Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Walk In the Woods; The Green Table

Some Thoughts on Diplomacy and Art

Death Comes in Threes

Three things have recently converged on my mind that remind me of the grave danger we face every day by submitting our fate to the hands of “leaders.” First, I saw TimeLine Theatre’s magnificent production of Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods playing now through Novermber 20th at Theater Wit. That experience reminded me of a ballet I saw several years ago at a Joffrey Ballet of Chicago performance. German Choreographer Curt Jooss’s The Green Table portrays the futility of negotiation and the triumph of death over sanity and humanism. Finally, I have been viewing a Teaching Company DVD entitled Transformational Leadership: How Leaders change Teams, Companies and Organizations.

Diplomacy vs. Negotiation

Certainly the production of A Walk in the Woods by TimeLine Theatre Company is what started me thinking about all of this. This is a two-character play, mostly dialog that takes place in an unchanging wooded setting populated only by stylized trees and foliage augmented by projected images and a single bench. U.S. negotiator John Honeyman is played by David Parkes and Soviet negotiator Anya Botvinnik is handled by Janet Ulrich Brooks. Both actors turn in spectacular and convincing performances. Parkes’ portrayal of the somewhat inexperienced and idealistic American is convincing; Brooks’ portrayal of Botvinnik is equally convincing and comes complete with a Russian dialect that never misses a beat for the entire production.

Honeyman, the American, keeps insisting that the two are “negotiating” and not engaged in “diplomacy.” A quick look at a dictionary will reveal that there is a substantial difference between the two words. Most dictionaries lead us to believe that diplomacy is the art of relationships that are treated with sensitivity, friendship and respect while negotiation is an attempt to reach an agreement between parties with an almost adversarial connotation. The Russian, Botvinnik, repeatedly uses the word diplomacy only to be corrected by the American who insists that they are in reality negotiating. This difference presents a telling attitude on the part of each of the pair.

At intermission my mind drifted toward what I know about conflict resolution and how one of the most important parts of any conflict resolution is the discovery of common goals and objectives. These shared objectives can become the basis for real ongoing conversation that ultimately results in a lasting resolution to seemingly intractable differences. Witness for example, the difficulties facing several major orchestras at this point in history. Recently, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and currently the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Louisville Orchestra face desperate financial situations. Given the adversarial relationship that exists between musicians and the governing boards and management it should come as no surprise that these “negotiations” are proceeding with more venom than shared values and objectives. While these adversarial proceedings suit the agendas of some critics and bloggers (what fun it must be to fan the flames of controversy in order to have something to blog about tomorrow) it does little to begin to repair the damage that has been done by decades of American-style labor relations. The “negotiations” take place; both sides feel as though they have given more than they have received; both sides grudgingly agree to a settlement with a firm resolve that “next time, I’ll get even.” Where is the diplomacy? Where is the sensitivity? Where is the understanding? Where are the shared values and objectives?

Ultimately, Botvinnik, the Soviet negotiator, triumphs in her attempt to introduce diplomacy into her relationship with the American Honeyman. Eventually, they discover their shared values and objectives. Will this discovery between two people impact the future of mankind? In point of historical fact there are many who will assert that the real events surrounding the fictional realization if A Walk in the Woods did in fact send a signal to the world that the United States and Soviet Union were at last serious about arms control. The conclusion of the play finds Honeyman and Botvinnik reaching agreement on a suggestion for a treaty, just as historical fact records. It must next be accepted by their respective governments.

Negotiate; Make War; Bury the Wounded; Negotiate

Kurt Jooss’s ballet, The Green Table, is so named because of the custom of conducting negotiations across a table covered with green felt. The dancers portray the negotiators. The grotesque and stylized movements of the negotiators are exaggerated by the masques worn by the dancers as they trade thrusts and parries across the negotiating table. Eventually, the negotiators draw pistols and fire them, signaling the declaration of war and the beginning of hostilities. There follows a number of sections such as The Farewell, as soldiers bid their family adieu as they leave for battle; The Battle and The Partisan depict the war itself; loneliness and misery is shown by The Refugees; The Brothel shows us the emptiness of “entertaining the troops”; finally, The Aftermath presents the psychologically wounded survivors. The ballet concludes with a repeat of the opening scene of “The Gentlemen in Black” around the negotiating table. Throughout the ballet the dancer that portrays Death emerges triumphant and the Profiteer rakes in his monetary rewards for the sufferings of others.

This is admittedly a severely cynical view of negotiating but given the origins of the piece, the Weimar Republic of Germany in 1932, it represents one artist’s concerns over the course being taken by his own country. From that concern he extrapolates the general futility of negotiating and the cyclical nature of the negotiating process: negotiate, make war, bury the wounded, negotiate again.

The similarities between A Walk in the Woods and The Green Table are unmistakable as are the similarities among A Walk in the Woods, The Green Table and some current labor negotiations at prominent American Orchestras. All three share the same themes of mistrust, lack of understanding, a failure to find common ground and a willingness to view the entire process as a zero-sum game. Well, perhaps Honeyman and Botvinnik eventually begin to see the futility of negotiation toward the end of their walks.

Leadership: An Incomplete View

I am interested in leadership because I am involved in nonprofit management. Although not unique to nonprofits, it is an especially important consideration given the nature of the nonprofit organization that lacks the profit motive as an instrument of inspiration and that depends instead on abstract notions of mission and leadership. The Teaching Company has always published material that I have found both informative and valuable, so I ordered Transformational Leadership: How Leaders Change Teams, Companies, and Organizations. I have only viewed the first three of the twenty-four half-hour lectures. The course has already proved to be both informative and valuable. Very early in the course Professor Michael A. Roberto, the course’s instructor, makes it plain that there is no correlation between character traits and our ability to predict success as a leader. Rather, it is skills and competencies that are the most valuable predictors of success as a leader. Despite this fact, investigated and researched many times by scholars who all arrive independently at the same conclusion, you will find countless internet websites alleging to counsel individuals on how to advance their career by developing certain “character traits.” There is absolutely no evidence to support any of this emphasis on things like “passion,” “an optimistic attitude” or “self-confidence.” Yet we continue to use these obsolete and disproved notions in our evaluation of others.

Ultimately, this course will examine the success of a “leader” as a combination of factors such as context and the implementation of a team leadership approach that really involves a group of individuals and not just the single “Lone Ranger” hero of the organization. In the long run, skills and competencies that can be learned and perfected are what determine the success of a leader.

The implications for this are enormous. As A Walk in the Woods portrays the agreement developed by Honeyman and Botvinnik was presented to their respective governments. But was the decision to accept or reject the agreement made by a single individual? Was there instead some sort of team effort that ultimately determined the course of strategic arms negotiations? The Green Table on the other hand treats leadership as though it didn’t exist and as though it were simply “fate” and a poorly conceived system of negotiations that results in the inevitable cycle of death and destruction faced by mankind. What about negotiations between symphony musicians and their governing boards? Is it really the absence of strong leadership—leadership that is skilled and competent—that results in the confrontational nature of contract negotiations?

These are complex issues that occur in a variety of contexts ranging from the truly horrific, such as nuclear holocaust at the national level, to the way you try to reason with your teenaged son or daughter who clearly entertains different standards of behavior than you do.

TimeLine; Time Out

TimeLine Theatre Company’s Board President Cindy Giacchetti makes the following observation:

A TimeLine play is not just 120 minutes in a dark theater. It is the conversation you have with others, or even with yourself, hours and sometimes days after the applause ends.

Ms. Giacchetti never claims that TimeLine will provide answers and indeed, in this case it has only provided a means for my own further explorations of leadership, diplomacy and negotiations.

Mission accomplished.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Death at Jay Pritzker Pavilion

The End of the Grant Park Music Festival 2011 Season

Requiem as Art and Drama

The thought of ending the Grant Park Music Festival with Giuseppe Verdi’s great Requiem Mass, in Memory of Alessandro Manzoni for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Tenor and Bass Soloists, Mixed Chorus and Orchestra immediately conjured images in my mind of all the terrors of Medieval Christianity as so effectively documented by that obscure 13th century Franciscan friar-poet (generally thought to be Thomas of Celano (c. 1200 – c. 1260–1270)  whose Dies Irae is included in so many of the world’s great musical settings of the Missa defunctorum or Mass of the Dead. Thomas’s words are here presented in  the English translation from Latin by William Josiah Irons that replicates the rhyme and metre of the original.

The day of wrath, that day
Will dissolve the world in ashes
As foretold by David and the sibyl!

Oh, what fear man's bosom rendeth,
when from heaven the Judge descendeth,
on whose sentence all dependeth.

Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth;
through earth's sepulchers it ringeth;
all before the throne it bringeth.

Death is struck, and nature quaking,
all creation is awaking,
to its Judge an answer making.

Lo! the book, exactly worded,
wherein all hath been recorded:
thence shall judgment be awarded.

When the Judge his seat attaineth,
and each hidden deed arraigneth,
nothing unavenged remaineth.

What shall I, frail man, be pleading?
Who for me be interceding,
when the just are mercy needing?

King of Majesty tremendous,
who dost free salvation send us,
Fount of pity, then befriend us!

Think, good Jesus, my salvation
cost thy wondrous Incarnation;
leave me not to reprobation!

Faint and weary, thou hast sought me,
on the cross of suffering bought me.
shall such grace be vainly brought me?

Righteous Judge! for sin's pollution
grant thy gift of absolution,
ere the day of retribution.

Guilty, now I pour my moaning,
all my shame with anguish owning;
spare, O God, thy suppliant groaning!

Thou the sinful woman savedst;
thou the dying thief forgavest;
and to me a hope vouchsafest.

Worthless are my prayers and sighing,
yet, good Lord, in grace complying,
rescue me from fires undying!

With thy favored sheep O place me;
nor among the goats abase me;
but to thy right hand upraise me.

While the wicked are confounded,
doomed to flames of woe unbounded
call me with thy saints surrounded.

Now I kneel, with heart submission,
see, like ashes, my contrition;
help me in my last condition.

Ah! that day of tears and mourning!
From the dust of earth returning
man for judgment must prepare him;

Spare, O God, in mercy spare him!
Lord, all pitying, Jesus blest,
grant them thine eternal rest.

Aside from the fact that this sort of drama exhibits strong evidence that early Christians were a fearful lot, terrified of even the slightest transgression against their wrathful and jealous god, this is the stuff of great drama and if Verdi was anything, he was a great dramatist. For that matter, so was Hector Berlioz who also made effective use of the same Dies Irae although in a different setting. Other texts in the Requiem are also found in the Ordinary Mass; the Kyrie is one such portion as are Sanctus and Agnus Dei.

But it is the Dies Irae that seemed to preoccupy Verdi more than any other section. It is the lengthiest of all of the sections of Verdi’s Requiem. It begins with four “hammer blows” from the orchestra  that are guaranteed to wake even most soundly sleeping corpse and proceeds to terrify us with liturgical power, apocalyptical imagery and sheer musical genius for nearly one-third the of the entire ninety-odd minute composition. Those hammer blows fittingly return along with Thomas’s opening words near the end of the section just before Lacrimosa (tears). The hammer blows and Thomas’s reminder of our impending death, destruction and judgement occurs once more near the end of the Requiem in  Libera me (deliver me). I occurred to me that Verdi’s hammer blows may have somehow inspired Gustav Mahler’s use of a similar device in his 6th Symphony twenty-five years later. Both effects are somehow linked to the notion of “fate,” although the musical realization is different. Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky was another composer who seemed to be preoccupied with “fate.” Tchaikovsky’s best known exploration of fate is probably the theme used in his Fifth symphony (that he borrowed from Mikhail Glinka’s A Life for the Czar). Unlike the hammer blows of Verdi and Mahler, however, Tchaikovsky used a melodic representation. Tchaikovsky has sometimes been disparagingly referred to as “Mr. Melody.” There can be no doubt that Tchaikovsky’s prowess at endless melodic invention is one of the greatest of any composer who ever lived, so it is not surprising that he chose melody rather than rhythm to represent man’s destiny.

The Festival Ends on a High Note

The Festival’s presentation of Verdi’s great masterpiece was no less than excellent. Soprano Amber Wagner, a recent graduate of the Lyric Opera’s Patrick G. and Shirley Ryan Opera Center, is clearly a force to be reckoned with as she moves forward with her singing career. No less impressive was Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens who made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 2006–2007. Wagner, Martens and the chorus joined forces in the breathtakingly beautiful and transparent Agnus Dei. Tenor Michael Fabiano delivered Igmenisco (groans) with an artistry that both extracted pity and delighted the listener by its sheer artistry and the tambre of his fine tenor voice. Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen often faced difficult passages requiring great strength in his lowest registers along with a considerable tessitura. His Confutatis (roughly “convicted and cast out”) wrenched our hearts as he implored forgiveness and entrance into the Shangri-La of the saved.

Great praise goes to the Grant Park Chorus for its superb performance. Christopher Bell, the Festival’s regular Chorus Director had returned to his principal duties in Scotland but the chorus was ably prepared for the Verdi performances by Guest Chorus Director William Spaulding. Spaulding is an American whose current position is with the Deutsch Oper Berlin as Principal Chorus Master. Nowhere was the chorus put to greater effect than in the Sanctus, the musical climax of the Requiem. If you failed to experience electricity in your spine during Sanctus you were probably one of the corpses for whom the Requiem was intended.

The chorus has been used on a number of occasions this season and has given listeners much more than any of us has a right to expect. The Grant Park Chorus is truly one of the great choral organizations in music today. Next year will be the Chorus’s fiftieth anniversary year. What can they possibly do to exceed the artistry they have delivered this year and for so many years? Be sure to watch for next year’s programming.

The musicians of the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra rank high in musical ability and accomplishment. As an ensemble they are among the most unique of all orchestras in that they arrive en masse one day in June, instruments in hand, greet one another after nearly nine months of absence, sit down and begin rehearsing. Two days later they present their first performance. During the next ten weeks they prepare twenty different programs. The demands made on these musicians are nothing short of immense and even more astonishing is the way in which they rise to the challenges and deliver quality and even outstanding music week after week that improves over time as they become more and more accustomed to playing as an ensemble.

The musicians of the orchestra for the most part are gone from Chicago now. They have returned to other places to continue making music and pursuing their musical artistry. Most will be back again next year. Chicago is indeed fortunate to have this legacy of musical quality.

Finally, consider Carlos Kalmar, who is now Music Director as well as Principal Conductor of the Grant Park Music Festival. Where would we be without him? Tireless and endowed with boundless energy he arrives at rehearsal on his bicycle (in good weather). On hot days he has a supply of clean t-shirts that quickly become soaked with perspiration during the hot afternoons of rehearsals. He then faces three evenings a week most weeks conducting performances. Add to this his musical and leadership skills and you have a small sense of the great treasure Chicago has in Kalmar’s annual Summer residence.

The Verdi Requiem is a particularly good example of Kalmar’s great musical and leadership skills. Consider that by the time you assemble a full chorus and symphony orchestra plus soloists and antiphonal brass (did I forget to mention the antiphonal brass that are a part of the Dies Irae?) Kalmar faces nearly 200 musicians whose intention is to present one of the great masterpieces of Western music. What is needed, of course, is the leadership, artistry and control of a great conductor. Kalmar’s abilities were nowhere more apparent than the Verdi Requiem that concluded the Grant Park Music Festival Season.

Next Year

It’s a bit early to speculate about the Festival’s programming for next year. We know that planning has already begun but final announcements of the 2012 season programming won’t appear until well into next year. We do know that the Chorus will celebrate a major anniversary, so it’s reasonable to expect a pretty exciting season of choral and vocal presentations.

Advice: Save your Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings in June, July and August for some of the best music anywhere at a price you can easily afford. We may run into each other at a Festival concert next year.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Netflix for Theatre

Netflix for Theatre

Theater Wit’s Brave New [Ticketing] World


Theater Wit’s Artistic Director, Jeremy Wechsler, never one for timid action, has embarked on a bold new plan to benefit artists, patrons and theater companies that present on one of Theater Wit’s three stages. Simply put, you can buy a Membership at Theater Wit that entitles you to see any play presented in the space once, many times or never, as your whim and fancy dictates. The only caveat is that tickets are subject to availability so for popular productions the prudent course is to call well in advance to reserve your ticket. There’s nothing to stop you from just “dropping in” five minutes before curtain if you feel like it and if there are seats available, one will be yours. All of this for the low monthly membership fee of $36.

Wechsler was inspired by a similar program in place at Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre. In Seattle’s case the membership program hasn’t resulted in a decrease in number of traditional season tickets sold by ACT. Wechsler anticipates a similar result here at Theater Wit.

Many Theatre Companies, One Venue

Theater Wit is actually both a space and a company. The Theater Wit space encloses three separate theaters in a single building. With its extensive capacity, plays are presented all year long by a number of different companies, some resident at Theater Wit, others itinerate. One of the values of the Theater Wit membership is that it permits a member to sample a number of different companies without any increase in financial risk. Once you pay your monthly fee, it’s a smorgasbord of theatre at no additional cost other than your time to reserve a seat and enjoy the production. For the theater companies it offers a way to introduce themselves to a large audience of patrons they might not have been able to attract previously. Overall, this is a win/win situation.

More Information

I won’t repeat the details of membership or Wechsler’s thinking here. Instead, here are some links to external sources that should provide ample detail about this brave experiment in ticketing and audience development:

Extending the Idea

It occurred to me that this idea could be extended in a couple of different ways: first, a consortium of theater companies could work together to offer memberships good at all productions without regard for venue. The other thought was for music organization to embark on a similar program. Here are some ways these two things might be approached.

Theater Consortia

Suppose a number of itinerate theater companies, say eight to twelve, formed a consortium that offered memberships to the theater-going public. These memberships would allow the holder to attend unlimited performances of any production by any member of the consortium for a single, monthly fee. Further, this privilege would extend regardless of venue, thus allowing the benefits of the membership program even though a large theater facility was not a part of the program.

One clearly important consideration in the consortium plan is the consolidation of ticketing for all participating companies. Would a single source of ticketing be provided for all companies (similar to the way Theater Wit handles ticketing for all productions in its own building), or would each company handle its own ticketing with the consortium employing some sort of clearing mechanism to distribute revenues in the agreed fashion. Either way, there are some important considerations to be explored, This would be an important part of the collaborative negotiation.

Musical Organizations

A similar program could be established by a consortium of orchestras. Clearly, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra would probably not be interested in this sort of collaboration, but what about the smaller regional orchestras that dot the landscape? To get some idea of the number of orchestras that might participate in this sort of program, visit Welcome | Illinois Council of Orchestras and click on the menu item “Directory.” There is clearly a broad range of quality in the membership list, but there is also a great chance that a consortium of a dozen orchestras could be assembled that would be happy to participate in a membership program.

If we broaden our perspective to include chamber music groups we have yet another possibility for a membership program that might be appealing to both artists and patrons. Universities are especially likely to have chamber music presentations that would appeal to patrons who are members of a chamber music society program.


My main interest in the present case lies with Theater Wit’s brave experiment with a membership program. I have tried to argue that it might be possible to extend that model to musical organizations both large and small. I hope Jeremy Wechsler succeeds beyond his wildest dreams with his experiment and I’d like to see some enterprising managers from musical organizations engage in similar experiments.

If anyone knows of a performing arts company who is actually doing these sorts of things, I’d like to hear about it. If successful, this stuff could result in a dramatic paradigm shift.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Beginning of the End

Tonight was the penultimate concert of the Grant Park Music Festival 2011 season. It was an odd program comprised of two works: John Adams's The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra and Dmitri Shostakovitch's Symphony No. 10.

The Chairman Dances

This is a typical Adams piece.The orchestra payed homage to the monotonous Adams minimalism that repeats the same motifs endlessly as instruments are layered upon instruments until a climax of sorts is achieved which is quickly followed by a barely audible recapitulation of what we have just heard, building into yet another crescendo, and so forth until ennui overtakes all but the most avid Adams fan. I understand that Adams composes in a cabin overlooking the Pacific; undoubtedly, his exposure to the monotonous sound of the Pacific waves contributes to his overall artistic direction.

In fairness, Adams writes great ballet music. I have seen ballets accompanied by Adams's music and they are stunning. Of course, when one goes to the ballet, one expects to see dance; the music is not the primary raison d'etre.

Symphony No. 10

Only Shostakovitch understands (understood, since he's now dead) this piece. He refused to tell anyone anything about it except that the second movement was about Stalin; we already knew that Stalin was a butcher and evil man and didn't need Shostakovitch to tell us about it.

Programme music aside, despite our inability to "understand" Symphony No. 10, we can still enjoy the magnificent achievement it represents artistically. Remember that Shostakovitch was plagued his entire artistic career by the spectre of Stalin and all the oppression he represented; it is a miracle of human spirit and endurance that Schostakovitch produced the masterpieces he did in the shadow of so brutish and ignorant a dictator as Stalin.

Kalmar and company produced an impressive exposition of Symphony No. 10.  Sadly, it will be presented only one time.

This brings us to...

The Beginning of the End

By this I mean that we are but two concerts (with the same program) of the end of yet another Grant Park Music Festival Season. This Friday and Saturday will conclude the season with the Verdi Requiem. Attention Dies irae lovers. Here's your big chance.

[Muic Director Carlos] Kalmar is a masterful programmer. He knows what will attract a crowd and for a season finale, that often means a large-scale choral work. Certainly, the Verdi Requiem fits that order.

At the same time, we need to realize that another ten-week season of the Grant Park Music festival will conclude when the final curtain call has been taken, the final soloist has taken his or her bow, the chorus has been given the standing ovation, and the orchestra rises to acknowledge a grateful audience.

I haven't had a chance to speak with Leigh Levine, Acting Executive Director, but I know for certain that she and her staff under the able direction of Music Director Carlos Kalmar and Chorus Director Christopher Bell have begun planning Grant Park Music Festival 2012.

Meanwhile, if you can find a seat to sit in or a patch of lawn to pitch your folding chair on, don't miss the Verdi Reguiem this Friday or Saturday.

Summer in Chicago is made all the more glorious by the Grant Park Music Festival. Don't miss it.