Monday, June 17, 2013

Promise denied, promise fulfilled at the U.S. Open

The PGA tournament is the last of the four major tournaments in the golf season, and it's never had the same kind of panache and excitement as the previous three. The Masters is like a spring awakening, the only major held yearly at the same course, where so many golf fans know every hole as if we've played it ourselves. The US Open and the British Open are different tests -- the former demanding accuracy and the ability to scramble out of deep rough; the latter requiring great shotmaking on open, links-style courses, with nary a tree in sight. By the time the PGA rolls around in mid-August, most of us would rather just play golf than watch it.

But at the 1999 PGA at Medinah, a 19-year old Spaniard announced his arrival on golf's finest stage, declaring his worthiness with a dramatic shot from the base of a tree that somehow found its way to the green. Sergio Garcia was in a duel with Tiger Woods, who at that time was the winner of just one major, the 1997 Masters, when he was barely legal. I was on tour with the Pittsburgh Symphony, and for every moment when we weren't in rehearsal or performing, I was glued to the telly in Dublin hotel.

So this PGA was unlike many before and many that followed, because there was so much promise in the air. After Nicklaus/Palmer there was Nicklaus/Trevino and then Nicklaus/Watson, but after his dramatic (and last major) victory at the 1986 Masters, Jack moved on, and many of us moved on with him. The golfing scene had cooled considerably.

Then Tiger arrived and, close on his heels, Sergio Garcia.

Garcia is still a young man today, his enormous gifts still well intact. In the Ryder Cup, Garcia is characteristically brilliant in the team format. Sadly, when he's on his own, he's in a constant battle with himself. We want to root for him, because we love to see great shotmaking. He's had trouble with his putting, but more than anything, Garcia has a unique proclivity for getting in his own way. He's 32, and it already feels like he's past his prime.

At the 2002 US Open at Bethpage, Garcia displayed an annoying habit of gripping and regripping his club while addressing his ball, such that rude spectators would count out loud, "1, 2, 3 . ." for each time he did it. At the 2007 British Open, he spit into the bottom of the cup after a 3-putt bogey. Earlier this year, at the The Players Championship -- where he won memorably in 2008 with a brilliant shot to the island green at 17 -- he hit three balls into the water on the last two holes, catastrophically knocking himself out of the lead. Moments later at a press conference, he insinuated that his difficulties were caused by improper on-course protocol from Woods. Whatever Tiger may have done -- and I wouldn't put it past him, given his arrogance and gamesmanship -- it certainly did not warrant Garcia's racially insensitive remarks.

Like Garcia, Justin Rose, also 32 (or soon to be), announced himself to the golf world as a teenager around the same time. At the age of 17, he holed a wedge from the fairway on the last hole of the 1998 British Open, finishing in fourth place. With Nick Faldo at the end of his fine career, England was united in placing their hopes in Rose as the heir apparent.

After turning pro, Rose missed 21 consecutive cuts. He won a couple of tournaments in his native South Africa, but his struggles continued. After moving stateside and dedicating himself to the PGA tour, he finally broke through in 2010, and since then has won at least one tournament every year. With his win yesterday at the US Open, he has joined golfing greats Lee Trevino (1971) and Ben Hogan (1950) among other great US Open winners at Merion. His win may not have been as dramatic -- Lee beat Jack in an 18-hole playoff, and Ben needed a late one-iron on a string to get himself in position for his playoff victory. Like Garcia (and Hogan), Rose is not a great putter; he 3-putted four times during the tournament. But he was still good enough to outlast Jason Day and Phil Mickelson, who thrilled the galleries with an eagle 2 on the 10th. But this and a lone birdie were not enough to overcome several bogeys on the finishing holes. His 43rd birthday would end with a record 6th second place finish at the U.S. Open.

Rose will never be a household name like Garcia. He lives his life quietly, without fanfare, without controversy. And he has something that still eludes Garcia -- a major championship victory.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Mining the data: What film will you next see?

In the May/June issue of Intelligent Life, there is an article on algorithims which shows how the company, Epagogix, uses data to determine who is a bankable movie star. Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp and Will Smith are actors who have demonstrated over time to bring a return on the investment. This has nothing to do with whether the film is any good, or if it's even art. But algorithims help Epagogix guide studios in their decisions. (The article went on to say that a certain unnamed A-list actress is guaranteed to lose money. I wonder if it's Julia Roberts?)

The Hartford Symphony recently did a popular all-Mozart program, and it was difficult to get a ticket -- even with four performances. Later in the season, a program featuring two pianists in music by Gershwin also did well. Unfortunately, the season closer, featuring Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps, did not draw audiences of similar magnitude.

The Hartford Symphony is right to perform The Rite of Spring, and like most orchestras, they wanted to schedule it when the rest of the world was celebrating the work's centenary. But honoring that date -- May 29, 1913 -- means that you must close your season with it. And Stravinsky is never going to sell like Mozart or Gershwin. However viable artistically it may be, closing your season with Le sacre is a calculated risk.

Enter algorithims. Again, we are not talking about the artistic level of these performances, but rather the interest these programs would likely generate within the community. (For what it's worth, I attended the Mozart program -- featuring concertmaster Leonid Sigal as soloist and guest conductor -- and it was very good. Sometimes box office and artistic merits can be on the same page.)

Creating a symphony season is quite a puzzle. During my years as music director of the Hartford Symphony, there were always checks and balances to what I planned. Initially, the process was a bit arduous. The year before I arrived -- without a sitting music director -- the Program Committee had planned the entire masterworks series. With their newly minted success, they wanted to continue having an active role. What they did not understand is that programming is one of the most important things a music director does. I wanted to play to my strengths, and to that of the orchestra, and who would know better than a conductor?

Once you have a first draft of a season, then it's time for careful scrutinizing. And one of the first questions will be, "will it sell?"

Mozart always sells. Vivaldi's Four Seasons and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony are guaranteed box office hits. But you can't fill your whole season with these works, otherwise. . . . what are you going to do the following season? You must be judicious, and plan ahead.

There is also the matter of concertos -- for an orchestra that does several masterworks programs over the course of a season, the HSO always features at least one or two pianists, sometimes more. Then you must decide which concerto will be played -- will it be one by Rachmaninoff? Audiences love just about anything by Rachmaninoff, but they also have preferences: the Second or Third concertos, for instance, or Variations on a Theme by Paganini. But if you schedule the First or Fourth concertos -- both wonderful, if neglected works -- audiences may not come (and the less discerning ticket buyers may feel cheated).

Sometimes you get a surprise hit. With the help of Christopher Stager, a marketing whiz who continues to guide me and many other orchestras and opera companies, he suggested that if I wanted to do Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet, it would be best to position it near Valentine's Day. Now, there are lots of people who love Beethoven, Bach and Brahms, and maybe even one or two works by Berlioz (Symphonie Fantastique, for example), but few would admit more than a passing knowledge with this great work. Well, Valentine's Day arrived, and sure enough, just as Chris had predicted, scores of young men brought their beautifully-coiffed dates to the Bushnell, hoping to get tickets. Some did, but many others were denied entry, as the box office staff were caught completely off guard by the last-minute onslaught. Chris's suggestion had been a master stroke; if we had put Romeo and Juliet on any other month of the year, it would have gone by with nary even a dull roar.

If you need a sure thing, put Brad Pitt in the movie, or put Carmina Burana on the docket. But for the rest of the year, you'd better have the data on your side. Without it, you can only hope to get lucky.