Sunday, June 26, 2005

Disappearing audiences

There was a terrific article in yesterday’s New York Times about Decline in Listeners Worries Orchestras, by Anne Midgette. Everyone should read it. It seems like supply exceeds demand and people are more likely to come to see a star, a sensation, than to actually listen to music. Orchestra seasons are simply too long and it is far easier to get a CD or a DVD, or download a favorite or needed recording via the web. Truthfully, I couldn’t see committing myself to 18 subscriptions a year, plus other concerts. A recording will sound better, mistakes have been edited out, and I can stop or replay it at any time. Why wait for a few years to hear one’s favorite symphony or concerto in today’s world? New Yorkers are lucky as so many artists and orchestras visit that city during any given year, but that is not the case in many other places. Even there, I would most likely pick and choose and buy tickets to the performances I really would like to hear, not to subscribe to any organization’s season. From experience I know that due to limited rehearsal time, any even slightly unfamiliar composition will get an instant art treatment: just add water and mix. The same is true with all these festivals where people are thrown together and expected to play chamber music with almost no time to get to know each other. Why is it then that any self-respecting quartet or trio will normally spend an enormous amount of hours fine-tuning their ensemble playing during the year? Couldn’t they just get together for a maximum of two rehearsals before a concert if that is what satisfies the audiences? Perhaps we should give up the name “concert” and call everything a “festival”.

This week my family is going for a vacation in Boston and surrounding areas, my wife’s home. It is interesting to compare that city to Seattle, as both have approximately the same population, both in the city proper and the metropolitan area. Granted, Seattle has more space and a more beautiful setting, but Boston has more history than any other city in the United States. You won’t find a 50-year-old historical landmark there, time is measured in centuries. Interestingly, income per capita in the Seattle area is slightly higher than in Boston and we have no state income tax. Both cities are very liberal and are situated similarly near the NE and NW corners of the country.

Perhaps it is due to the long history that Boston has become a leader in education, health care and the arts. According to the TIME Almanac, the area is home to 68 colleges and universities. There are 25 inpatient hospitals. And musically speaking, they have one of the finest symphony orchestras playing in one of the best concert halls in the world. The orchestra has an excellent web site which explains the history and design of the Symphony Hall, now 105 years old. It is also evident that Bostonians are really excited to have a new music director for their symphony, probably the most respected American conductor James Levine. For those music students who are determined to pursue their dreams there is the New England Conservatory with famous teachers flying in, and New York is only a few hours away by train, Yale even closer. True, the city is not a paradise: some years ago it had the highest rate of car thefts in the country. The climate can be harsh in the winter and melt you in the summer, but the same is true with much of the northern parts of the country. At least they have four seasons, not Seattle’s two: more rainy and cool, less rainy and warmer.

My wife grew up in the Beverly-Salem-Wenham area, a half-hour north from the city. There a nice cousin of hers offered his house to be used, as he and his family are living on a boat for the summer. It’s going to be hotter and more humid than here but at least Marblehead and the cool Atlantic waves are near by.