Wednesday, April 12, 2006

For the People, by the People

As the budgets of many arts organizations have increased year after year, more and more of them have had to either scale back operations or cease to exist. In the current climate of rising health and education costs, questionable future of pensions, Social Security and Medicare, the typical age group of potential donors is far more weary than a decade ago. Even the truly wealthy have their limits, and as I have written before, they would rather see their names on a building than be listed as donors for operating costs in a program book. If a landmark institution like the Metropolitan Opera has to tighten its belt, everyone else is in the same boat. Who can blame people for wanting to be careful in this restless world of ours? A ticket to hear an opera performance or a concert given by a major orchestra is expensive enough, especially if there is more than one person attending; thus the thought of having to give extra help to the organization to stay afloat may not sit well with many of us.

Every once in a while I end up going to hear a community orchestra, sometimes out of curiosity, having been asked to attend, or having a friend or family member playing as soloist. In an earlier blog entry (March 26, 2006) I divided orchestras into different categories, based on their importance, but left this important group of musicians purposely out of the story. Like their full-time professional counterparts, community orchestras can vary from excellent to awful. Most of them do fill their function rather well though. This last week I was pleasantly surprised by a local group which performed admirably. To most people in the near-capacity audience there would have been no difference between this orchestra and a professional one. Better yet: this was music for the people, by the people, performed by their family members, friends or neighbors. I paid close attention to the musicians. It seemed to me that all of them were truly enjoying their music-making, and they wanted to show their audience what they were able to accomplish. This was not playing by snobs, for the snobs: the unpaid musicians must really love what they do to give up so much of their time for this cause. Ticket prices were cheap, so an entire family could easily afford to come to listen; the percentage of young audience members was high. Four or five different live concerts a year is plenty enough for most friends of orchestral music. If they want more, it is all too easy to put on a cd or listen to a classical music on FM, cable, satellite or internet station. It would be difficult to explain to that audience why millions should be spent on something they get for practically free.

Of course I have a biased view in this matter. After all, I was playing in such an orchestra before my 6th birthday, as my father was the conductor. We had some excellent concerts as many of the principals came from the country's leading orchestras, such as the Helsinki Philharmonic and the Finnish Radio Orchestra, for the dress rehearsals and concerts, and the group itself had some amazingly talented instrumentalists, who had gone to other fields, as was the norm those days. Everyone got along famously, which in that one-company town meant people at the very top and your ordinary lowly workers. Music was what they had in common, and in that situation they were equals. Well, my native country changed, got rich, and soon such idealistic organizations were history. After my father retired from conducting his beloved orchestra, they folded in a couple years. Nothing nice and wonderful seems to last forever.

Obviously a ballet company cannot expect to find capable dancers in their community for free, and Wagnerian opera singers are not that common, either. Instrumentalists are plentiful, however, as so many excellent musicians have either switched careers or gone to a non-musical field to start with, knowing well what an unpleasantly difficult field being a professional musician is. If we encouraged these community orchestras and gave then more of our support, perhaps we wouldn't need all these regional expensive orchestras in every city and town. How about having up to ten truly great symphony orchestras in the entire country, and they would spend most of their time touring all over? It certainly would be more interesting to the listeners than seeing the same faces and hearing the very same music-making year after year, sometimes with no change for decades. Certainly an enormous amount of money would be saved, and some of it could be spent on bringing in interesting chamber music ensembles and recitalists. Isn't it a fact that many listeners go to an orchestra concert just to hear the soloist and then leave the hall before the Bruckner? Somewhere I remember seeing a string teacher show up with his more advanced students whenever there was a well-known fiddler playing a concerto, and carefully writing down bowings and even fingerings. After intermission they were never to be seen. Certainly this was a less expensive and more convenient an approach than taking lessons from the artist, or going to his/her masterclass. Had there been a video dvd of the piece by the same artist, the teacher and the students would have stayed home. I am in no way condemning this pedagogue's action: what better way to learn than to see with your own eyes and hear with your own ears. Great playing is worth a million words. I just don't think an entire program should have been put together by the orchestra just for this reason. This might have been a cheap lesson for these listeners in question, but at a great expense for a lot of others.