12 September 2008

second thoughts of a minor Medici

How quickly even long-held beliefs can change! I claimed, after abandoning my SF Opera subscription and ending my donations to them (having vowed not to donate to any company performing Boheme), that I would keep on subscribing and donating to Cal Performances, mostly because of their association with Mark Morris. And yet I’m thinking that next season I will switch to individual tickets there, too, and definitely direct my donations elsewhere.

I donate not only because I believe in giving art and artists the support our society generally doesn’t, but selfishly because donors tend to get first choice of tickets. That’s all I care about: I don’t care about receptions or program listings or special rooms in which to eat cookies – just the tickets. So it was worth it to me to donate to Cal Performances (which really does present excellent programs) to get the seats I wanted, though I was already irritated that in the last few years we were expected to pony up (or “apply for membership” as they absurdly put it) before we were allowed to see the list of what exactly we were going to be hearing once we were in those seats. It seems to me you used to be able to send in a donation when you sent in your subscription, which makes sense to me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about one of their upcoming offerings, a single concert featuring Yo-Yo Ma; as a performer who combines wide popularity with great musical integrity, he’s a hot ticket, but it’s one available only to those who donate at least $1,200. I do understand that art is expensive and you need to pamper the big donors. What offends me, and what I find completely inexplicable and inexcusable, is that this concert, instead of being mentioned only in letters addressed exclusively to the exclusive, was featured in the season brochure, and Yo-Yo Ma is prominently featured on the posters in the lobby, on every program cover, and on every mailing from Cal Performances. During the no doubt lengthy design and production process for this material, did it not occur to anyone over there that this was maybe not such a great idea?

Do they seriously think that all we need in order to toss them an extra $1,200 is the right, cello-based incentive? Have they not been paying attention to America's economic situation? Did it seriously not occur to them that the only message that was really being sent was that there is absolutely no point in giving to them unless you can give at least $1,200? The opera and the symphony have their opening nights for the society swells, but you can ignore them completely, or even attend – hoi polloi are not barred at the door. There’s a long history of robber barons buying social prestige, or at least semi-acceptance, with European-based art forms. But Cal Performances, I assume, comes out of a different and more admirably democratic impetus: making high-quality performances available to university students and faculty, both traditionally not really wealthy groups. So Cal Performance’s unfortunately characteristic clumsiness seems especially offensive, given the public university setting.

And the thing is, this exclusivity, and the emphasis on the big donors, has been getting worse over the many years I’ve been subscribing and donating to Cal Performances. Every year there are more and more performances where tickets are allegedly not available in the location I want, and would I accept being shoved off to the side, or farther back? I always return my subscription within days of receiving it, since I know there's a certain amount of first-come-first-served, and this year I donated at the sponsor level, which frankly was a financial hardship for me, but I figured at least I’d get all the seats I wanted. Nope.

And the thing is, I just don’t believe the tickets aren’t available. I’ve been to too many concerts at Zellerbach and Herbst where I’m sitting right next to people who walked up to the box office half an hour before. So what’s the benefit for me? Last season I bought a ticket for Audra McDonald as soon as the concert was added. I told them to put me in the front row. When I got there, it turned out that I was six rows back, but the first six rows were not blocked off in any way, and the ushers were telling people they could sit there, so of course people who had paid less moved up. I was talking to the woman who ended up in front of me, and she said, “Boy, if I paid $65 for front row and all these people like me who paid less were ahead of me, I’d be pissed!” And you know what? She was right – I was pissed!

So what’s the point in donating to Cal Performances? My widow’s mite is clearly insignificant to them, and I don’t get much benefit from my sacrifice. If I’m going to donate, why not give it to a group that does consistently excellent work and can use the money for something other than an extra shrimp tray for the really valued donors? I can give to Mark Morris directly, or to excellent local groups like Cutting Ball Theater, Thick Description Theater, or Oakland Opera. And for a donation of only $75 to the Opera Company of Philadelphia, I didn't have to wait until December to buy tickets to next June’s performances of Britten’s Rape of Lucretia with Nathan Gunn, William Burden, and Tamara Mumford, in what I understand is the pretty small Perelman Theater. And you know what? Opera Philly gave me the seats I wanted, too, and they were generally gracious and helpful about the whole thing.


jolene said...

"What offends me, and what I find completely inexplicable and inexcusable, is that this concert...Yo-Yo Ma is prominently featured on the posters in the lobby, on every program cover, and on every mailing from Cal Performances."

Amen, totally agreed. They market it to be completely accessible to everyone, and it is deceptively not.

It's all very sketchy, and even sketchier is when I blogged about it as well, they disguised themselves as anonymous commenters to defend their shady marketing tactics. I think it's important for the public to keep them accountable. Check out this entry; they are comment no. 4 and no. 7.


Unfortunately I am not in any financial situation to being able to donate, but if I do, it will totally be to get better seats too. Oh and to support the arts. ;) It's a nice added benefit, the cherry on top of the sundae.

Civic Center said...

I saw Gore Vidal being interviewed in Palm Springs a couple of years ago and at one point he responded, "Then I got to say my favorite four words in the English language: I told you so."

There's something definitely rotten in the State of CP, and it's been evident for some time. They'd better clean up their act before they alienate virtually everyone.

vicmarcam said...

It especially pains me that it is Yo-Yo Ma, who has always been more than ready to bring classical music to the masses. At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, I imagine dozens of young people in the Bay Area who only play the cello because they first heard Yo-Yo Ma play, and there is little chance that they will get to see this performance.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Hey Jolene,
Thank you for the link; I had seen that entry earlier, but not all of the comments. I too found it bizarre, and unfortunately typical of the fairly inept interfacing-with-the-public at Cal Performances, that they commented anonymously -- my feeling is that anyone is welcome to respond officially, but you need to make your allegiances known.

Their comments also completely missed the point, at least the point I am making: though I'm not thrilled with the exclusive nature of the concert, I do understand why they're doing it, and why they feel they need to raise money that way. What baffles and offends me is that they're making sure everyone else knows that they're not invited.

This is especially irritating to me because when I lived in Boston (and Ma was just as celebrated then as he is today), I heard him perform all the Bach solo suites for cello in Jordan Hall, which is comparable in size to First Congregational or Herbst, and at regular ticket prices -- so if anyone in Boston is reading this, make sure to take advantage of the Celebrity Series there!

To be honest, I'm not really in a financial situation right now to donate either; some of my continued giving is habit and some conviction, and there's some altruism and some desire to get the benefits of my choice of seating. And I'm definitely feeling I should have redirected my Cal Performances donation this year.

In your entry you mention the "discount for the under 30 crowd" that some theaters now have. When I was in my 20s I used to tell people that theaters should have such discounts, since those in their 20s are sometimes even less able to afford theater than students; it's nice to see that this idea is taking hold, though much too late for me.

Hey Mike,
When I posted this entry, I knew that in my munificent way I was also giving you an opportunity to utter those sweet words, "I told you so." But I would like to point out that thanks to Cal Performances I'm going to hear some of those Sarah Cahill pieces she so fascinatingly discusses in your recent entry, so my reservations about how they do things have to be balanced with kudos for what they do. http://sfciviccenter.blogspot.com/2008/09/sarah-cahills-sweeter-music.html

Hey Vick,
Again, I have to emphasize that, though I don't like this sort of exclusivity, I understand the motives. Its the widespread publicity for a closed event that I find infuriating. Its only purpose is to heighten class awareness: to make the big donors feel special, and everyone else feel excluded. They have to be pretty clueless not to realize that this would backfire -- that people would draw the obvious conclusion that unless you give at least $1,200, there's no point in giving to them at all.