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August 2013 - Posts

Is The Symphony Orchestra Doomed In America ?

   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 . 

Posted: Aug 27 2013, 08:06 PM by the horn | with no comments
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The Ultimate Form Of Operatic Booing ?

  Here's a curious story reported the other day by  controversial  music journalist Norman Lebrecht at his blog  "Slipped Disc" at 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 !

Posted: Aug 22 2013, 04:01 PM by the horn | with no comments
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Conducting - A Phony Profession ?

   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 !

Posted: Aug 13 2013, 10:05 PM by the horn | with no comments
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The Classical CD Gremlin Strikes Again At My Local Library

   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  . . . .

Posted: Aug 12 2013, 09:03 PM by the horn | with no comments
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