Point-counterpoint on orchestras
So, the players and management of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra have found enough common ground for their concerts to resume. That still leaves the Minnesota Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra silenced, other orchestras in trouble, and at least one more out of existence. Meanwhile, the orchestral war of words continues among both the participants and we denizens of the classicalsphere. And my goodness, some silly things get said. So, let me take on some memes I have come across on more than one occasion, and offer my own perspective. Points in italics, my responses in plain letters.
The orchestra is an outdated vestige of a long-ago time, one which currently serves the needs of an elite, and no longer speaks for contemporary culture.
The orchestra is one of the greatest things ever to happen to the world (and I mean world) of arts. Dozens of highly-skilled musicians, working together to realize complex musical works? Nothing like it. And if you heard some of the stuff currently being written for orchestras, you'd change your tune. As to the supposed elitism, yes, a certain amount of social striving has long been part of the orchestra's appeal. But it's hardly the only musical style to attract those trying to make it into the "in crowd" (SXSW, anyone?) or to flaunt wealth and prestige. Why can't you put aside your self-flattering accusations of elitism, assume that others are just as sincere in their tastes as you are, and just enjoy the great music for what it is?
Top-notch orchestral musicians have to go through lengthy and expensive training to make it where they are, so they merit an accordingly high rate of pay.
Yes, playing classical music at the highest level takes an incredible amount of study and practice. Now show me where it came with any guarantees of reimbursement. Besides, the notion that classical musicians, because of their conservatory backgrounds, are more worthy of lavish compensation than other musicians is neither politically appealing nor musically justified. Take jazz, for instance. Has any style produced more great musicians over the last century? And until recently, how much time or money did they spend in conservatory? Mostly, none. The greats of jazz also honed their skills for long hours over many years, just under less formal (and less culturally respected) circumstances. Plus, they created their own music on the spot, a skill most classical musicians lack. Meanwhile, jazz musicians continue to deal with presenter fees well below their classical peers, a complex matter I may take up in a future blog post, but one that should at least instill a sense of modesty and proportion on the classical side of the fence.
Why should orchestras like the San Francisco pay so much for their musicians when any number of fresh conservatory grads could do the job for less pay?
Yes, and if the Red Sox would just put some of their top minor leaguers in place of their current overpriced bums, they'd save a bundle! And finish in last place — which they very well may anyway, but you get the point. You get what you pay for. If the San Francisco Symphony wants to play in the big leagues, they have to shell out for top talent. How much? That's up to each orchestra to decide, based on what it values and what it can afford, at the intersection of market and mission. (Yes, I know that Market and Mission are parallel streets in San Francisco — I was making a metaphor, not a simile.)
The decline of orchestras, and of classical music in general, is yet another sign of the "dumbing-down" of American culture, and the triumph of the corporate entertainment industry.
Oh please — do you have any idea how insular and out-of-touch you sound when you say this? Really, you need to get out more, and enjoy the myriad sophisticated cultural offerings, including other musical offerings, all around you. Or just stay home and open a smart new novel. Maybe you should even (horrors!) turn on the TV to watch one of the complex, long-form, well-written series The Wife enjoys — and she's hardly a sucker for whatever those corporate baddies try to shove down our throats. Of course commercial arts draw the biggest crowds. That's what they do and what they're for. Has it ever been otherwise? And some of them aren't bad at all, if you can come down off your high horse long enough to give them a fair shake.
If classical music is declining in popularity in the U.S., it's not because we've gotten stupider. It's at least in large part because an art form based almost completely on repeating a very limited repertoire of works by dead European composers no longer speaks to a changing American culture. So, don't blame the corporations, don't blame the schools, and whatever you do, don't blame the audience. Besides, I have found from personal experience that telling someone that the crappy arts they like are inferior to the smart arts you prefer is a lousy strategy for getting them to try something new. Instead, give some thought about how classical music might better reach the audience on the audience's terms, not just the music's. And you don't have to dumb-down the music to do this.
Now, if you'd like to counter some of my counterpoints with your own, please do!