Let us imagine a fictional city, thirty or so years ago with lots of talented musicians. In this imaginary place, there is a well-established network of entrepreneurs. This group buys a couple of restaurants and decides to provide live music to create a positive image. The target audience is businessmen who like to have a couple of drinks during the week. The restaurant serves food at a competitive price, making it also attractive to families.
In one of these restaurants, small local groups play from Monday to Saturday. It is a union club, and the contracts are all filed in good order. Bands play for a week at a time, which means an easy setup and tear down. It also offers them the chance to develop a tighter sound. It becomes an important arrival point, and younger players strive to develop an audience and a strong enough skill set to play at this venue.
At the other restaurant, they decide to bring in an international artist every week who plays with a local rhythm section. This house band changes depending on the needs of each artist, but usually consists of four sidemen. This engagement, also for a week, gives the visiting artist a chance to settle into the locale, and allows time for the house-band to gain experience with a player of international repute.
This kind of situation is intimate, and players must fulfill their particular role. Touring pros listen hard and tend to lift the quality of the musicians around them. Three hours of music making per night for six nights perhaps once every three weeks. It adds up to a significant amount of experience.
As these locals work with international players a great deal of information is exchanged: the way certain artists begin or end sections, the approach to certain types of songs, even the kind of interplay that is required. Our local bands get better and better at anticipating what a new guest might do and build up an extensive body of insider knowledge. So much, that soon they are being hired to go on the road with some of these visiting artists. As their reputation grows, they spend more and more time on the road with international artists. When this happens, new musicians come in, and the development continues.
Our fictional network has provided this fictional city with an incredible system of professional development. They have also accrued the necessary financial benefits to deem this a successful enterprise.
I stand back and try to think of the various components and whether any of this can be relevant to the classical music world. We have an astounding amount of talent in our non-fictive metropolis, and I’d like to think of that as an asset to share with the world.
In a weeklong engagement, someone might attend more than once. In genres like jazz, the repertoire may be constant, but the improvisation might make it worth repeated listening. Is there something that we classical musicians can do to make repeated visits desirable?
Perhaps we start by imagining a pleasant venue, with good sight lines and acoustics. What if there was a string quartet that functioned like a house band, hosting pianists, singers and other special guests who stayed for a week, doing the same program?
The cost of admission would have to reasonable, so the tickets would need to be subsidized. The quality of the experience would have to be palpable, and an intimate venue can provide that, so people would want to return.
One of my old friends insisted that “all good music was improvised.” It could be the choice of notes and rhythms, or it could be attention to the smallest details of timbre, pacing and dynamics, but the improvised elements make it alive in the moment. Wouldn’t it be great to export a little more of our amazing talent?