Music Preview: National critic and PSO aim to involve audience with the music

'Symphony With a Splash' series was sleeper hit of last year

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Anne Midgette
"What you'll almost never read is anything that might make an intelligent person want to go to a concert," says music commentator Greg Sandow.
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Symphony With a Splash

Greg Sandow, host; Daniel Meyer, conductor; Pittsburgh Symphony.

WHERE: Heinz Hall, Downtown.

WHEN: 5 p.m. happy hour; 6:45 p.m. concert, tomorrow.

TICKETS: $15-$33; 412-392-4900.


Just as his white hair hangs like an unraveled powdered wig, Greg Sandow's provocative ideas deconstruct the classical music industry.

Sandow is primarily known for his writing about classical music in the Wall Street Journal. However, he recently has put his money, time and mind where his mouth was, and is now working within the field he has critiqued for years. Much of his efforts have been with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. This season he returns to host the PSO's sleeper hit of last year, its "Symphony With a Splash" series.

"It is all very well to harangue everyone, but who is going to see what works?" says Sandow. "I was really fascinated with being a part of a process. What interests me most in classical music is the music, but I like posing provocative questions about what could be."

Created with PSO artistic planner Robert Moir and resident conductor Daniel Meyer, "Splash" combines happy hour with a short concert of humorous and intriguing looks at music.

Last year, Sandow persuaded the audience to be part of "the world's first 12-tone sing-a-long," had it re-create the intrusive applause Mozart's "Paris" Symphony experienced at its premiere and debuted a combined version of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition."

It's edu-tainment at its best. Barring music education in schools, programs such as this are the best way to familiarize people with the glory of art music past and present. "I hope we don't have schlocky ideas, unless it is on purpose," says Sandow, 61. "We try to be musically responsible."

On stage, Sandow eases the audience into weighty issues with an idiosyncratic and loose manner. "I have this public persona, and I don't know where I got it," he says. "I talk about the pieces from my agenda that we don't need the air of sanctuary and all the solemn talk of masterpieces." He attributes his stage presence to having been a singer, but his easygoing attitude comes in part from having covered rock and pop. He doesn't see classical music as ivory-tower bound and even draws upon rock in the "Splash" concerts. In one he played a David Bowie album and a Philip Glass symphony based on it.

In fact, pop's rise to musical dominance, and why classical has fallen off the pace, has been a focus of Sandow's thought for some time. In consulting, marketing, teaching or writing, he loves to wrestle with the overarching questions facing the field. He teaches a course at the Juilliard School called "Breaking Barriers: Classical Music in an Age of Pop" and writes a blog on ArtsJournal.com.

Sandow's musings often are common-sense critiques:

Concerning half-filled halls: "The audience ... is almost never brought behind the scenes; rarely is it told what's really going on in a performance."

Concerning ineffective orchestra marketing: "What you'll almost never read is anything that might make an intelligent person want to go to a concert -- something about how the music is going to be played, what it will feel like to hear the music, or why this concert might be different from any other. Mostly we brag that we offer 'acclaimed' musicians, predictably playing -- no surprise here! -- 'great' music. Every concert, if you believe our advertising, seems more or less the same -- uniformly 'great' and uplifting. Why should anybody care?"

Sandow may be involved in the process now ("There are some things I just can't write"), but he is not afraid to let his opinion about it be known. In the process, he has moved from primarily a music critic to a culture critic in the tradition of Theodor Adorno.

Interestingly, he also shares the composing bug with Adorno. Sandow received a master's degree in composition at Yale University (where he once sang Alberich in a "Das Rheingold" under John Mauceri) and will have one of his works performed in a "Splash" concert this season. That work is "Frankenstein," to be heard tomorrow in the first of the three "Splash" concerts. The concert focuses on theater music for the orchestra, with Sondheim, Haydn, Corigliano and Stravinsky works rounding out the program.

In the second concert, "Are You Crazy," in February, the PSO performs Cage's seminal 4'33" and pieces by Webern. "It is not that Cage is crazy, but the piece is rewarding to perform," says Sandow. "We intend to play Webern without one word about it being 12-tone. My point is that he wrote short pieces, [which] have a very close relationship to silence." The final concert, in April, is "Femme Fatale," which broaches the subject of music inspired by "infamous" women.

Sandow does his best "to engage the orchestra," so the outreach aspects aren't tedious. "You don't want the musicians coming to a 'Splash' concert not liking it," he says. "We wanted to create concerts that were interesting to everyone. Some of the musicians have told me they have enjoyed it, and it is about the music."

But at the end of a day, it's the untapped audience that matters the most to the PSO as it struggles to fill Heinz Hall.

So far, so good for Sandow. "The audience reaction has been one of the two most satisfying things for me."

Sandow's blog is at www. artsjournal.com/sandow/.


Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750.


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