The B-Sides & the (new) Detroit Symphony

Attention, American orchestras: look to Detroit for a way forward.

Wait a minute — the Detroit Symphony?  The storied orchestra that collapsed in an acrimonious labor dispute last year, forcing the cancellation of its season?  Yes.  Because it’s possible to rise from the ashes with a much stronger foundation.

Plus, they play like rock stars.

A bit of history: the strike that brought this great orchestra to its knees was a result of the same problems that have plagued the city for decades: a faltering car industry and a shrinking population.  With less philanthropic support and dwindling attendance, and the recession adding a few extra kicks, the orchestra’s balance sheet doubled over.  In the face of significantly lower salaries and benefits, the musicians decided to trade Orchestra Hall for the picket line.  Compelling arguments could be found on both sides of that picket line; but meanwhile, to the sadness of just about everyone in American music, an amazing orchestra was playing rests.  For six months.

Fast forward to last weekend.  To a packed hall three nights in a row, the great Leonard Slatkin conducted a program of Schubert, Rachmaninhoff, and Bates (that’s me), with a live webcast and, to boot, a live recording.  Let’s boil that down: big crowds on Thanksgiving weekend, a digital leap unmatched by any orchestra, and a new recording in the pipeline.  How did this happen?

Answer: creative thinking by all involved — and a willingness to change.

Admit it: change is not easy.  Even nomadic hippies who pass through Berkeley and sleep somewhere different every night have their little rituals, such as smoking pot upon first awaking.  But sometimes we are given the disguised opportunity to change or die — and that’s when we have the rare chance to change the game.

Detroit’s new contract has several of these game-changers, but let’s focus on the big one: media.  Not everyone outside of classical music understands why the recording and dissemination of orchestral performances is so highly regulated, so let me summarize it for you: No.  Just about any question one might ask relating to a recording can be answered with that not-so-magic word: you can’t copy it onto your computer, you can’t mail it to another conductor, and God help you if you play it on the radio.  Webcast?  Very funny.

Being forced into a change-or-die scenario, Detroit was able to rethink this policy.   Suddenly they are webcasting every other concert.  People from around the globe can hear a slew of superb concerts for free.  “DSO Live” educates the public, increases awareness of classical music, and encourages Detroiters to scurry to Orchestra Hall.  (No one is going to pass up the glorious acoustics of a live orchestra because they saw it online — that’s where the symphony keeps an edge in the Digital Age).  And releasing live concert recordings on CD and iTunes has become far more reasonable under the new agreement.

So there I am, about to perform the electronics on Saturday night, and backstage there’s the bustle of an evening newscast.  Cameras!  Teleprompters!  Offstage interviews!  Makeup!  (No, I’m not J Edgar Hoover.  I just have a lot of greasy face-shine that needs help.) Knowing that, say, Japanese insomniacs might be watching is a real adrenaline ante-up.  My friends in Chicago and SF can tune-in; my toddler can see what daddy is doing with “the animal orchestra.” (He still calls it that, thanks to a certain children’s book — and anyway, I’m actually starting to believe that the Yak beats the drum).

But the showbiz aside — how was the concert?

Incredible.  The band plays with such cohesion and power.  The fact that the musicians embraced the piece meant a ton to me — and certainly made for great performances.  On top of it, there’s an American treasure named Leonard Slatkin piloting this ship.  He’s been educating me since high school, when his recordings with St. Louis brought the American symphonic tradition into my life.  Leonard took a chance commissioning my first big orchestral piece, Liquid Interface, and that resulted in wonderful performances together from the Kennedy Center to Carnegie Hall.  He understands my music in a very deep way, and he doesn’t flinch in the face of the industrial techno beats of the finale of The B-Sides, “Warehouse Medicine.”

That finale, after all, is an homage to the Detroit warehouse parties where techno was born.  Performing The B-Sides in Detroit felt like a special homecoming — to a place I’d only visited aurally, in countless techno albums.  Seeing and hearing this historic orchestra back in the game really gives me hope about the future of symphonic music in this country.  It’s time you made your pilgrimage too.