Thoughts on the Symphony

Advocating for Artistic Reform

On Star Wars and the Baby Boomers

It was recently announced that John Williams will compose the music for Star Wars: Episode VII.  This is great news for fans of his music all over the world, and it could be great news for smart orchestras too.  A new Star Wars movie is the sort of cultural event that has largely untapped possibilities for modern orchestras.  Too often orchestras ignore things like movie openings, or video game releases, but these occasions offer them opportunities to both appeal to a broader base of people and to reconnect with corporate giving.  In this example, why not premiere new music from Episode VII at a symphony concert?  The premiere could be at the same time that the movie debuts, or better still, why not premiere the music just before the movie comes out?  The obvious idea is John Williams conducting, but why not Michael Tilson Thomas, Alan Gilbert, or Gustavo Dudamel?  Why not aspire for all these maestro’s to work together and premiere the music on the same night in different cities?

Thoughtful and intelligent people will certainly disagree about their own tastes in the various genres of symphonic music, but there’s no reason for the institution of the symphony orchestra to swim upstream against market forces.  The fact is that the music that traditionalists call “Pops” has to be more of the focus of serious orchestras’ overall seasons.

Traditionalists regard this idea as diminishment, and that’s understandable — Pops programming at too many orchestras seems dictated not by an artistic or musical goal, but rather by whatever is available from the back of Symphony magazine.  These pre-fab “Pops” programs — they often come complete with a conductor — are an easy out for orchestras who are unused to thinking about film or video game music as seriously as they might consider their classical fare.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with pre-fab concerts, but does renting the same Pixar live-to-projection concert that’s showing in every major city in the country really help to distinguish your orchestra artistically?  And that begs the chilling question, if profitable pre-fab concerts can be rented by anyone then why especially does it need to be the local orchestra?

A valid criticism of certain kinds of “Pops” programming is that the orchestra itself can too often be reduced to being a back-up band.  This of course defeats the purpose of getting an audience to a concert in the first place, and it’s often withering and burdensome for players.  Yet, it is important to notice that this situation doesn’t come from playing worthy film and video game music. It comes from programming material that is not part of the symphonic tradition.  An orchestra performing arrangements of rock songs, for example, is a frustrating exercise for everybody.  There is very little connection from the Beatles to Beethoven, or Dylan to Dvorak.  There is even less connecting the symphony with the circus.

Film music such as Star Wars, on the other hand, deeply relates to the symphonic tradition.  It is written specifically for the symphony orchestra by a composer who is part of a tradition that goes back through WaxmanSteinerHerrmann, and Newman.  This music’s DNA comes out of KorngoldMahler, and Wagner.  And just because traditionalists do not support film music as much as other modern forms, such as dodecaphony, this doesn’t make our American tradition of film music any less real or influential on today’s audience.

Performing film music doesn’t require a movie screen, or a lights show.  You can just play the music.

Also, practically speaking, is it any more worthy of an orchestras’ time and capital to seek out and commission music from Adès?  Or Rouse?  Or Lindberg?  Do these composers bring in a new audience or donations?  Are the resulting pieces somehow more worthy as art than new music from Mr. Williams?  OrUematsu?  Or Wintory?  Which composers’ music do you suppose will create buzz and sell tickets next season?  That ought to matter.

Orchestras should aspire to be curators of all genres of symphonic music, and lend their prestige to composers whose work will both enrich the audience and the art form.  They cannot afford to ignore worthy artists from the film and video game genres just because the Baby Boomers have shunned these genres in search of creating orchestras more like those in Europe.  These are, after all, distinctly American symphonic genres and American orchestras should be celebrating them.  They are also, not inconsequentially, relevant and popular.

Of course orchestras could also do nothing, and simply wait for the Star Wars: Episode VII Suite to appear.  But, by waiting they lose the chance to engage with a new and younger audience for whom this music is a cultural benchmark.  That audience will not attend the concert two years later when the orchestra finally buys the suite of excerpts and has a “movie night.”  Our culture moves faster now, and orchestras need to move much faster too.

Sure, there are hurdles to thinking about the now.  Who knows how Mr. Williams (much less Disney) feels about the notion of even a part of a film’s music being played before the film itself is released, but asking these questions is the direction of artistic leadership that orchestras need.  They should be seeking symphonic music that matters to more people, and that means playing and premiering new film and video game music.  And in the end, there is a lot more room for growth exploring these genres than there is in hoping for changes in the educational system, the NEA, and the American culture.

It doesn’t matter if the snobs call it art or kitsch.  The music and its fans don’t need the traditionalists’ approval, but our American orchestras surely need those fans.


No Time At All

Just like Rip Van Winkle, American orchestras have been asleep for twenty years. Season after season of the same repertoire, played again and again for generations until the idea of an orchestra participating in modern musical life seems outrageous. Last week, the League of American Orchestras focused their annual conference around the idea of “Imagining Orchestras in 2023.” You see, orchestras have at last begun waking up — and they do not know where their audience went. Yet in an industry where many orchestras are already planning their 2018 season, 2023 is not so far away.

If American orchestras continue to deem change as something that happens at a pace that can be measured in decades they will lose even more market share, and they will suffer further diminished artistic relevancy. After all, even when an orchestra actually does something new it is perceived as a single event, rather than a new approach to presenting art. Worse, by waiting to change the dogma surrounding their repertoire and presentation they soon will lose an important generation of potential audience members, the Millennials.

That’s a pity, because there is no reason to suspect that the appeal and popularity of orchestras, and large form symphonic music, cannot be increased to considerably larger demographics. After all, we are speaking about an industry where one-thousand unit sales constitutes a major classical record. One-thousand people. And it’s worth noticing that while the share of classical records in the market is perhaps 3%, maybe less, in 1997 the Titanic soundtrack (an orchestral film score) was released as a classical album and that single record amounted to 12% of the total business in the classical sector for that particular year. American orchestras should have rushed to play that music on their regular subscription concerts — perhaps with other music from 1910, or a sea-themed concert, or even simply a James Horner evening with a little Shostakovich. However, predictably all most orchestras learned from the massive popularity of that album of orchestral music was that they must be sure never to program that sort of music, people might come to the concert.

If this were politics, then from a programming perspective American symphony orchestras are run by the Tea Party — the most conservative of musical minds. Yet, the market tells us that orchestras need to program more diverse music, now, and do it from a place of artistic cohesion. After all, people don’t know what they want until you give it to them. Just ask Apple. It has been said that orchestras are like giant ships that can only change direction slowly. That may be, but much of the change needed is simply pragmatically changing the presentation of current repertoire. Orchestras already play a range of genres, but too often they are segregated into various concert series, such as Classical and Pops, that divide and diminish both the development of the art form and the development of new audiences. Orchestras must begin programming all genres of symphonic music together, and in so doing make themselves a much larger part of American culture.

To that end, management cannot be solely responsible for the future of orchestras. A growing part of the solution requires orchestra musicians to expand their minds as artists. Knowing Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Berio is not enough anymore. Ignorance of popular culture is no longer acceptable for 21st century musicians, especially in regard to new orchestral music. It is already crazy that one has to explain Twitter to the proud luddites that populate many orchestras. Despite the existing orchestral culture that celebrates ignorance of technology as a point of honor, that ignorance is in fact a handicap. Everyone in the classical industry, especially orchestras, should embrace new technology just the same as they should embrace all of the new orchestral genres, like video game music. One can’t dream of the future if one only sees the past.

Happily there are examples of some orchestras who are stepping towards the light. The Pacific Symphony has shown itself to be really creative, such as in this Thriller/Rite mashup. The Detroit Symphony continues to blaze a trail for others with online streaming of concerts, including interesting commentary and interviews. The Brooklyn Philharmonic’s latest concert, with Erykah Badu, was so popular that an additional performance had to be added.

Still, most American orchestras lag far behind even these first steps. Had they been more inclusive, and interested in the culture they inhabit, this transition would seem less abrupt. However, the many great orchestras of the U.S. have been asleep for a long time, and the modern audience has higher expectations than ever before. And importantly, orchestras need a larger audience than ever before. So let us not look to 2023 to imagine what orchestras will be like, let’s look at right now. This season. There is no time to wait. In fact, there’s no time at all.

Modern Times

Half of the fun of watching Mad Men is observing how dramatically American society has changed since the 1960’s.  The characters’ constant drinking and homophobia make us blush, and we notice how far attitudes have shifted towards everything from smoking to sexism.  Our lives in America have changed so thoroughly since then that looking back just fifty years seems to be another age.

During those same fifty years, the audience for orchestras have trended towards the geriatric.  Industry leaders have felt little urgency towards appealing to the young — mostly due to an insidious industry myth that the population would “mature” into classical music fans.  It turns out that that idea was based on ignorance.  Ask any orchestra’s development department.

Appealing to the young is no longer optional for orchestras.  The fact is that Millennials are a really big deal, and orchestras must shift their focus to this younger generation.  For those of you playing at home, here is a Millennial named Colleen Dilenschneider succinctly laying down the facts:

Millennials – those roughly between the ages of 21 and 35 – represent the single largest generation in human history.  Come 2015, Millennials will have more buying power than Baby Boomers, and then this massive demographic will have a stronghold on the market for the following forty years at minimum.  Thanks in large part to the web and social media connectivity, we function and think very differently than the generations that came before us.  Nonprofit organizations that are not targeting this population right now in terms of building affinity and creating personal connections may find themselves suddenly irrelevant within the next decade.

Naturally, shifting priorities towards Millennials is a foundational transitional shift, and part of that shift must be managing the expectations of the current Boomer donors.  Current donors love for orchestras and symphonic music is important and valuable, and it is also important that orchestras continue to be strong institutions that can do their work into the future.  After all, the future audience has no advocate, and without that audience there is no future for orchestras in America.  Boomers need to be persuaded that they are giving to orchestras in order to secure the life and legacy of the institution — even if they don’t like the direction that symphonic music has taken in America.

The goal of reform is not as far off as it may seem because most new kinds of symphonic music are already covered in many orchestras existing mission statements.  In fact, many American orchestras do not use the term “classical” at all in their mission statements, and this is good news.  Limiting an orchestra’s mission to “classical” symphonic music stifles its future, and makes it that much more difficult to transition the organization towards relevance to this new generation of Americans.  After all, the market and the internet have already decided (like it or not) that video game music, film music, and Broadway are a large and growing part of what most people think of as “symphonic” music.  If orchestras want a Millennial audience, and their donations, then these genres need to be more a part of what an audience will hear in the concert hall, especially on regular subscription concerts.

Everyone needs classical musicians to embrace these developments, and college and conservatory orchestras can do a lot more to prepare players for the realities of the market.  At the moment, too many schools continue to prepare students as if they will graduate to play in orchestras from the 1950′s.  They are not only doing a disservice to their students, they are also contributing to the marginalization of orchestras by creating generations of musicians who do not yet speak the language of their own culture.

American orchestras can change their focus and have a say in their collective destiny, or they can do nothing and wait to see what the market brings — like in Minneapolis. These are very real trends, and whatever the outcome in Minneapolis, no amount of restructuring can save our orchestras if their focus and their artistic product continue to ignore the culture they inhabit.

Big Tent Thinking

History is filled with people who have tried to define art.  They have all been wrong, and there is no reason to suspect we are any better at it than they were.

Changes to what experts call “Art” happen all the time.  There was a time when people questioned whether photography constituted fine art.  Some used to ask the same question about Andy Warhol, and today it’s Murakami.  These days film-makers such as Tim Burton are routinely presented as serious artists by mainstream museums.  The Smithsonian Museum exhibits video games as fine art, and video games are now part of the permanent collection at MOMA.  The New York Times has given them a distinct category in the Arts section.

Museums and others are taking popular culture seriously.  Orchestras should follow their lead and program repertory from film, broadway, and video games alongside traditional classical and modern music.  Like museums, orchestras should treat all symphonic genres as interesting and worthy American art.

The separation of genres is a damaging industry prejudice, and it is artistically unjustifiable.  This conceit that they need to be separated into classical and “Pops” divides more than just an orchestra’s resources and their audience, it also divides advertising considerations, fundraising goals, mission statements, and priorities over hiring musicians and conductors.  It even can divide an orchestra’s own name, like when the Boston Symphony magically morphs into the Boston Pops.

It is great news that the Minnesota Orchestra’s Sibelius recording was nominated for a Grammy — and that also makes it worth pointing out that there was another (new!) symphonic score nominated for a Grammy this year: the score to the video game  Journey.  While the Smithsonian, MOMA, The New York Times, and others treat video games as art, orchestras in America will likely ignore Austin Wintory’spopular new Grammy nominated symphonic score.

Perhaps someone will put it on a “Pops” concert?

Meanwhile, Time Warner Cable cut the TV channel Ovation from its lineup this week. Ovation was the only cable channel dedicated to Arts programming. It has been cut because it was one of their poorest performing networks. Three-quarters of its programming consisted of repeats of existing material. It was watched by less than 1% of customers, and it “costs too much relative to the value of service”.

Costing too much relative to value is a problem shared by orchestras, and so it is mystifying that no matter how marginalized they become, orchestras program concerts as if repeating existing material were the best way to boost attendance and donations. And apart from the money, is that even the best way to present art?

For those open to the new world, opportunities abound. The Cutting Edge Group announced this week that they have purchased the film soundtrack label Varése Sarabande for $100 million, and they intend to produce more than sixty soundtracks a year. The really interesting part is that they will make all the new orchestral scores available to be performed. They are not, however, doing this exclusively for the sake of art. To them, film music scores “are highly undervalued properties”.

Orchestras ought to come to the same conclusion.

Like global warming, these trends in the arts are obvious and they can be addressed.  As the traditions of symphonic writing evolve, orchestras need to be partners with all kinds of living composers rather than reactionary judges.  After all, no orchestra can seriously present people as artistically nuanced as Kurt Weill or Richard Rodney Bennett while at the same time disregarding so much of their compositional output.

Changes are coming. Musicians and management should acknowledge that whatever the new traditions turn out to be, they will challenge some deeply held artistic convictions.  Innovation is needed in orchestras’ artistic thinking just as much as in finance or presentation.  It is time for orchestras to stop repeating the same music each year, and curate concerts using the entire American repertory.  It is better for the art form, and better for the bottom line.

The Riot Stuff

Orchestras should raise their voices to be heard amid the din of noisy modern culture and promote themselves as socially conscious public institutions. They need to embrace a more inclusive posture in society, and demonstrate an identity more nuanced than silent anonymous conservative tuxedo-clad white male.  While the price of participating in American culture is that orchestras may be subjected to new kinds of public criticism, participation also brings new kinds of opportunities, such as appealing to Millennials and corporations — the people orchestras need for future funding.

An example of an opportunity to put a public face on artistic thought occurred in August when members of Pussy Riot were arrested in Moscow and sentenced to two years in prison for staging a protest against Vladimir Putin in an Orthodox cathedral. Everyone should have the right to peacefully protest their government. Sentencing a couple of girls to labor camp for two years for making a video obviously challenges these rights, yet no American orchestra or conductor said anything at all.

American classical musicians and orchestras could have, at the very least, announced that they supported the free speech of Pussy Riot. They could have even tweeted about it.  Perhaps they didn’t respond because they do not see themselves as part of the international conversation, but their silence about it is exactly what excludes them. They left actual participation to other musicians and groups. While it may not be surprising that there was no word at all from Valery Gergiev, other musicians vocally participated in the discussion and supported Pussy Riot. People like Madonna, Sting, Yoko Ono, Björk, Moby, Peter Gabriel, and others. Relevant and active musicians. But not only musicians. Also participating were more than a dozen international papers as well as the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the New Yorker Magazine. The U.S. State Department openly deplored the needless severity of the punishment, and the White House stated that it had “serious concerns about the way that these young women have been treated by the Russian judicial system.” One would think that orchestras would want to be publicly on the side of freedom, especially in Washington D.C.

And where were the conductors? The orchestras? The American classical community? They were silent, because as far as they were concerned the whole affair had nothing to do with them. It is yet another way of separating themselves from present-day society, perhaps yet another way of continuing to fade into irrelevance.

Concerts can be an orchestra’s opportunity to establish itself as a public institution with a social consciousness. The meaning and message of the entire program or series could serve as commentary on larger contemporary common issues and experiences. Not even necessarily to express a stance, but to express awareness, so that the orchestra is a part of the piazza where citizens gather to engage in civil society rather than escape from it. So, for example, when an orchestra programs the Pastoral Symphony, performing it could both represent Beethoven’s portrait of serene country life and simultaneously comment on a shared social issue, such as global warming. That is putting art in context.

Orchestras have to stand for something. They must aspire to elevate humanity through music. Orchestras and classical musicians can’t just be the arts world’s separate and silent partner. You use the music to show our commonality as Americans. The humans sitting in the hall tonight. They have an experience in common, the experience of living in this nation in this decade.  Address it.

Orchestras need musical and administrative leaders who respect and understand the language of contemporary artistic culture, and that it is a public conversation. That’s how you approach presentation and programming. For example, an American orchestra could have joined with much of the western world and denounced the goings-on in Moscow. Then they could have performed a program with music to that position, say a Shostakovich symphony and a concert suite from the new movie Lincoln. This would be a great time to ask the resident composer to compose something, and fast.

By contributing no comment at all to the discussion, orchestras and conductors are invisible to the national cultural conscience. And they need a voice if they are going to secure sufficient funding from Millennials and corporations.

Orchestras have to program concerts with the actual listeners in mind, and stop trying to make some sort of academic point about long-dead composers that few in the audience can readily relate to. These people’s lives are a constant stream of passionate thoughts about their daily experiences and the experiences of others. Respect these lives.  Become a part of them.

Beyond Prestige

In the American system, the arts are funded mostly through indirect subsidies.  Our government’s tax policies toward charitable giving elicit billions of dollars in contributions annually.  The beauty of this system is that it not only allows the citizens to determine which not-for-profits benefit a civil society, but also it does not require the government to determine exactly what constitutes “good” art.  The citizens declare what is important to them culturally through donations to arts groups.  This structure is not going to change, at least not for the next century.

Since orchestras rely on donations, they must become valuable to more people — or at least more people of means — in order to survive.  The Baumol Effect causes orchestras’ labor costs to increase without regard to productivity.  Just maintaining the status quo – much less growing – will always require more money this year than last year.  But the orchestra’s cultural value is no longer apparent enough to inspire the donors to provide the necessary support.

This economic reality is a large factor in why the Detroit and Atlanta musicians have succumbed to a salary cut.  They both happen to be in cities that have the money, but not the local will, to fund them at exponentially higher levels each season.  Despite what some people seem to think, there really comes a point when you can’t raise any more money from local donors.

Orchestras in major cities have a better financial cushion because they operate in areas with a high concentration of people and wealth.  They can ask new or existing donors for more money.  But this is also why they are the slowest to change.  And even when musicians do strike, as in Chicago, the conflict can be resolved without making the orchestra reexamine its value to the community, because the conflict takes place in a city that still has the individual wealth and/or community interest to address the situation.

The root of the problem in Minneapolis is that the area does not have this financial luxury.  Their musicians may deserve more money than the orchestras are able to pay.  So something else has to give.  The orchestras must reexamine their value to their communities.  It’s no longer just about prestige.  It’s about service.

There is enough money in the charitable pool of Minneapolis to fund both the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, but it’s difficult to persuade donors to annually increase their donations.  It is considerably easier for a board to raise $50 million for a new lobby than for operating expenses.  A new lobby is will elevate and delight the audience for many years without demanding exponentially more money each year.  If the orchestras are not inspiring the donors to fund the artistic contributions as readily as they fund a new lobby, then perhaps the orchestras are not contributing as much as they think they are.

There are some who say this is all largely an arts management crisis, and while it’s certainly likely that there has been mismanagement in some cases, there’s certainly not enough to create and sustain these statistics.  And some managements have been doing good work.  The Detroit Symphony, led by Anne Parsons, has not only invented and expanded cost effective concert streaming, they have surpassed their annual fundraising goal, which was higher than it was in 2010, and they are touring to Carnegie Hall twice this season.  The people who claim that there is no arts crisis, that this is part of a cycle, that the concert audience was always old, that people will grow into donating to the symphony – these people no longer need to be taken seriously.  They are the climate-change deniers of the classical music industry.  The crisis facing the orchestral world is not, by and large, managerial.

The main crisis is artistic.  And donors are looking for ideas from the musicians because they are the artists.

Orchestras have resisted reform for generations, almost always under the banner of protecting their artistic standards.  The fact that modern generations would rather hear the symphonic music they love on iTunes than regularly attend a live concert is the symphony’s fault, not their audience’s.

Orchestras must find inventive ways to be valuable to their communities.  This means more than simply creating youth orchestras around the symphony.  It could mean that all of the musicians teach in local schools every week of the school year.  Rehearsals and auditions could be opened to the public.  The orchestra could partner with other local cultural groups such as museums, dance companies, theaters, and visual artists.  The music director should conduct the “pops” programs as well as the children’s concerts, as Ormandy and Stokowski used to do.  And the conductor should be in town for more than half of the year, visibly helming the proof of the orchestra’s importance to the city.

This difficult situation is not unique to Minneapolis.  Many American orchestras are at this crossroads.  Unfortunately for musicians, the symphony orchestra must prove its value much more widely than it seems able to.  Until it does, many musicians will have to accept pay cuts.

Who’s Afraid of Popular Culture?

A recent missed opportunity for orchestras in New York City came in late October in the form of Comic Con.  The New York Comic Con is an annual New York City fan convention dedicated to comics, graphic novels, anime, manga, video games, toys, movies, and television.  Comic Con is an event that brings more than 100,000 people in to the city who spend upwards of $65 million dollars over a three-day period. 

This potential orchestra audience is left unconsidered because the symphonic music that they love is still ghettoized by the classical establishment.  The music that they love is symphonic film music and video game music. 

It’s difficult to believe that all of New York’s orchestras are so flush with cash and attention that they cannot be bothered to offer a couple concerts for 100,000 people spending $65 million dollars on “entertainment” one weekend a year.  The classical industry’s myopic artistic worldview excludes most orchestral music from popular culture.  Naturally, it also excludes legions of potential new audience members, many of whom have never attended an orchestra concert before — all while leaving money on the table. 

The solution, however, is not to program Pops concerts for the Comic Con audience.  That’s actually a dangerous and disingenuous strategy.  If the symphony offers the Comic Con audience symphonic film and video game music but does so cynically, as in a pops concert, then the symphony suggests to that audience that the music that they love isn’t to be taken seriously. 

If the classical industry can’t take popular American symphonic music seriously, then they cannot expect these audiences to ever take an interest in classical or modern music — much less in violin lessons.  And when some of these new audience members actually return to the symphony and they are presented with Mahler or Sibelius, their context for hearing that music should be the same as is was when they heard Uematsu.

The symphony exists — or ought to — to express all kinds of symphonic art.  And after all isn’t that what a symphony does — curate symphonic art?  It shouldn’t have to change or rename itself to present different genres of symphonic music. 

Orchestras should offer classical-style concerts (curated music) that include non-traditional genres like film music, video game music, and Broadway.  The symphony should regard them all as relevant art, and offer concerts curating them all together.    

Here are two programming examples: Eternal Stories, and Too Popular.

Some traditionalists denounce, or ignore, symphonic film music and video game music by labeling it as artistically unworthy.  Yet, not all fine arts organizations share this attitude. Unlike the symphony, fine art museums openly present modern art of many kinds: from academic to popular.  They create a space for the art to be seen, and they curate the presentation. All without censuring the possibilities of what “fine art” is exactly.

Let’s not ignore the symphony’s alarming attendance figures.  With attendance falling in every trackable demographic it seems foolhardy for the symphony to alienate so many people who just happen to love a genre of symphonic music that traditionalists have trouble taking seriously.  Hasn’t anyone read about the Millennial’s

The Millennial’s do not recognize a caste system for music.  These days most people no longer look to critics for guidance or approval as to what constitutes art.  The symphony shouldn’t either, and it ignores this truth to its peril. 

And, just for fun, what were New York orchestras actually offering the concert going public during Comic Con?  The New York Philharmonic was playing a program of Nielsen and Tchaikovsky.  The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra was doing a program that included Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 which “mark[ed] an historic expansion of the Orpheus repertoire”, according to their website.   That was mostly it for symphonic music in New York that weekend.  It seems as if most New York symphony orchestras are comfortable ceding the entirety of this new audience, and their money, to touring groups.

The symphony cannot be a successful institution in the coming century while at the same time judging entire modern symphonic genres as artistically unworthy.  It ought to take all music seriously because, even for the symphony, the audience is ultimately the once and future king. 

Happily, Comic Con is an annual event. Hopefully plans will be made for next season by one of the orchestras here in New York. Perhaps we’ll go from watching Alan Gilbert play video games with Death – to the thrills of watching him conduct an orchestral suite from Final Fantasy