Sunday, September 13, 2009

Remembering a Significant Promoter (before the age of self-promotion)

Yesterday The New York Times published an obituary by Bruce Weber for Norman Seaman. This name is unlikely to be familiar to most readers, particularly those outside New York City; but it is important to remember him. In an age in which the Internet has forced artists to be consumed by the task of self-promotion, to the detriment of their practice and cultivation of the talent they are trying to promote, Seaman devoted his life and career to providing would-be professional musicians with opportunities to perform before an audience. Here is how Weber described what Seaman did and how he did it:

Mr. Seaman was a niche impresario, a clever producer of 3,000 performances, by his estimate, who wedged concert programs into halls in hours of disuse, who created series to fill empty weeks in the musical year and who introduced curious audiences to hundreds of new performers aspiring to great careers.

For more than three decades, beginning in 1950, Mr. Seaman may have found more ways to put more musicians in front of more audiences than anyone else. It started when he produced a mid-August recital by his brother Eugene, a pianist, in the Carl Fischer Concert Hall on West 57th Street (later CAMI Hall). The recital introduced an annual series of performances known as Interval Concerts, because they were scheduled between the end of the summer concert season and the start of the fall season.

In addition to running the Intervals, in 1954 he started a series of Twilight Concerts, performances that typically began between 4:30 and 6 p.m. In 1960 he was a founder of a festival of avant-garde music. And in 1962 he started what became known as the Concert/Theater Club, an ingenious sort of ticket brokerage; for an annual fee, club members could receive free tickets to dozens of plays and concerts that otherwise would not have sold.

If Mr. Seaman had a specialty, though, it was the debut recital, once a significant career-building element in the life of a young performer, which has, with the decline of music reviews and music reviewers, almost disappeared. For a small fee — in 1961, when he produced 50 debut recitals, it was as little as $180 — he would arrange for a performance space, say Carnegie Recital Hall, in the late afternoon in midweek; put a small ad in the newspaper; handle the tickets and the staff; and invite reviewers. If enough tickets sold that a profit was to be had, Mr. Seaman and the performer split it.

Most of the performers, of course, never became as celebrated as they hoped to be, but over the years Mr. Seaman produced early performances by the soprano Shirley Verrett, the clarinetist Stanley Drucker, the harpsichordist Igor Kipnis, the violinist Robert Gerle and the spinto soprano Martina Arroyo, among others.

“There are no frills to the shows I put on,” Mr. Seaman told The New York Times in 1960, “no fancy programs, no slick, colored tickets, no house ushers, generally no rental of prime evening time in concert halls. My mother and father help me when they can. She loves to sell tickets in the box office, and he takes them at the door. I do the pasting and make-up of the programs, circulars and posters myself and also distribute them around town.”

There is something in Seaman's story that is comfortingly reminiscent of that old John Houseman television commercial about making money the old-fashioned way. Thanks to Seaman, those would-be performers could work their butts off at being the best musicians they could, leaving it to Seaman to make sure that, when they were ready to strut their stuff, there would be an audience ready for them.

I decided to perform a test on the names in that penultimate paragraph. With the exception of Gerle, they all now have their own Wikipedia pages; and in Gerle's case I found five Wikipedia pages that cited him, one for being the composer of a violin concerto. It would not surprise me to learn that these names are more familiar to me than to most of my readers, but they all came from a time when musicians would still try to get by on the strength of being musicians. I once had the pleasure of arranging for Kipnis to give a lecture/concert for the research staff at the Schlumberger-Doll Research Center in Ridgefield Connecticut, primarily on the strength of his living in neighboring Danbury. Over the lunch we had arranged for him, I learned of the many things Kipnis had done to sustain his career as a performer; but all of the ones he discussed had to do with music in some way or another.

I know it is senselessly nostalgic to rail against this age of self-promoting artists that has been made by the Internet. One may just as well rail against the demise of those (human) matchmaking mediators, who used to serve as "headhunters" to whom professionals in search of a new job could turn. As I observed when considering the plight of those artists, much of the research community is in a similar boat, investing large chunks of time in promotion that could be better spent actually doing research. The reductio ad absurdum may well trickle down to a transformation of our educational system, under which the concept of "marketable skill" ends up excluding all of the usual academic disciplines in favor of the discipline of Internet-based self-promotion. We shall then face the prospect of a work force highly talented at attracting attention and seriously wanting in the skills for doing anything else. In the area of the performing arts, it may be just as well that Seaman never lived long enough to see this age emerge in full flower.

1 comment:

Elaine Fine said...

Thank you for this post. It resonates on many levels.