Like all one-time Bostonians who have been chased west of town by the Wellesian extravagance of the housing market, I spend a great deal of my life on the Massachusetts Turnpike. As such, I see the Boston Symphony's billboard right around Watertown every day. And here's this season's new marketing slogan: Defining tradition & innovation.
Ugh. Unless you're going to follow that with the phrase "and letting them tear at each other like rabid dogs," I can't think of a worse, more forgettable tag for a performing arts orgaization. Even something like "Our audience is old, and our repertoire is older" at least has the virtue of clarity. So I sit there on the pike, wondering a) how I can get a nice sinecure in the BSO marketing department, and b) just what I'd do if I were serious about putting a civic arts organization front-and-center in its hometown's consciousness. And I start to think: what this orchestra needs is a mascot.
Now, if the word "mascot" makes you think that I mean something like the San Diego Chicken and his Muppet-esque progeny, let me reassure you: yeah, that's pretty much exactly what I mean.
A couple of months ago, critic-at-large Moe and I were down on Boston Common to hear the Boston Landmarks Orchestra premiere Julian Wachner's children's piece, Lifting the Curse. Since the piece had a Red Sox theme, the team sent over Wally the Green Monster to kibitz with the kids and take pictures before the show. Wally was a big hit with the kids, naturally; but his presence also was a great signal to the grown-ups that, yes, it was OK to treat the concert a little informally, and yes, it was OK to have fun.
I'm not saying that our friend Skippy here should be warming up the crowd prior to Il canto sospeso or the Penderecki Threnody. But for free concerts, kids' concerts, etc., it's just the sort of goofy yet festive touch you need to put the newbies at ease. And for parades, neighborhood festivals, and the like, well, it's not like you can drive around the whole orchestra in an open-top car. But you can send over Skippy and a few brass players to serenade the crowd. The fact is, there's so much competing for the average citizen's attention these days, if you want to be a beloved local institution, you're going to have to do some legwork. Besides, it's the perfect comeback to all those complaints about how stodgy and uptight orchestras are. How uptight can you be if you're willing to pay somebody to run all over town in a foam-rubber suit?