Backstage with PCMS Artistic Director Miles Cohen

By Miles Cohen on October 18, 2013

“How do you and Tony put together and program over 60 annual events?” This is one of the questions I am most often asked by patrons. Tony has always emphasized to me that a typical PCMS season should strive for a balanced mix of artists and repertoire. I like to compare the experience to the challenge of assembling a large jigsaw puzzle, and the strategies involved.

First, we establish the corner pieces. These are the returning artists who appear with us on a regular basis and are the pillars of our Society. Then, we put together the edges–those artistically diverse ensembles from here and abroad who PCMS brings to Philadelphia in the hopes of building for the future. Lastly, we attack the middle by filling out our season with young(er) musicians and repertoire-driven programs that we feel deserve to be heard.

As a leading presenter in the field today, PCMS also goes to great lengths to give our series an international presence and a forward-looking focus. In 2013-14, over one-quarter of our artists will join us from outside the U.S., and thirty percent of our performances are debuts. All of this is to say that PCMS, far from presenting a narrow slice of the repertoire, aims to achieve an exciting balance of youth and experience, tradition and modernity, and Philadelphia-based and international artists.  It is this completed picture that brings us the most satisfaction (as we hope it does for our audience as well), for it is not the sheer quantity of concerts that we present, but rather the breadth of artists and the range of repertoire they bring to Philadelphia, that develop our understanding and deepen our appreciation for this beautiful art form.

Other patrons have also inquired about how Tony and I weigh audience comments and suggestions during the artist selection process.  We do weigh our audience’s opinions and responses to concerts very closely. It is one of many factors that goes into our selection process. And as I have said in the past, I truly welcome more of our patron’s feedback about any of our events, whether directly to me or through comments on our Facebook page or blog.  With all artistic decisions, Tony and I look seek input from other PCMS staffers such as Bradford, Philip, Jacob, Brian, Koji and Erik (all of whom have a music background).  Thus, when we reach the final roster of artists or total number of performances, it is one that we all feel positive about.

unlimited student card

PCMS Unlimited Student Pass

Several younger patrons approached me recently and inquired about the strategy and logistics behind the PCMS Student and Young Friends Passes and their success so far.  It was four years ago now that Jacob, Brian, and I sat down and brainstormed on how PCMS could go about engaging a younger audience at our concerts. One general trend we noticed was that people between the ages of 20 and 35 tended to make more last-minute decisions when it came to attending our events–thus flexibility as well as pricing were major factors for this group. Out of this discussion we created both the Student and Young Friends Passes–which each allow for the ability to pick and choose any of our events at any time of the season for one very low price. I'm pleased to say that the cards have been quite popular and have increased participation substantially each year (with card holders now attending an average of over 10 concerts per season). The best part is, we have seen Student Pass holders turn into Young Friends Pass holders, and then into full-fledged patrons.

Finally, a question I have received often since the announcement of my promotion is: “Miles will you continue to welcome patrons at the start of PCMS concerts? And is there a story behind how this tradition got started?” Much to many patrons' delight (as I have discovered), I shall continue to introduce each PCMS concert. Looking back I never could have imagined that a simple “Please remember to turn off your cell phone announcement” would have such a positive effect on the audience’s experience at a PCMS concert, but I am very thankful that it has been well-received.  And to think it all started back in the winter of 2001 because I was genuinely upset to see our artists walk off stage complaining about the lack of manners of the audience. Prior to the 2000-01 Season, there was no welcome greeting at a PCMS concert (an event simply started with the musicians walking out on stage), and certainly there was no need to make a phone announcement. But then over the course of three concerts in January/February 2001, cell phone rings intruded into each performance. I will never forget Garrick Ohlsson (such a mild-mannered, gentle person) coming off stage completely flustered and angry by people’s inability to remember to “turn off their bleeping phones.”  Right then and there, without much thought (in the middle of a concert no less), I walked out on stage, raised my right hand, and then uttered the words that would soon come to be associated with me and PCMS:  “In my right hand… ” As I walked off stage, the audience applauded, and I got red in the face, embarrassed by the attention.

After that recital, I had no intention of making any more announcements (aside from program changes) from the stage. However, at the very next PCMS concert–a vocal recital by Heidi Grant Murphy–a cell phone again went off mid-performance and, following this concert, I had patrons coming up to me and questioning why I didn’t make my pre-concert cell-phone announcement. From there on out it was decided I would make a cell-phone announcement at the start of every PCMS event.

Over the past decade, only one major change has occurred to the “welcome to PCMS announcement.” After a few seasons of making the pre-concert greeting, I noticed a pattern where many patrons would approach me on the street and say hello. A typical conversation would begin “Hey, it’s the cell-phone kid (or guy or boy) from PCMS.” I realized soon thereafter that it would probably be in my best interest to say my name when introducing each concert. And thus the origins of my pre-concert greeting. There have been many suggestions to “improve” my spiel–“have the cell-phone in my left hand” or “have someone call you while on stage” or “have the musicians serenade you while you welcome everyone,” but for now I will continue to stick with the original message.

As always, if you have more questions, please keep the conversation going–whether online or at the concerts.  After all, that is what makes this our Society.