Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Musical Mogadishu

Year 2006 saw Seattle’s art life take a major step backwards, seemingly falling from a hopeful important cultural center to a provincial small city, something akin to Rochester, NY, or Portland, OR. Actually both of these other cities have something unique to offer. Rochester has a respected music school, Eastman, where serious students come to study from afar, not to mention that due to its location, the area can tap into the seemingly endless pool of talent from the Big Apple and surrounding areas. In its favor, Oregon’s biggest city has an excellent festival, Chamber Music Northwest, which has an active season throughout the year, in addition to a busy summer festival.

Seattle’s scene has become like an American version of Beirut or Mogadishu, with different militias and warlords fighting. A true sign of small town mentality is that one or two people have the ability to decide what is allowed to take place, or for that matter, to survive. Creativity has been suppressed and, with manipulation from the outside, the city’s 33-year-old alternate classical music group, the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, was put to death in the spring of ’06. With its minuscule deficit it should, by sheer logic, have survived, but the organization had become a thorn on the side of some ‘important’ people. We were actually toying with the idea of bailing the institution out ourselves, but with all the bad blood around town, it really would have been too risky a commitment in the long run. Also the musicians were to be blamed, as they stuck to every dot printed in their collective agreement, without real sense as to what flexibility was needed from their part to survive. Endless discussions took place regarding per diems on tours planned, and even lunch had to be provided between recording sessions just ten miles out of town. Some musicians were no longer in top shape, something that is perfectly acceptable in a large symphony orchestra but cannot be tolerated in a small ensemble where every note should be played perfectly every time. Had the players not insisted on medical and dental coverage and pension plan, the deficit would have been history without any other remedy. Yet the musicians felt entitled to that all, and as always, with such an attitude bad things happen eventually.

No, neither Ralf Gothóni nor Joseph Silverstein lost their artist management, but the programming, especially in the Music Director’s case, might have been too sophisticated and unfamiliar for the graying audiences. This is a town, after all, where going to hear an orchestra play means going to a pops concert, or seeing a ballet equals the annual favorite Nutcracker. There is nothing wrong with enjoying either, but it would be nice to be able to play and hear ‘new’ serious music, too, something composed within the last 75 years or so, whether American, European or from another continent. The fact that an ‘inferior decorator’ can write about performing arts for many decades without having an ear or an eye for the art form doesn’t help matters any. Even in Oregon the leading paper supposedly has taken a dangerous route with its reviewer wishing to decide how to keep the city’s musical life viable. I guess being able to publish whatever comes to mind frees people from self-censorship, and they become like drivers taking on a different personality behind the wheel, resulting in hard-to-understand episodes of road rage.

The year for me ended unexpectedly positively though, as I was taking part in a Viennese Night celebration. People were not confined to their seats, and they were actually taught how to dance properly in the Viennese fashion. The capacity crowd was having genuine fun, and the faces of both young and old people were glowing. What more could an entertainer wish for?