Detroit's Orchestra Hall is one of the best symphony concert halls in the country. The acoustics are top-notch. The theater itself is grand. Important music is made there by some of the country's most talented classical musicians.
But what happens to the music when it's taken out of that context, away from the pitch-perfect atmospherics, away from the grandeur, and instead it's played in the community, say at a local IKEA in the middle of a busy shopping day?
IKEA's acoustics aren't so great, but nothing about the power of the music changes.
In a YouTube video of the DSO's recent flash mob performance at a suburban Detroit IKEA, the musicians, casually dressed, assemble one by one with their instruments. A crowd of people stop shopping to watch. They smile, take photos. A little girl pretends to conduct. It was perhaps a more joyful response to "Ode to Joy," because the performance was so unexpected.
Non-traditional shows like this are part of how the symphony is reinventing itself, after an internal financial crisis almost brought the orchestra down. Ann Parsons, chief executive of the DSO, says an audit in 2008 brought clarity.
"At the time, we actually had no idea that the global economic crisis was coming, but the city itself was clearly showing signs of stress," Parsons says. "They said, actually, their evaluation of us is that we would be out of business by December ... of that year."
It was a wake-up call for an orchestra that had been in denial about its decreasing revenues and audience.
Financial And Psychological Pain
"There were 40 percent [full] houses, 50 percent houses," she says. "Sixty percent houses were a good night. That's very demoralizing for everyone; for the orchestra looking out at empty seats, for audience members looking around them and seeing empty seats."
By 2009, the economic crisis had engulfed Detroit, and philanthropic groups and corporations that the orchestra had always depended on couldn't afford to give anymore. Things had to change.
The orchestra was going to have to get smaller, and wages and benefits were set to go down. Negotiations with the musicians' union got tense, and eventually the musicians went on a strike that lasted six months. When it was over, the DSO had a new contract, and for those who stayed, it was a new kind of orchestra.
Principal trombonist Ken Thompkins saw many of his fellow musicians walk away for good during the strike. He thought about doing so too, maybe going to teach somewhere instead. But he stayed, and, along with everyone else who did, took a pay cut. It was tough financially, but also psychologically.
"It really is hard to not to take that as a reflection of how others think of your art and work," Thompkins says. "Musicians spend so much time developing as instrumentalists. It's so intense and deeply personal, it really is hard not to take it personally."
As the orchestra got smaller and cut costs, it also started looking for ways to boost audience numbers.
"We looked at zip codes, we did analysis," she says. "We could clearly see where everybody lived that used to participate. And we thought, 'Well, what if we went to them, as opposed to making them come to us?' "
A Return To Full Houses
That's what they did, performing in community theaters, nursing homes, hospitals, churches and synagogues, in Detroit and the surrounding suburbs, in an effort to lure patrons who had stopped going into the city to hear the orchestra. They also to tried to attract new music lovers.
It started to pay off: Subscriptions went up, and now concerts at Orchestra Hall are selling out.
Leonard Slatkin has been the music director for the DSO since 2008. He found in Detroit both an exciting and familiar challenge.
"I remembered my time in St. Louis as assistant conductor in 1968, when the riverfront was virtually empty, when the nightlife area, Gaslight Square, looked like Berlin in 1945," Slatkin says. "I watched that city, over 27 years, begin the process of rebuilding and growth, and the orchestra in St. Louis was very much a part of that process.
"That's when I began to think, perhaps Detroit is where I need to be."
Slatkin says the DSO has now beaten the odds, although the process of reinvention has left some scars.
"You had a lot of people who were angry, very bitter," he says. "People who had been here a long time, who had seen the orchestra through a heyday, and then they saw it as potentially falling apart. And I suspect some of that bitterness still lingers in a few people, but not very many. I think most musicians understand where we are now because we've done this as a shared experience."
Thompkins sounds upbeat about the orchestra's renewed role in the community.
"Music is my calling," he says. "This is what has chosen us, and this is our life's work. The mission's the same. We're bringing great music and we're lifting the spirits and hearts of people, no matter what the venue is, and I'm really proud to do that."
Another day of frantic searching has failed to uncover the fate of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, as ships and aircraft combed over parts of the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea where the jetliner is suspected of crashing with 239 people aboard. And officials now say the plane may have diverted its path, perhaps in an attempt to turn back.
The flight's disappearance is a mystery that was deepened by revelations Saturday that two of the plane's passengers appeared to have used stolen passports to travel. And on Sunday, Malaysian transportation and military officials said that if radar data that indicate a change of course is accurate, the search area would need to be adjusted.
The most recent inspection of the Boeing 777-200 was performed 10 days ago and didn't turn up any problems, Malaysia Airlines officials say. And from all accounts, the weather during the flight isn't seen as being a problem, either.
There have been hints that a discovery of the plane might be imminent, from a reported sighting of twin oil slicks by Vietnamese military search planes Saturday to a photograph circulating on social media in China Sunday that purports to be debris from the jet seen from the window of another Malaysia Airlines flight traveling from Beijing to Kuala Lampur - the opposite route of the missing flight. But an official sighting has not confirmed the plane's location.
"We are trying to make sense of this," Malaysian Air force chief Rodzali Daud told a news conference today, according to the AP. "The military radar indicated that the aircraft may have made a turn back and in some parts, this was corroborated by civilian radar."
If the flight did diverge from its planned route, the pilots would have informed air traffic controllers, said Malaysia Airlines Chief Executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya.
"From what we have, there was no such distress signal or distress call per say, so we are equally puzzled," he said.
More than half of the flight's passengers were Chinese citizens. Many of their loved ones have gathered at a hotel in Beijing, awaiting word of the jetliner's fate and preparing themselves for the worst. They have grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of news. And on Sunday, they released a joint statement to media, calling for answers from the airline and government officials.
U.S. agencies are moving to help with the search and investigation, with the FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board saying they're sending experts to offer their assistance. As explained by the NTSB, international protocols will determine who leads the investigation once the plane is located.
Officials caution that it's far too early to speculate on a possible cause for the flight's troubles. That didn't stop speculation about a possible terrorist plot, fueled by news that two men - an Italian and an Austrian - who had initially been listed on the flight were in fact alive and well. Their passports had been stolen in Thailand in recent years, as we reported yesterday.
And Sunday, several media outlets report that the two people who used those passports got their tickets at the same time.
"The tickets were bought from China Southern Airlines in Thai baht at identical prices, according to China's official e-ticket verification system Travelsky. The ticket numbers are contiguous, which indicates the tickets were issued together."
The network goes on to say that the tickets secured travel from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, "and then onward to Amsterdam. The Italian passport's ticket continues to Copenhagen, the Austrian's to Frankfurt."
Investigators are reviewing surveillance camera footage to learn more about the two passengers. But travelers using a stolen passport isn't as unusual as it might seem, The Wall Street Journal reports:
"A European security official said it wasn't uncommon for passengers to board flights using stolen passports. In addition, Beijing has emerged as a bustling transit hub in recent years, providing connecting flights to Europe and elsewhere from other parts of Asia, buoyed in part by a 72-hour visa-on-arrival program."
More details are emerging about the passengers, including the news that 20 employees of Freescale Semiconductor, a company based in Austin, were on board. The company says 12 of its workers who were on the plane are from Malaysia; 8 are from China.
And 29 people were returning home to China after participating in an art exhibit in Malaysia - 19 artists, along with family and staff members, according to the South China Morning Post.
Maureen O'Reilly beams with pride as she shows a visitor around Grafton, N.H., a town so small it doesn't even have a traffic light.
"Have a look at this," O'Reilly says, pointing to a postcard view of hilly rural New England. "How beautiful is this? It's really pretty in the fall, really, really pretty."
But behind the beautiful view, locals are dividing into opposing camps. About 50 libertarians have moved into Grafton from around the country, splitting the town over their push to shrink its government.
Grafton has an annual meeting called Deliberative Session. It's a big day for local politics. About 100 people cram into the firehouse, town officials sitting up front.
The goal is to debate the budget before it goes to a town-wide vote. But after the Pledge of Allegiance, things break down.
People argue over how to conduct the meeting. The moderator loses control. Police remove a man. After an hour, Skip Gorman is fed up.
"It's still a wonderful town and there's lots of camaraderie," Gorman says. "But there's a group of people who have moved here for the sole purpose of being obstructionist."
"I'm not here to obstruct anything," counters John Connell. "I will vote in favor of liberty and justice at every opportunity."
How did Grafton come to this? About 15 years ago, a prominent libertarian hatched the idea of moving libertarians to New Hampshire, with the hope of having a big impact in a small state. They called it the Free State Project, and a handful of Free Staters settled in Grafton because the town has no zoning ordinances.
O'Reilly was surprised by how quickly Free Staters started pushing their agenda.
"Almost seems as if they walked in the door and started running for office and hold positions," she says. "It's not the typical way someone who's a New Englander does things."
Free Staters say Grafton should withdraw from the school district, cut the $1 million budget by 30 percent over three years, and carve Grafton out as a "U.N.-free zone."
Tony Stelick, a Free Stater who lived in Poland under the boot of Stalinism, remembers a government that slowly gained more and more power. He says locals who oppose Free Staters are unwittingly voting themselves towards fascism.
"They don't know where they going," Stelick says. "I been there. I know where they going."
Even though Grafton has always had a libertarian streak, Free Staters are a minority and locals have mostly blocked their agenda. Still, Olson is confident they could shift the balance if they reach out to locals.
"I think most of the people in town are actually supportive of small government," he says.
Since Free Staters came to town, the real change in Grafton has been more emotional than political. Things have become divisive, and a little ugly. O'Reilly says she's thought about moving, leaving behind the beautiful views and the house her husband built.
"Yeah, that's what's hard," she says. "I would hate to ask him to do it. But if it goes the way they want it go, I don't want to live here."