How do you make a modern audience want to attend a symphony concert?
"Surprise them," says James Cassidy.
Cassidy is the music director of the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra, which has been entertaining and educating audiences by surprising them for 19 years.
"Our subscribers tell us, •We never know what's going to come next, but we know it's going to be good and it's going to be different,'" he says.
A concert of the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra may include dancers, singers and sound effects. When the audience came for Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, they were surprised to hear the sexy, bluesy version created by Duke Ellington, with numbers like "The Dance of the Sugar Rum Cherry" and "The Arabesque Cookie."
"And it's great music," the director says.
The orchestra may accompany silent movies or perform parodies of classics that can include cowbells and foghorns. But with all the unusual effects and surprises, Cassidy's goal is never to dilute the quality of the music. He finds that the orchestra can even present concerts of seriously heavy music as long as they add other elements or throw in a few "palate cleansers" between the numbers.
"You have to find a way to connect the people to the music," Cassidy says.
One surprise came during the 2004 performances of Bela Bartok's The Miraculous Mandarin.
"It is not easy music," Cassidy says. "It was performed a couple of times in 1926 and it caused a scandal and it was banned. It has rarely been performed since. It included a pantomime ballet, but we didn't have room on our stage for the performers and the orchestra. So we built a two-story set in another building and hired a mime troupe and projected them on the stage over the orchestra. When it was over, the performers came on stage to take their bow; people were saying, •My God! That was live!'
"And that only happened once. It's something that will never be done again and you had to be there to experience it."
"Unfortunately, we live in an age of instant gratification, and that doesn't bode well for things that aren't instant. There's nothing instant about art, absolutely nothing. There are natural barriers to art. People feel they need to know something about it. They feel they need to dress in a certain way, they feel that it has to be expensive. They expect to see the orchestra walk out on stage like a line of penguins and play the same old pieces the same old way. I like to say we take the phony out of symphony."
There's no dress code at the Kentucky Symphony. Ticket prices are considerably lower than for Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Cincinnati Pops concerts. And the venues include Notre Dame Academy's new Carlisle Performing Arts Center and Florence Baptist Church at Mt. Zion. In the summer, it's Devou Park. Parking is safe and free.
Invite Them In
"People will enjoy every kind of music," Cassidy says. "You just have to be invited in. People can stay away because they feel that they are dumb if they don't know something about classical music, but there's nothing dumb about it. You just need to be invited in, and a way that's not condescending.
"Spicing up the presentation doesn't have to mean dumbing down the music."
Dumb is not acceptable, but silly can be.
In 2003, the orchestra presented "Who Spiked the Symphony? Spike Jones Music Depreciation 101."
Only the oldest listeners will recall the zany recordings of classical music played by Spike Jones and his City Slickers, and no one had ever presented an authentic re-creation of the music, which was laced with cowbells, sirens, whistles, odd mouth sounds and more.
"I like to go to the source, so I called Los Angeles and found Spike Jones' son, Spike Jr.," Cassidy explains.
Jones was dubious, but Cassidy was persistent. "We met in a parking lot in Beverly Hills and he handed me a box full of his father's scores." The concert was at the Madison Theater in Covington with the original scores and the original instruments and sound effects. After the concert, Cassidy says, he received calls from as far away as Juneau, Ala., about it.
Cassidy is incredibly persistent to get what he wants. For a 50th anniversary performance of "West Side Story," the Bernstein Estate insisted on authenticity and refused to allow the musical to be done with the orchestra on stage.
"I just kept calling and calling and they finally asked, •Where are you?' I said, •We are so deep in the hills of Kentucky, we don't even wear shoes.' They let me do it, and we did it in six days."
And he finds his performers in unusual places. Looking for a Frank Sinatra-style vocalist for his "Old Blue Eyes is Back" concert, he spotted a 6-foot-7, 230-pound guy singing in a karaoke bar in Chicago who does a great Sinatra. He went to the widow of legendary arranger Nelson Riddle, and she provided the scores. He has used a powerful blues singer who is a forklift operator.
The Kentucky Symphony Orchestra has 40-to-80 musicians at a concert and a number of smaller groups that perform separately or with the orchestra, including the Floodwall Jazz Quintet, the KSO Chorale, the Men in Black Brass Quintet and the Newport Ragtime Band, which plays ragtime music by, among others, Cincinnati ragtime composers Artie Mathews and Homer Denney.
"CCM (The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music) is a music factory," Cassidy says.
"We have a deep talent pool of over 400 musicians to draw from, and they come from as far away as Lexington and Columbus. You can hardly go to a CSO without seeing some of our musicians on stage as subs."
Most subscribers come from Kenton County, but 33 percent cross the river from Cincinnati. The orchestra is supported by subscriptions, foundation grants, sponsors and by their Annual Gala (Feb. 5 at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center).
It has been an unusual path to success.
"When I started out in this business, I expected to follow the usual route, to get work as an assistant conductor at one orchestra after another," Cassidy recalls.
"But one night in Newport, I was having a beer with a friend and I said, •I think I'll start my own symphony orchestra.
"I had a friend who worked for Iams pet foods, and he said he could provide me with a mailing list to 3,000 addresses with Northern Kentucky zip codes. He didn't know that Iams mailings aren't addressed to people, but to their pets, Fido and Fluffy.
"But we made it, and we haven't run a deficit in 18 years, because we understand people and families." -
Owen Findsen is an author, teacher and critic. He is a member of the Ohio Journalism Hall of Fame.