Saturday, August 20, 2005

The State Of The Orchestra

Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times had an interesting article a few days ago which surveyed the health and status of the big American orchestras, as well as classical music in general. It touches upon a variety of issues surrounding the art form, with a general feeling that, while it is not quite on life support, the orchestra does need to really think through things if it wants to hang on.
After hearing many of the country's most important orchestras during the last year, though, I remain convinced that, despite daunting problems, the orchestra hasn't completed its usefulness. But it's time to abandon a lot of received wisdom.

You've probably read the endless litany of woes: Audiences are aging and declining. Lack of music education has created a population of musically illiterate dolts. Young people won't sit still and can't concentrate without visual stimulation. ... expenses are ever on the upswing. Management and players constantly butt heads. ... Orchestras have become big businesses run by high-salaried executives. Star conductors are enticed with multimillion-dollar contracts for three to four months' worth of concerts. The organizations are overseen by bottom-line managerial boards lacking musical sophistication. It costs a fortune just to open the doors for business each morning.

... publicity stunts may attract new listeners to the concert hall for a time or two, but they do little to build committed audiences, let alone to advance the art form. What works, I've found traveling around the country, what gets audiences really worked up, is when orchestral music, old and new, is played with real fervor. And perhaps a bit of smart, interesting talk or conversation thrown in.

It's really that simple. But every town is different. Every orchestra is different. That's part of the pleasure — if sometimes the problem — of orchestral life, and it too needs to be acknowledged.
A survey of the big American orchestras reveals:
The orchestral landscape in America is not what it used to be. Once, American ensembles were lorded over by the "Big Five" — the main orchestras of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Cleveland. East Coast critics, while conceding the orchestral energy emanating from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony, continue to use that proprietary term, but it means nothing. The real scene has no center.

The hot conductors are in Los Angeles (Esa-Pekka Salonen), Boston (James Levine), San Francisco (Michael Tilson Thomas), Atlanta (Robert Spano) and Minneapolis (Osmo Vanska). This fall, David Robertson is expected to put St. Louis on the A-list. In 2006, when Alsop begins in Baltimore, it too should join the party.

Most in the field agree that the Cleveland Orchestra, of which Franz Welser-Möst is music director, has long been the nation's best ensemble no matter who conducts it. The New York Philharmonic, under Lorin Maazel, plays spectacularly these days, maybe better than ever. After that, the outlook is muddy. On a good night, the Cincinnati Symphony might outplay the Chicago Symphony, but that won't happen if Pierre Boulez is on the Chicago podium. The L.A. Philharmonic and Boston Symphony inhabit the best concert halls.
The designation of Cleveland as the best orchestra is not entirely surprising, but Swed does point out the very great difficulty that it will have in retaining that title over the long haul:
... the orchestra has a troublesome deficit, the region is economically depressed, and Welser-Möst works under persistent attack by the chief local critic. This is an orchestra that will require courage to forge ahead.
In the end, however, it will remain to be seen whether any of these orchestras -- or serious music itself -- can continue to thrive in the future. Swed's counsel that they must stay fresh, engaged and flexible is undeniable.

I do wonder, though, whether his initial comment about the effects of musical education cutbacks will be the overriding factor in the long term. Perhaps there will always be a small but committed minority of the population that has an interest and the patience to gain an understanding of the language -- but maybe not.

What I know is that there are moments of clarity and insight that can only be brought by an orchestra playing serious music -- I had several of them a couple of weeks ago listening to the CSO play both of Brahms' piano concertos at Ravinia -- and we will lose something very important as a society if that were to ever fall completely away.


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