The Cleveland Orchestra & the "Local Orchestra"

One of Portland artist Trixie Biltmore's impressions of Portland Opera's production of Hansel and Gretel.


Greg Sandow in the Wall Street Journal on Enrique Fernandez, the Cleveland Orchestra’s new “critic-in-residence”:

Despite his resounding title, Mr. Fernández is not a critic in the ordinary sense of the word. His blog, which you can visit by going to and clicking on “blog,” is an online magazine that runs feature pieces about the orchestra and its activities in Miami. In addition, Mr. Fernández invites concertgoers to post their own thoughts on the orchestra’s performances: “Online everybody’s a critic…. Comment on the concert you are about to experience. Review if you wish, if you must. Hey, it’s your ticket, rave on, pan on.”Mr. Fernández and the Cleveland Orchestra are clearly trying to come up with an institutional equivalent of the “online communities” that spring up around homemade blogs. This kind of blogging is still relatively new in the world of art, and to date the only institutions that seem to have embraced it wholeheartedly are museums (an especially good example is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “Unframed,” which is at Classical-music organizations, by contrast, seem ill at ease with the openness and interactivity of blogging, and even the best of their efforts, such as the St. Louis Symphony’s STL Symphony Blog (, tend to be one-way operations that aren’t open to comments or email from readers.

As much as I usually disagree with Sandow, he’s absolutely right in questioning “new media” ventures that don’t engage in a thoughtful way with their audience. An orchestra blog without a personal perspective or engagement with commenters and other bloggers is nothing more than a glorified press release. It’s also true that only the biggest players in the game can afford–as in, “stop losing your audience” afford–to not participate (and it should be noted that the big players can get away with not directly engaging with their audience because there’s a cohort of bloggers who are willing to translate and comment upon press releases).
One of the best organizational efforts that I’ve come across trying to really understand a local audience and reach out a build a new audience is the Portland Opera’s Comic’s Night. From their press release (ok, sometimes this works):

In an effort to reach out to new audiences and new communities, Portland Opera is pleased to announce its first-ever Comic Artist Night @ the Opera on Monday, September 20.  Taking advantage of Portland’s wealth of comic talent, the Opera has invited 20 artists to attend a dress rehearsal and draw whatever inspires them about the production.  They’ll also receive a backstage tour prior to the show and front row seats during the show so that they can see every single operatic expression on stage.  The artists will share the results of the evening with their online communities and Portland Opera will share the artist’s work with our patrons at the theater as well as posting the work online at

I thought this was a fantastic venture, for a few reasons:

  1. It showed an understanding of the local audience. One of the most consistently frustrating things about regional classical music organizations is that there is often a distance between the organization and their city. Yet at the same time, we’re asked to support the local symphony, or opera house as a civic symbol and representation of our city. This was a real, genuine, smart play to one of Portland’s strengths.
  2. It attracted different press, therefore different readers. I actually read about Comics Night in comics blogs and the local alt-weekly (the same paper that will show classical listings on its music page, but would never promote a classical concert). That’s huge exposure to an audience–young, local, in to music–that classical organizations desperately want.
  3. It provided an entrance point for first-time operagoers. Opera is intimidating and weird. Many of the artists address that in their comics. Somebody whose curiosity is piqued by the comics will not be so discouraged by the newness of the experience.
  4. It solves the problem of promotional materials. On the internet, there’s an abundance of promotional materials that give some idea of what you’re getting yourself into if you want to see a live show. Curious about a standup comic? Check YouTube. What else has this artist done? Check the portfolio on their website. Band you’ve never heard of? You can be sure that any band getting started today has an online media presence before they play their first live show. At any point, these promotional materials can get picked up by other aggregators and go viral. Classical music doesn’t have that. This is partly a practical constraint; it would be impossible to have an opera trailer ready months before a performance, and orchestras have similar conditions. The comics produced by the local Portland artists, however, provide a subjective (in perspective) and objective (they are free to draw whatever they want) hook to draw in an audience. And this is mostly because…
  5. The comics produced were really cool. This is the most important part, and also the hardest to fake.

We now have a large population of people that grew up as the internet matured as a technology. The share of the population that grew up with internet access will only increase. This creates a new kind of media literacy, an intuitive sense that gets really excited by a group of artists invited to share their impressions of an opera preview, a sense that skips right by an astroturf-filled “blog” without even reading it.
More comics inspired by Hansel and Gretel can be seen in Portland Opera’s Facebook album.

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