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San Diego Spotlight : Symphonies Must Change to Survive, Conductor Says

Conductor Murry Sidlin is not one to mince words when diagnosing the ills of the American symphony orchestra.

“Because of the changing sociology in American life, we have evolved to the point where the symphony orchestra as it now exists is not a viable institution. All the elements of our society point to its demise,” Sidlin observed over breakfast last Saturday. In town to address the annual conference of the Assn. of California Symphony Orchestras, Sidlin lamented the institution’s inability to admit its problems, much less address them.

“It’s hard to get these people to admit that they have empty seats, that they can’t raise the money they need. I know there is a large, willing, educated and resourceful audience out there, but we’re not attracting them into the concert hall.”

Sidlin is not, however, a prophet of doom, a nay-sayer without constructive solutions. The San Diego Symphony’s successful “Classical Hits” series, devised and conducted by Sidlin, starts its fourth season this fall. Following in the footsteps of that great audience communicator, Leonard Bernstein, Sidlin uses his infectious, listener-friendly commentary to prepare his audience for the music the orchestra plays. He calls it “demystifying” the experience of the classical music concert.

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“My goal is to break down the prejudicial barrier between a frightened lay audience and the austere institution of the symphony and, secondly, to validate the listeners’ impression of the music they hear. I want people to know that the concert hall is not a temple some sort of exotic religion, but a place to enjoy and let their imaginations run wild.”

Sidlin will conduct a pair of SummerPops programs next week (Sept. 4-7) that reflects his innovative approach to orchestra programming. The Wednesday-Thursday program will present an all-Copland concert illustrated by panoramic scenes projected above the orchestra. The photographs of North American landscape will accompany Copland’s familiar American tone poems, “Appalachian Spring” and “Billy the Kid,” as well as a Suite from Copland’s only opera, “The Tender Land.” Sidlin admitted that this is the sort of gimmick that critics hate and audiences love.

“I am one of the most anti-visual people when it comes to orchestral music, but I am convinced that this works. Lay audiences who are afraid of the concert hall attend this two-hour program of Aaron Copland and love it. The images on the screens overhead are all balanced and phrased to the music by a photo choreographer.”

Sidlin noted that this concert with visual aids has been given in about 30 cities, including Pittsburgh, Honolulu, Seattle and Washington. Next’s week’s SummerPops presentation will be the its first outdoor incarnation.

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“This format is the embryo of things that will have to follow, one of the ways to break down the barriers to symphonic music performance. It’s only one way, and there are at least 150 ways needed. There’s no simple, single solution.”

On Friday and Saturday, Sidlin will face a different test, conducting an all-Beethoven program for the SummerPops’ season finale. He has paired Beethoven’s First Symphony with the Ninth Symphony, assisted by the San Diego Master Chorale. Sidlin admitted that keeping the attention of a pops audience through the entire Ninth Symphony will be his greatest challenge.

“It’s not the last 25 minutes of the symphony, which is assured, that worries me,” Sidlin said. He explained that everyone knows and enjoys the Ninth Symphony’s grand choral finale.

“I’ve got to get them through the symphony’s first three movements. I don’t want them to just tolerate the first three movements.”

Sidlin didn’t give away his battle plan, but he did make one confession.

“I’ve never had to explain the whole Beethoven Ninth before.”

Stage fright at the opera. The San Diego Opera will feature Korean lyric soprano Young Mi Kim in the title role of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” in February, 1993, general director Ian Campbell has announced. Puerto Rican tenor Cesar Hernandez will sing Pinkerton. Kim made her New York City Opera debut as Cio Cio San in 1988.

Kim’s credits include singing opposite Luciano Pavarotti in the Opera Company of Philadelphia production of Bellini’s “Norma” as a winner of the Pavarotti International Voice Competition.

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San Diego’s decidedly international “Butterfly” cast includes Chinese mezzo soprano Yun Deng as Suzuki and American baritone Richard Stilwell as Sharpless.

When Campbell announced the 1993 season earlier this year, he had not signed his “Butterfly” cast because the familiar Puccini opus was a last-minute substitute for a previously scheduled 20th-Century opera. Campbell retreated to the safety of “Butterfly” after local audiences complained about the production last February of Benjamin Britten’s 1947 comic opera “Peter Grimes.” Although local audiences responded more favorably to Carlisle Floyd’s more recent opera “The Passion of Jonathan Wade” in April, Campbell opted for the safer path.

Look for an uncontroversial 20th-Century opera in the company’s 1994 season--opera buffs will have to travel elsewhere to encounter John Adams or Philip Glass--and a reprise of Floyd’s “Jonathan Wade” soon after.

Dutch connection. Martin Wright, San Diego Opera chorus master, will spend October in Holland preparing the Netherlands Radio Choir for its Oct. 19 performance in Utrecht of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” under the baton of noted Dutch conductor Edo de Waart.

Wright landed the gig after Kenneth Montgomery, who conducted San Diego Opera’s “The Passion of Jonathan Wade” gave Wright a glowing recommendation. Montgomery recently completed a stint as the Netherlands Radio Orchestra principal guest conductor.


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