reached a new three-year agreement that includes significant advances in salary and benefits.

"There's a tendency to look at the situation as a one-size-fits-all problem, with a one-size-fits-all solution, when really the problems are localized," Ridge said. "It's not as if you can label the economy as the overriding situation; it's how it has affected each individual institution."

Ridge advises musicians to investigate all options before making any drastic changes.

"Question everything," he said. "For every gloom and doom report released, there is an equally compelling story of success and positive change."

The Silver Lining

"The arts are good business," Ridge said. "In times of recession, all organizations need to look at managing their debt. In a recession, you can't be concerned with balancing the budget; you have to manage your debt. If we allow management to fundamentally alter the organization, then we will be ill-equipped to take advantage of recovery that lies ahead."

Before the recession, America saw a great resurgence of classical music in America, which the LA Times in 2006 called a new "Golden Age." Classical concert attendance was up, and opera attendance has risen 40 percent since 1990.

"We feel that after this recession ends, this trend will continue," Ridge said. "We see this as a temporary cyclical economic downturn. It is important that we don't lose the message of growth and advocacy. The recovery is going to come, and the arts are going to play a big part in that."

Ridge has no doubt that musicians will weather this crisis and urges them to keep hope intact.

"I have been inspired by the unity we have demonstrated. Soon there will be even more opportunities for activism, within our communities, and within our union," he said. "I know we will all respond."

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PJ Harvey & John Parish @ the Wiltern 6/27/09

My review as published by LA RECORD:

Polly Jean Harvey reaffirmed her undeniable prowess with sometime collaborator John Parish at the Wiltern Saturday night. Possessing a mystique and attitude far greater than her slight stature suggests, PJ carried the show with her dominating vocals, which were accentuated by irreverent movements clearly powered by the thralls of performance ecstasy. Everything about the stage set-up informed the audience that we were witnessing more than a mere rock show—instead, an event of theatric proportions. Similarly dressed from head to toe in sophisticated black, the band fused together into a singular unit. Each song was a world of its own, a point driven home by curtain-call-closing-lights-out after each and every song, followed by bows from each member of the band. PJ's back-and-forth between sporadic spoken word, angelic coo and primal scream worked particularly well with the current band setup, and especially with the backing music of John Parish. Thirteen years after their last collaboration, the pair took on a separate-but-equal approach to the recently released A Woman A Man Walked By, with Parish composing all the music and Harvey writing all lyrics. Even the weakest moments on the album — the unsexy barking of "I want your fucking ass!" on "April," the meandering melody of "Cracks in the Canvas" — commanded full attention in live form. The stellar standout performances of "Black Hearted Love," "The Chair" and "Leaving California" solidified that the pair's collaboration works best live.

—Linda Rapka

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