In Memoriam Mary Elliott James

By David Hennessee and Sonya Lanzen-Castellanos

Mary -1Mary James was viola powered. She had a long, distinguished career as a symphony, ballet, and opera musician, professor of viola, and soloist on the viola d’amore. On August 25, 2014, at age 87, she took her last bow.

Mary was born on January 31, 1927. At age five, she began music instruction on the piano. She took up the violin at eight and became interested in the viola five years later. By age 20 she was totally devoted to the viola. When asked what made her switch to the viola, Mary emphatically answered, “Chamber Music! Oh, yes. The viola was right in the heart of chamber music.” Like many violists, she was also drawn to the instrument’s particular timbre: “I liked the sound of the viola; it has a mellower sound.”

Mary grew up in Long Beach, attending Horace Mann qmTz7jElementary, Rogers Jr. High and Wilson High School. She received excellent music instruction, as she recalled: “Even in grammar school we had wonderful teachers, conservatory trained…and our high school teacher was the concertmaster of the Long Beach Philharmonic. He taught us chamber music and symphony music…in high school! We were fortunate!”

Her first job as a musician was with the USO, right after WWII. Travel cardwith the military support organization took her to Austria, Germany, Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. She left the USO to continue her musical training at UC Berkeley, studying mainly chamber music. She later returned to Austria and earned a diploma at the Vienna State Academy of Music in 1954. In 1956 she completed a Bachelor of Music Degree at the San Francisco Conservatory.

After graduating from the Conservatory, Mary joined both the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Opera. Rich professional opportunities followed. She had the privilege of accompanying famous virtuoso soloists such as Jascha Heifetz, Isaac Stern, Rudolf Serkin, Arthur Rubinstein, and Gregor Piatigorski. During this time, she also performed at the Carmel Music Festival and the International Society for Contemporary Music and was acclaimed for the finesse of her playing.

Later, she rounded out her California experience at the University of Southern California where she worked with renowned violist William Primrose. She was active in motion picture and television studio recordings, and was a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Columbia Recording Orchestra under Igor Stravinsky.

_DSC4617-3By 1968, Mary was ready to leave the hustle and bustle of big city life. She accepted a teaching position at Pittsburg State University, Kansas. Their excellent reputation for music education, small town atmosphere, and focus on chamber music enticed her. In addition to her role as violist in the faculty string quartet, her teaching load included applied viola, applied piano, music theory, ear training, music history/literature, and chamber music coaching. She lived near campus and enjoyed hosting parties – with plenty of food and drink – for the music faculty and students.

Mary is remembered as a champion of the viola d’amore and was instrumental in launching the 1984 International Congress at Pittsburg State University where violists d’amore from all over the world descended upon Pittsburg to showcase the beauty and capabilities of this historic instrument. Nine violas d’amore playing the Pachelbel Canon was unforgettable. Here is an example of the instrument’s sound:

Highway-1-Montera-Coast-Sunset-Toy-Camera-EffectAfter dedicating 22 years to teaching in Kansas, Mary decided to retire and return to the California. What was close to Big Sur and far from LA? She chose a condo in San Simeon. Shortly after moving to the Central Coast, she was discovered and invited in 1994 to take the position of principal violist with the San Luis Obispo Symphony. She also shared her musical talents locally with other groups such as the Pacific Repertory Opera, the Mozart Festival, the Larkspur String Quartet, and the Cuesta Master Chorale Orchestra. She was a founding member of the Morro Bay Chamber Players.

Mary was known for the accuracy and sensitivity of her playing, her no-card-1nonsense, professional attitude, and her collection of colorful “Viola Power” sweat shirts. She was always the first player onstage, diligently warming up with finger-strengthening exercises. During her long career, she had acquired a vast library of opera, symphony, and chamber music scores, which she studied along with the viola part. She knew everyone. Mention a violist from the last 60 years, and she knew them. Even after health issues limited her ability to perform, she still did her “daily dozen” regimen of scales and arpeggios. She loved to walk on the beach, to collect and study maps, and she was a regular at the Hamlet in Cambria, where she enjoyed listening to jazz.

jamesI (David) met Mary in 2003 and shared a stand with her often. She was one of the finest violists I have ever worked with. She rarely made mistakes, and her years of experience had resulted in what seemed a magical connection to the conductor’s baton. She taught me how to play opera: “Keep your eye on the stick! Lighten up! It’s chamber music! Follow the singers!” If her stand light went out, she joked, “I’ll just play by ear” (and she probably could). Her mantra was “be flexible.” If a tempo was nebulous, she’d say, “It’s in two and/or four.” At the age of 80, she retired as principal with the SLO Symphony. I was asked to audition for the job but wasn’t sure I was prepared. Mary encouraged me, and now I realize that she gave me a great gift. She helped me believe in myself. Thank you, Mary.

Her life-long dedication to music touched the lives of many. A celebration of her life will be held on October 19 in Los Osos, featuring a “viola jam” and chamber music performances. For more information call the San Luis Obispo Symphony office at 805-543-3533.

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Review of Opening Night 2014

By James Cushing

Expectations ran as high as the unseasonably hot temperature Saturday night at the Cohan Center. It was the opening night of the 2014-15 season, and two legends were scheduled to make Central Coast debuts: Elizabeth Pitcairn, one of the world’s top-1391992_10152847399673706_5450061993735309042_ndrawer violinists, and her 1720 “Red Mendelssohn” Stradivarius, the only violin ever to star in an Academy-Award winning movie. Furthermore, these two legends were giving form to a third legend, the fiendishly complex Violin Concerto of Tchaikovsky.

If the audience’s roaring ovations were anything to judge by, most 10710890_10152847398373706_8129063155486016966_nexpectations were met. I know mine were exceeded. Put simply, this gifted woman and her violin changed my way of hearing a major work, and that – the possibility of hearing a performance that changes one’s mind – is one of the reasons to attend live musical events in the first place.

Part of the pleasure of this concert lay in Maestro Michael Nowak’s smart programming. The whole show emphasized melody and vibrant orchestral color, playing on the strengths of the strings and giving the percussion section a workout. Tchaikovsky dominated the second half, but the opener, the overture from Verdi’s La forza del destino, set us up for Respighi’s The Pines of Rome.

Verdi’s 1869 overture is short but very “big” in its pacing, sweep and level of feeling. A 19th-century rollercoaster of passionate desire and pastoral idealism, it starts with three crashing chords and sustains a hectic, even breathless atmosphere, never touching down through its eight minutes.

The lesser-known Ottorino Respighi studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, which may account for a “Russian” feeling to music which nominally depicts Italian landscapes. As a symphonic tone-poem, The Pines of Rome (1923) also shares a resemblance with Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy and Stravinsky’s The Song of the Nightingale. These works abandon symphonic form altogether in order to evoke, in a manner similar to Impressionist painters, a subjectively structured set of visual images. In a sense, it’s film music without a film – although The Pines of Rome functions memorably as the soundtrack for the still-disturbing 1958 avant-garde mashup, A Movie by Bruce Conner – and Nowak’s years of experience in working in film scores paid off in overall pacing and coherence. First-chair trumpet Jerry Boots had a nicely liquid turn, and timpanist John Astaire spanked his drums. The birdcalls in the third section prompted intermission discussion; they were a digital recording, not a trained aviary or a bird-whistle specialist.

10672237_10152847400473706_5108442243560035865_nElizabeth Pitcairn strode onto the stage with the kind of confidence that San Luis Obispo residents are more likely to read about than witness. Tall and poised, in a strapless emerald ombre gown that complemented the Red Mendelssohn perfectly, she commanded the auditorium and changed the way I hear Tchaikovsky.

Confession: He’s never been one of my favorite composers. His big hits like the 1812 Overture or Swan Lake have become clichés through overexposure, and the Piano Concerto has always struck me as ponderous and sentimental. But Pitcairn’s smooth articulation of the “impossibly difficult” solo passages on her nearly-human-voiced violin rebalanced the whole musical equation for me.

Every concerto is a meditation on the relations between the individual and society, but in Unknown-2Pitcairn’s treatment, Tchaikovsky’s violin part expressed an emotional intensity bordering on the obsessive. For the first time, I felt the music as a staging of the extraordinary complexity of the composer’s inner life as gay man in Czarist Russia. The drama took on tragic coloration. Big, brutal chords from the orchestra loomed behind the fractured fragility of the solo part, as though the man were saying “See what you’ve forced me into?”

Pitcairn’s sustained level of virtuosity strained belief. The music’s high speed never tired the mind, but the senses and the heart both reeled at the detailed emotional information singing out of her instrument.

The concert’s sponsors were Jim and Beverly Smith, and David Houston, in memory of Mary Houston; Pitcairn’s encore, the Meditation from Massenet’s Thais, was dedicated to her memory as well.

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Opening Night 2014

By David Hennessee

The SLO Symphony is gearing up for opening night of the 2014 season. First on the program is the Overture to Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” – a big pasta bowl of opera overture goodness. Next we are playing Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome.” This well-known and loved tone poem is part of his Roman trilogy (with “The Fountains of Rome” and “Roman Festivals”). It evokes the sites and sounds of the city. It opens by conjuring images of morning and children at play. Then the mood abruptly shifts to dirge-like, with music that evokes catacombs and monks chanting. There follows perhaps the most beautiful section, a nocturne that features a soaring clarinet solo and lush strings. It ends with recorded birdsong (this was an innovation in 1926, when Respighi wrote the piece – to make use of the recently invented phonograph).


6222647356_d4605c4f7cOf course the most memorable part of the piece, the part people wait for, is the ending. It evokes the pines of the Appian Way, the grand road that led to Rome in its imperial glory. Like Ravel’s Bolero, the piece grows through a long, slow crescendo. It’s difficult not to be moved by the pounding percussion, pealing trumpets, and the sound of the entire orchestra playing at full volume.

Disney’s “Fantasia 2000” rendered this inspiring visualization of the piece:

I have a friend who jokes: “you know how you can tell if a piece is 20th century? It sounds like movie music.” Film composers have taken inspiration from Ravel, Debussy, Copland, Prokofiev, Holst, and some, like Korngold and Glass, have written for both the concert hall and the big screen. Respighi’s music has been influential in this regard as well. John Williams, for example, modeled his opening of Superman after the last movement of “The Pines of Rome.”




Of course, the real star of the show is Elizabeth Pitcairn, performing on the Stradivarius “Red Mendelssohn” violin. This beautiful instrument, thought to be one of the finest ever made, was crafted in 1720, then it disappeared for more than 200 years. No one knows where it was, who possessed it, or if it were being played. This mystery inspired the 1999 film “The Red Violin.”

The instrument reappeared in 1930s Berlin, having been purchased by a descendant of the composer Mendelssohn (which is how it comes by its moniker). When the violin was put up for auction in 1990, Pitcairn’s grandfather bought it for her. She was 16 years old, and after intensive study, blossomed into one of the world’s most renowned concert violinists, praised for her sensitive interpretations and technical prowess. Her skill at playing the “red violin” will be on display in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Here is a short example of her performing some of the music from the film “The Red Violin.”

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Barber’s Adagio for Strings

By David Hennessee

Hi everyone! This weekend, Classics in the Cohan returns with a terrific R-Thies-41program featuring Bartok, Barber, and Rachmaninoff. It’s always thrilling to hear pianist Robert Thies, and Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto is a mammoth piece. The Bartok Dance Suite has all the elements we love in Bartok – folk tunes, energetic and driving rhythms, pungent harmonies.

I wanted to write a bit about the piece I know the best, the Barber Adagio. Getting to play this piece is always an event in the life of a string player. We are dedicating the performance to longtime symphony colleague and friend Randy Garacci, who passed away garacci_1373952660_140in December.

I remember the first time I heard the Barber Adagio. I was in high school, and my violinist friend in another town told me her school orchestra was playing it. She described how difficult it was to play – it’s in a bad key for strings, it’s very slow (requiring lots of bow control), and all the sections go into the stratosphere at the climax. Then I heard the group play it. I was floored. I was amazed that such sounds could come from teenagers, kids I goofed around with. And then there was the music itself. How to put it into words? BBC listeners voted it “the saddest piece in classical music.” It’s haunting, melancholy, intense, yearning, almost painful to hear.

barber-1932I wasn’t the first person to be affected in this way. Here’s some history of the piece: originally, it was the second movement of Barber’s String Quartet. It is sandwiched between two fast movements and contrasts greatly with them. I’ve played that quartet, and I like the whole thing, but the Adagio is in a different order of art from the outer movements. Here is what it sounds like in quartet form.

It’s very challenging to play this version because you really have to save bow and pay attention to the bow changes, as well as play double stops that Barber uses to fill out the harmonies. Barber then orchestrated the movement and sent it to Toscanini, who advocated for it, performing it on tour and on radio broadcasts. Since then, it has become one of the most recognizable pieces of classical music. It was broadcast on the radio following the deaths of FDR, JFK, and Princess Diana and played at the funerals of Einstein and Princess Grace. It can be heard in many film soundtracks, most notably in Platoon to evoke the pain of warfare.

The Adagio has also been adapted for organ, clarinet choir, cello choir, and in a choral arrangement of “Agnus Dei.”

So what is it about this 8-minute piece that is so affecting?

I can think of a couple of factors contributing to the Adagio’s power. First is the key – B flat minor. No open strings to play or resonate in the key, so the music has a dark, muted quality. Second is the melody itself. It is based on a scale that creeps up and down. It’s interesting how many memorable melodies are really just scales. For example, the Pas De Deux from Act II of the Nutcracker is a descending G-major scale, or Habernera from “Carmen” is a descending chromatic scale. Formed as they are from the building blocks of music, perhaps these melodies based on scales seem direct, honest, and accessible.

imagesCoincidentally, this week in my “Great Books” class, we were reading Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach.” In this poem, Arnold imagines in that landscape the sadness and heartbreak of losing one’s faith in God. He hears in the sound of the surf a “tremulous cadence slow” that “bring[s] the eternal note of sadness in.” Barber did a setting of “Dover Beach” for baritone and string quartet, so he was aware of Arnold’s description. I hear in the Adagio’s melody that same “tremulous cadence slow” in how it slowly winds up, down, and around the B flat minor scale.

But the Adagio is not just sad. Catharsis is what I think this piece ultimately can offer. As I learned it, catharsis as an aesthetic/emotional experience contains three elements: purgation, purification, clarification. Negative emotions are evoked and purged, leading to purification, and then intellectual clarity. It’s an emotional journey of heartbreak and healing. That’s what I’ve always heard and experienced in these magical eight minutes. The dark night of the soul opens into boundless day. tree-sunset

See you this weekend!

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30 Facts About 30 Years Ago

By David Hennessee

Hi everyone! Summer is on the way out, but that means another season of music from the San Luis Obispo Symphony is on the way in. We kick it off with Pops by the Sea this Sunday, featuring music luminaries Café Musique. Here is a taste:

This season marks Michael Nowak’s 30th anniversary as Music Director. Our program Sunday revisits popular music from 30 years ago; get ready for some Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Van Halen and more, in addition to traditional favorites like Brahms Hungarian Dance #5, selections from “West Side Story,” and the 1812 Overture.

Practicing this music got me thinking about 1984 – It was quite a year. I remember it well; I was 13, had been playing the viola a few years, and had just entered the 7th grade. So what else was going on that year? To get us all in the mood for some time travel, here are 30 facts about 30 years ago.

1. Some of 1984’s number one songs: Paul McCartney and footloose1Michael Jackson “Say Say Say.” Yes “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” Culture Club “Karma Chameleon.” Van Halen “Jump.” Kenny Loggins “Footloose.” Unknown-2Phil Collins “Against All Odds.” Lionel Richie “Hello.” Deniece Williams “Let’s Hear it for the Boy.” And rounding out the year: Madonna’s iconic “Like a Virgin.”

2. Earlier that year, the Material Girl had made her television debut on American Bandstand.

3. Prince’s album “Purple Rain” stayed at the number one spot for six months. MV5BMTk1ODQ1MzgxM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTM1NzMyMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR8,0,214,317_

4. The US Supreme Court ruled that private home use of VCRs to tape TV programs to view later did not violate federal copyright laws. (This is probably the year that when I got home from school, I began recording the last half of “General Hospital” for my mom and sister.)

5. The Macintosh computer was unveiled by Apple.


6. The Soviet Union announced that it would not participate in the Los Angeles Summer Olympics, leading a boycott that included fourteen other countries. American athletes swept the medal count.

7. John Williams’ famous Olympic theme premiered at the games.

8. “The Cosby Show” began its eight-season run.

9. “La Cage Aux Folles” won the Tony award for Best Musical.

10. Daytime soap opera star Susan Lucci lost her fifth Emmy award bid. She went on to lose a total of 18 times, finally winning one in 1999.erica_caleb

11. Vanessa Williams became the first African-American Miss America. She later resigned after nude photos of her were published in Penthouse magazine, and then went on to a successful music career and sheer vanessa-crowning-620x889fabulosity as Wilhelmina Slater on “Ugly Betty.”

Unknown-112. Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman nominated for Vice President. She and Walter Mondale lost to Ronald Reagan and George Bush by a huge margin (the Democrats only carrying Mondale’s home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia).

13. During a Presidential debate, Reagan said this:

14. In 1984, Clara Peller said this:

15. And Arnold Schwarzenegger said this:

16. A baboon heart’s was transplanted to an infant girl, “Baby Fae.” She lived for another 21 days.

17. Average cost of a new house: $86,730

18. Average annual personal income: $21,600

19. Movie ticket: $2.50

20. Gallon of gas: $1.10

21. Indira Gandhi, India’s only female Prime Minister, was assassinated.


22. The Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, began leaking 27 tons of deadly gas. 20,000 people died and an additional 120,000 suffered ailments.

23. The virus that causes AIDS was first identified.

24. Ethiopia was in the grip of a devastating famine that led to more than 400,000 deaths.

25. A group of British and Irish musicians called “Band Aid” released a single, “Do They Know it’s Christmas,” to raise money for famine relief.

26. Popular movies of 1984: Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and imagesthe Temple of Doom, Gremlins, Beverly Hills Cop, Terms of Endearment, The Karate Kid, Police Academy, Romancing the Stone, Splash, Amadeus, The Killing Fields, A Passage To India.

27. Celebrities born in 1984: Scarlett Johansson, Katy Perry, Ashlee Simpson, Avril Lavigne, Khloe Kardashian, Fantasia Barrino.

28. Barack Obama was one year out of college. (Yes, he really did attend Columbia University.


29. Best-selling video game of the year:

30. And this little device hit the market.Discman_D121

See you Sunday!

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Don Quixote, What do you say?

By David Hennessee

ZuillBailey-outdoors3-croppedWEBHard to believe that the season is almost over and we’re about to play Strauss’s “Don Quixote”! This may be the most difficult piece of music the SLO Symphony has ever performed. We’ve been plugging away at it for while now – had sectional rehearsals on it a few weeks ago – and last week our Sancho Panzo – violist Andrew Duckles – wowed us all with his rich tone and expressive interpretation. This week the amazing Zuill Bailey arrives to bring to life the part of Don Quixote. shapeimage_2

Tone poems (also known as symphonic poems) like “Don Quixote” are cool to play, but challenging, since they are usually rather long (“Don Quixote” is around 45 minutes played without pause) and have several contrasting sections. Tone poems grew up in the 19th century, pioneered by Franz Liszt, who wrote thirteen of them, the most well-known today being “Les Preludes.” They are a form of program music in that they evoke stories, moods, themes, or landscapes. Some other examples include Siblelius’s “The Swan of Tuonela,” Smetana’s “Má vlast,” and Schoenberg’s chamber work “Verklärte Nacht” has elements of the form. Apparently, a goal of those who wrote them was to bring the dramatic intensity of opera to the symphonic repertoire.

richard-strauss-4Richard Strauss certainly did this in his compositions. He was a master of the tone poem, writing nine of them: “Macbeth,” “Don Juan,” Death and Transfiguration,” “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks,” “Also sprach Zarathustra,” “Don Quixote,” “Ein Heldenleben,” “Domestic Symphony,” and “An Alpine Symphony.” They all use large orchestras with extra instruments and are quite difficult technically. Just ask any violinist or violist about the first page of “Don Juan” (a staple of orchestral auditions).

“Don Quixote” has fourteen sections; first we meet Cervantes’ crazy knight-errant, following him through several adventures, finally ending with his death. Here is the Don Quixote theme, played by the cello:

Next we meet Don Quixote’s sidekick Sancho Panza, portrayed by the viola, with a theme that evokes his riding hurriedly and nervously behind the knight:

In this next section Don Quixote does single-handed battle with an army – actually a flock of sheep – with the brass flutter-tonguing representing the sheep.


Learning this piece got me thinking about the story of Don Quixote: a monumental work in Western literature, considered by some to be the first modern novel since it not only tells a story, but also deals with larger existential questions: alienation, life and death, imagination versus reality. Is Don Quixote an admirable figure, who, in the words of the famous song, dares to “dream the impossible dream”? Or, is he a misguided, pitiable madman? Are we intended to laugh at his adventures, or see them as commenting on the human experience generally? As Nik Kershaw asks: “Don Quixote, what do you say? Are we proud? Are we brave? Or just crazy? Are we shooting at windmills like you?”

We may not be able to answer such questions at the Season Finale, but we’ll have a great time exploring them through music. See you Saturday!

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Why We Need Music Reviews

By David Hennessee

FREEDress-Oct2008-WEBOn Saturday, February 2nd, over 2000 people attended the SLO Symphony’s open dress rehearsal and evening concert to hear us perform Mozart’s Symphony #40 and Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Scheherazade. Both performances received enthusiastic standing ovations. The soloists for Scheherazade all performed beautifully, and judging from audience comments, the new Meyer sound enhancement system made the orchestra sound more “lush” and “full,” with the lower strings particularly more present. The sound system also helped to eliminate some of the acoustic dead spots in the PAC. All in all, it was a significant and memorable day for the SLO Symphony and its friends.

So why was there no review of it in the San Luis Obispo Tribune?

Well, this season, the Tribune has changed from writing reviews to previews – articles about upcoming concerts. Speaking for myself, I think this is an excellent way to generate interest about a concert, as well as inform the audience of the music to be played and a bit about the guest soloist. I know that any arts group is grateful for whatever media coverage it receives.

However, I think the Tribune’s decision to drop reviews is a mistake, and here are some reasons why.

Reviews show the importance of arts to any community. The press holds up a mirror to the community it serves. Read a city’s newspapers, journals, and blogs and you will get a picture of what that community is like. What is important there? Who is doing what? What’s going on? Why are reviews of arts events part of this picture? A review shows that someone with credibility attended the event, described it, and evaluated it, and that person’s opinion is newsworthy. This printed opinion reflects a community where individuals care enough about art not only to patronize it, but to discuss it –even argue about it. To take it seriously. A preview says to the readership “here’s something cool coming up that you might like to do.” A review, on the other hand, says “we know that our community cares so much about the arts that its members have ideas, preferences, and opinions about them; we want to be part of that discussion.”

313859_10151464269266340_2096099011_nReviews show that the arts are a key element to San Luis Obispo’s quality of life. As we know, San Luis Obispo has been touted as “the happiest place in America,” yet this town is more than nice weather, pretty hills, and wide sidewalks. Studies have shown that the number one factor for happiness is quality relationships, and for a town as a whole, that comes from a felt sense of community. The arts build community, and this area has an unusually active arts scene: Art After Dark, poetry readings, Concerts in the Plaza, PCPA, SLO Little Theatre, Orchesis, Variable Velocity, Civic Ballet, Cuesta Master Chorale, Vocal Arts Ensemble, Canzona, Festival Mozaic, Symphony of the Vines, Opera San Luis Obispo… the list goes on. Thousands of people put tremendous amounts of time, effort, and money into these groups. Thousands more go to their performances. Thousands of people come together in and around these groups, not just to make money, practice a hobby, or find entertainment. They – we – come together to find each other. As I mentioned, over 2000 people heard the SLO Symphony perform earlier this month. slo-20100311-F012-musicaltraditio-292363-MI0001.aurora_standalone.prod_affiliate.76Surely it is newsworthy that 2000 people in the county were all doing the same thing at the same time? More reviews of any and all of the county’s arts groups – not just the SLO Symphony – would reflect this vital element of the San Luis Obispo community, and encourage the continued growth of the arts.

Reviews help any arts group to maintain a high standard. In the world of theater and film, for example, a bad review on opening night can destroy a production’s chance of success, or a good review can ensure patronage. Reviews are part of modern life. I have the Rotten Tomatoes app on my Ipad, and I use it to decide which movies to see. Before buying something on Amazon, I check the product reviews. Accountability encourages consistent high achievement. The SLO Symphony is, in my opinion, sounding better than ever. I think that  achievement is newsworthy.

Reviews help sustain an arts group. We live in a culture of advertising and marketing. It can be hard to break through the “clutter” of that to get to the truth of the matter, rather than the spin. Objective reviews provide that truth. Being able to cite a positive review is very persuasive in marketing and grant-writing. As we know, ticket sales cover only a fraction of operating costs. The rest comes from fundraising, grants, and private donations. Reviews that attest to the quality of a group help keep it afloat financially.

Reviews bring in “new blood.” I know several people who decided to relocate or retire to San Luis Obispo precisely because of its active arts scene, including the SLO Symphony. Prospective new “SLO-cals” can read about the arts scene on line, and reviews give them vital, objective information about that. The time, talent, and resources they bring enrich our community.

dsc_0081Reviews look to the future. How can this be, when they concern something that already happened? As Marian Wright Edelman says, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” When I was a child, I attended concerts of our local orchestra, then read the reviews in the paper a few days later. The fact that the only paper in town considered the orchestra’s sound newsworthy helped to teach me: music matters. People care about this. This is something important in the world. I can do this. I want to do this. Thirty years later, I am still doing it, and plan to keep doing it as long as I can. Young people today swim in a sea of media images. We need more images attesting to the worth of classical music – and the arts in general – not less, if we want the next generation to see the arts as possible for themselves.

I now feel a desire to quote “The Greatest Love of All,” so I’d better stop here. For all these reasons – and my views do not necessarily reflect those of the SLO Symphony or anyone affiliated with it – I urge the Tribune to reconsider its reviews policy, and also to consider expanding its coverage of the arts to include reviews of other groups, in addition to the SLO Symphony. We are here, and we want to know how we’re doing so we can keep doing it better.

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