Quarter notes: YNS edition

YNS

By now most people have heard the Philadelphia Orchestra has found a new music director. – YNS for short. He is a predictable choice given the youth movement afoot these days. Chicago bucked the trend by appointing Ricardo Muti. They are the only orchestra which ignored the orchestra group think these days (does that make the Muti choice revolutionary?) Maybe, before Dudamel, before Gilbert, and before the small army of sub-forty year olds took over a number orchestras in the UK the choice would have shocked or inspired. At best, Philadelphia has recruited the next big thing. At worst, the orchestra has found a music director for the next seven years.

(Sorry, but the section on James Garlick has been redacted.)

More contributor news. Did you read Michael Upchurch’s Seattle Times piece on the Toy Box Trio? No? Then ! Keep it up Dana and Harlan.

Did anyone notice Terry Teachout’s piece in the this past weekend? He wonders whether we even need regional orchestras in the digital age. With definitive recordings of just about every piece of standard repertory just a click away, why would anyone go hear a middle of the road performance of the same repertory with a local orchestra? It is an interesting thought experiment. I get hung up on what defines a regional orchestra. The Seattle Symphony is certainly a regional orchestra. So is the Oregon Symphony. Neither have the stature of America’s Big Five, or Big Seven if you include LA and San Francisco and both cater to audiences which stretch beyond the urban centers of Seattle and Portland. Maybe the answer isn’t to allow orchestras to die, or to load a season with pops concerts, but to reexamine the role and mission of the orchestra in the community?  Playing the same old music doesn’t seem to be cutting it anymore.

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4 thoughts on “Quarter notes: YNS edition

  1. Teachout wanted to provoke discussion with his article, and he sure succeeded on that note! I’ve read at least four responses from musicians, ranging from annoyed to furious (a few are collected here http://www.nobleviola.com/2010/06/15/more-teachout-fallout/). I agree that it’s an interesting thought experiment and that the role of the regional/community orchestra is something that needs to be discussed and re-examined. But I’m dismayed that Teachout, a proponent of the arts, would use such a public platform to suggest that there is little reason to attend a live performance by an orchestra that is not “top-tier”: “The best regional theater companies and museums provide an aesthetic experience that cannot be duplicated by any other means. Not so third-tier orchestras.” Yes, that is a point of view that needs to be aired, heard, and discussed by those in the classical music community. But Teachout’s very public thought experiment actually does the classical music community a huge disservice. In a time when we are constantly hearing stories of orchestras (both big-time and small-time) struggling financially, do we really need an article that suggests that live music is irrelevent in the age of the iPod? Is that really going to make the public want to rush out and support regional institutions like our own Seattle Symphony? I wish Teachout had approached the issue from a different direction. Instead of simply stating, “if the only way for them to stay alive is by switching to slickly packaged schlock, they’d be better off dead”, how about presenting examples of regional orchestras that have achieved success without compromising integrity? If regional visual arts and theater communities are doing so well, what hints can they offer to their fellow artists in the orchestras?

    What motivates audiences to go and see a local production of “Macbeth” when they could rent a DVD of a Royal Shakespeare Company performance or even watch it on YouTube? I know Teachout has his own personal answer to this question. I wish he had used his WSJ column to share it, along with some ideas on how it could be used to help out our orchestras.

  2. I would just comment that many people still seem to have a narrowly two-dimensional view of the orchestra world, e.g. only the “Big Seven” constitute major orchestras and everyone else is disparagingly lumped into the “regional” category. In particular, Terry Teachout’s article reveals the tragically common, incorrect assumption, that only performances by the larger, major orchestras are worth hearing. I spent the earlier part of my career as an orchestra administrator at a major orchestra and have now been working for much smaller orchestras for going on ten years, and I can tell you first hand “it ain’t necessarily so.”
    It isn’t just that “larger orchestras are not necessarily better,” but (to paraphrase a former President) “it depends on your definition of ‘better.’ ” In our industry, it seems the sole defining factor of “better” has come to be artistic virtuosity above all else. If that’s your definition, of course the larger orchestras who can afford the best musicians will be “better.” But does this by itself guarantee great performances? No.

    I remember hearing a major orchestra performance of “Rite of Spring” some years ago and, although the score was followed and everything was in place, there was something missing. About two years later I heard an undergrad orchestra performance of it that made me jump out of my seat. What was the difference? I can’t put my finger on it. Certainly the professionals played it “better” in technical terms, but the students somehow were much closer to the heart of whatever Stravinsky was tapping into when he wrote this miraculous piece.

    Years later, I was privileged to work for a small orchestra in a tiny town that had lucked into hiring an amazing young, relatively unknown conductor who completely transformed the ensemble in about three seasons — and I don’t mean by massive firings. He made them play at a level far beyond anything they had ever dreamed and literally had the orchestra and the audience on the edge of their seats for every performance. In five years we nearly doubled the number of subscribers and the number of concerts. I remember those concerts as some of the most exciting of my life, and yet certainly the virtuosic level of the ensemble was not comparable to that of a full-time major orchestra.

    Or look at examples from the pop world: rock bands like The Doors or, in more recent decades, U2, are by no means musical virtuosos. Keyboardist Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer could play rings around Ray Manzarek of The Doors, but The Doors created music that arguably has had at least as much (if not more) of a lasting impact on rock.

    Or look at baseball. I live in Tacoma, not very far from the Seattle Mariners, but we have this terrific minor league team in town, the Rainiers. Yes, I go to Mariners games, and yes it’s cool and a very different vibe to take in a major league game — but attending the Mariners here at Cheney Stadium is a highly satisfying, enjoyable experience. I certainly don’t spend the entire game thinking, “boy, they just don’t compare to the Mariners” — it never enters my mind. No one would argue that the Mariners’ players aren’t more skillful (well, ok, some would) but that’s beside the point.

    I’ve noticed in recent years that I cringe every time I hear an orchestra musician, conductor, or administrator use the phrase “artistic excellence,” and I’ve wondered why. It’s an over-used, pat, meaningless phrase that people in our industry toss around without defining it. I heard a fascinating speech at a conference recently, given by Diane E. Ragsdale of the Mellon Foundation, titled “The Excellence Barrier.” Her point was that “artistic excellence” has become a barrier to participation for many people. Here’s a small excerpt: “selling the superiority instead of the diversity of the arts; being exclusive and mysterious rather than inclusive and open; privileging the professionally performed and passively received experience over other forms of participation… have not been particularly effective strategies.” And if you look at how attendance has been dropping over the decades, I think she has a point.

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