August 2013 - Posts
There's a thought-provoking article in the current issue of The New Republic by Philip Kennicott, art and architecture critic of the Washington Post , who has also been active as a music critic , on the woes of America's symphony orchestras . Why are so many of them hving severe financial difficulties , and why have so many gone under in recent years , or come dangerously close to folding ? Why is it so difficult to find new blood at concerts these days , and why has the audence been aging ? Why aren't there more young adults there ? Can the symphony orchestra survive in these diffiucult times ? Is it even relevant anymore ? Or is it just a "museum" and a "dinosaur "? Who or what is to blame for this predicament ?
Of course , there are no easy answers to these questions , and the roots of our orchestra's problems are varied .Kenniicott describes conditions today in the orchestral world in America : it's very diffcult to please many subscribers or those who attend concerts sporadically ; many in the audiences are older classical music lovers who are set in their ways and are reluctant to hear works tht are unfamiliar to them , and many find 20th century or early 21st century music not merely unappealing but downright unpleasant . They want to hear their beloved familiar msterpieces by Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov etc . They know what they like and like what they know .
Conductors who want to do their duty , which is to give new works a chance to be heard in order to prevent the repertoire from stagnating are in a bind , and the mangement is afraid of audiences voting with their feet . Many composers are angry md bitter that it's so diffiucult for them to get their orchestral works played . How can you blame them ? Many rely on commissions from orchestrs for their livelihood , and they also must teach at universities and music schools to ern a living , not that this is a bad thing . But it's difficult to think of any contemporary composer today who has gotten rich from his or her music alone .
Few young people are exposed to classical music today . Most public schools have long since jettisoned music appreciation classes , and this is no guarantee of turning a substantial number of youngsters into lovers of clssical music anyway . Time Magazine and some others used to have regular articles on classical music , and employed classical music journalists ot cover some of the leading conductors, instrumentlists and opera singers .
Despite this , there are more young people in music schools all over America than ever before , such as Juilliard and elsewhere aspiring to become members of America's many orchestrs or to mke careers as sololists on all the instruments , desipte the fact that competition for jobs in orchestras in incredibly stiff . But there are some who will eventually fill the shoes of such world-famous musicians as Itzhak Perlman, Yo Yo Ma, Van Cliburn and others . A substantial number of these are from Japan, South Korea and China , where youngsters ARE encouraged to become interested in classical music and to learn instruments .
The bright side of this is that the overall quality of orchestras in America has improved exponentially . No longer are the so-called "big five orchestras" , the New York Philhrmonic, Boston symphony, Philadelphia orchestra , Chicago symphony and Cleveland orchestra vastly superior to most of the others . If you go to a concert in some American cities that are not very famous or renowned for their orchestras , you will be amazed at the quality of the local orchestras . Los Angeles, San Francisco , Dallas, Houston, Pittsburgh , Detroit, St.Louis, Washington, Baltimore , Seattle, San Diego , Indianapolis , Cincinnati , and others - all world class . This was not the case 50,60, or 70 years ago .
Now the issue of expenses . Orchestra musicians usually spend more years training to play in professional orchestras than medical students take to become doctors , but few make as much as doctors . It takes a lot of money to run a world class orchestra , with not only salaries for the musicians, conductors etc but the administrative staff . Musicians hope to at least earn a decent living, and the ones in the smaller regional orchestras have to supplement their pay with teaching and free lance work etc . The ones lucky enough to land jobs in the top orchestras can earn well over $ 100,000 a year ,have great benefits and two months ! paid vacation .
But ticket sales are not enough to cover the expenses , so orchestras in America need suport form the private sector, but this has been getting harder and harder to get . None has the generous government subsidies which have been taken for granted for so long in Europe . Hence the many in th eUSA which have gone under .
But one thing is certain ; our orchestras are NOT to blame for their troubles from an artistic point of view . They have not failed to make concertgoing worthwhile . There is absolutely no reason for more people not to attend concerts . If more people just knew how enjoyable classical music is , and that our orchestras are such high quality organizations , we could attract more people . But how do we do it ?
But I am convinced that the symphony orchestra will not go the way of the dinosaur . Somehow, our orchestras will adapt and survive . You cannot keep a great institution down .
Here's a curious story reported the other day by controversial music journalist Norman Lebrecht at his blog "Slipped Disc" at artsjournal.com. During the last performance of Wagner's Ring at the Bayreuth festival , an elderly man was found dead in his seat duirng an intermission . Things are never dull at the renowned Wagner fesitval !
The intermission , which was between the second and final act of Gotterdmmerung, the awesome climax of the Ring , had to be extended in order to remove the body .
This left me wondering . The much anticipated or rather feared bicentennial Ring , which was just about the most egregious travesty of the great Ring cycle imaginable , might have caused the unfortunate fellow enough emotional distress as to trigger his demise . So he responded with a kind of silent booing , namely croaking ! What a way to register your disapproval !
Wagner never imagined a production of the Ring his mighty and immortal Ring of the Nibelung set in America at a sleazy motel , with his Rhinemaidens lounging around a pool , nor did he epect another part of it to be set in Baku ,republic of Azerbaijan in the Caucasus on the Caspian sea , an oil rich Muslim region , and his Teutonic characters to be portrayed as superrich oil tycoons !
No wonder the unfortunate fellow died ! What a way to boo !
More than a few prominent classical musicians have declared that "conducting is a "phony profession ". (Not ocnductors of course ). After all, it's the musicians in the orchestra who actully produce the sounds the audience hears . The conductor makes no sounds ( during the performance of course ,not the rehearsals ) , and the baton , assuming one is used , not all conductors use them , doesn't make any sound, either .
But it's the conductors who get all the publicity and glamor and who command the highest salaries . Nobody pays any attention to Joe Schmo in the second violins even though he has to work very hard just like the other musicians in the orchestra . (The conductor doesn't have to work hard too ?) .
But think about it . In a war , the general doesn't go on the battlefield to fight with the troops . The football or basketball coach doesn't actually participate in the game as a member of the team . The CEO of a corporation doesn't work in a factory manufacturing products himself , yet none of these entities could function without a boss overseeing the whole operation .
Somebody has to coordinate what goes on at rehearsals and concerts , and the music director, or chief conductor of an orchestra , has to do a lot of administrative work such as choosing repertoire , hiring and firing musicians , working with the orchestr's board of directos and administrative staff etc. Each individual member of the orchestra is responsible for knowing and playing his or her individual part , but the conductor has to know EVERYONE'S part by studying the full score , which shows every musical line simultaneously ! Often 20, 30 or more different instumental lines with each instrumental part shown .
This is rather like trying to read a novel with 20 or more people talking at the same time with each person's words listed top to bottom ! No easy task, but conductors are specially trained to do this ,not to mention analyze what is going on . Of course, many classical musicians who are not conductors themselves can do this also, including yours truly .
Unless you know the score thoroughly , you have no business getting in front of an orchestra at a rehearsal or a performance . It takes years of hard study of harmony, counterpoint , orchestration , music history and musicological research to get to this point . Not to mention learning the piano and another instrument, such as violin, cello , etc. Having played in an orchestra yourself is always good training for the job , whatever instrument .
Rehearsals are where the real work is done . At the performance, all the conductor can do is stand there beating time as well as using various gestures to help the musicians through a performance . The basic beat patterns are very easy to learn , but actually putting them into practice is anything but easy ! The conductor is using a kind of rhythmical sign language .
A small orchestra playing a work by a composer from the 18th century doesn't really need a conductor badly ; the music is simple and straightforward compared to much music from the 19th century to the present day , which can be full of all manner of rhythmic booby traps which require a conductor to keep everyone together , and with the larger, louder brass sections of 19th to contemporary music , require someone to make sure those brass are not too loud, as they can easily drown out th erest of the orchestra if not kept in check .
Even if conducting is a "phony" profession , it's anything but an easy job !
Something is fishy in the Westchester county,NY public library system , at least when it comes to classical CDs . Recently , a CD I borrowed on their very convenient library interloan system was badly scratched and I could not play it through . Some moron seems to have damaged it badly . It's not easy to damage a CD; as long as you keep your fingers off the surface it should not give you any problems and will play fine indefinitely . .
And this is far from the first time this has happened to me with classical CDs I've borrowed , either from my local library or on interloan . What the heck is going on here ? You can see the damage right on the CDs . The idiot, or idiots who do this , are very inventive . One CD I borrowed had a purple splotch on it ! Of course, I couldn't play it through all the way .
This may seem like a crazy idea , but I have a hunch that there's some lunatic in Westechester county who hates classical music so much that he borrows classical CDs from libraries in order to deliberately scratch them ! He or she, is the classical CD gremlin . No classical CD is safe from this maniac !
It's enough to make you tear your hair out and climb up the wall ! I guess if ypu borrow as many CDs as I do, it's inevitable that you'll occaisionally get a damaged CD . But I wish this didn't happen so often ! But where is that damned classical CD gremlin ? If I ever get my hands on him . . . .