Thursday, April 23, 2009

Shattered Plans

Spring seems to have arrived finally but not in people's hearts this year. The country, and the world as a result, are in a mess. An executive of Freddie Mac commits suicide. Our new administration, trying to fulfill some of the election promises, has let us peak into torture practices of the CIA which are like from the handbook of the Third Reich, KGB or the Communist China during the Cultural Revolution. Today's youth is going to be less educated than their parents as lack of public funding has closed the doors to public (and theoretically affordable) colleges for all but the best students. With money, non-achievers can get to fancy schools, just like our former President did, but where are the vast majority of high school graduates to go? What about all those who don't get even that far? If people with degrees cannot find jobs, it can only be worse for the rest.

Our health care system is a disgrace. People who have coverage through their employed don't stop to think about what will happen when their jobs are terminated. Companies and non-profits use this threat to blackmail their employees, as I personally well know. In the news a couple days ago we read about a couple in Texas who are unable to find insurance to cover their son with testicular cancer. The system might take care of him once the parents are literally bankrupt, that is if he survives that long. I don't quite understand why this tragic story appeared in a newspaper's Entertainment section. Too much reality tv? Yet certain people foolishly feel that none of this hardship will ever touch them. They feel entitled to a certain lifestyle with no worries. It is time for those folks to wake up. The business or non-profit probably is not on such sure footing the employees imagine. In my field, performing arts and education, age-old organizations are in deep trouble. In many places this is talked openly about, other places are tight-lipped, perhaps to protect a lame-duck figurehead. Mr. Salonen just conducted his final Los Angeles concert and I bet he's happy to be leaving while the ship is still afloat. Unfortunately the financial situation in his next destination, London, is hardly enviable.

Silence may be golden, but the old saying what you don't know can't harm you doesn't hold water today. Members in a provincial orchestra may be great in their imagination but in truth, very few if any would find employment elsewhere should the house of cards collapse. I was watching and listening to four members of the Berlin Philharmonic performing Schumann's Konzerstück for four horns the other day, from the orchestra's concert archives. The three men and one (American) woman played splendidly. There were no big egos present (more than what is normal for a hornist) and yet each of the musicians played rings around a typical American principal. Most amazing part was how well they blended together. Talk about teamwork! Yes, they were still younger than some people here tooting their horn (literally) and thus age hadn't left its imprint in their sound and technical capability. Later this season, in June, Berlin's incredible principal flautist Emmaunuel Pahud is playing a solo which I cannot miss. I am not crazy about Elliott Carter's music but it will do in this case. A senior flute player here in this country can claim that he is in better shape than ever but we all know that is utter nonsense. One's rhythmical errors don't correct themselves with ripe old age, the frequent source of complaints by guest conductors about a house flautist in a far-away place. String players may see themselves as God's gifts to the world, but place them next to a recent Curtis or Juilliard graduate in an audition behind a screen and the greatness will turn into embarrassment. They don't know how lucky they are for having won a position when they did. Of course, not every orchestra is a Berlin, but since supply here far outnumbers demand, the competition is tough.

Businesses and non-profits alike have often made grandiose plans which in the current crisis have had to be downsized or entirely scrapped. The unexpected happens and things get out of hand, as the cartoon illustration of Porky Trumpet tells. The smart move is of course to act immediately, before matters get really bad, just to be safe. It is better for a ballet or dance company to scrap their orchestra instead of reducing the number of dancers. They rehearse to a recording and probably will perform best to the same canned music. A compact disc or digital file on a hard disk doesn't have components that call in sick or get lost during a show. They save a conductor's salary as well. The money will be better spent for understudies or multiple casts as dancers inevitably tend to get injured in an art form that is grueling to one's feet. Opera is the least cost-effective form of performing arts. The New York City Opera recently announced that it had spent most of its endowment just to survive. Yet some other groups seem not to have a worry in the world as they are planning more expensive productions than ever. One mustn't forget how the chairman of one of the fallen investment banks bragged on the company website about their financial stability just days before its collapse!

America's best orchestras have generally put their previously frequent overseas tours on ice as the sponsorship isn't there. Regional orchestras are performing often with fewer rehearsals to save money, a practice common in Britain. That used to be the case here with Pops programs, an orchestra's cash cow, but lately a big name soloist may come to play a show and there is time for only one run-through that morning. A critical listener would immediately sense this and feel cheated, but today's audiences, especially in a papered hall, are blissfully ignorant. Orchestras often sponsor other events, such as recitals and chamber music concerts. The former will not fill barn-size auditoriums and even with free tickets the upper tiers are off-limits as otherwise the house would look empty. Is it better to put a visiting and supposedly expensive string quartet in a small auditorium of 500 and claim the event was sold out? An organization simply cannot charge the kind of ticket prices it would need to break even.

Musicians feel the same entitlement as members of the UAW and don't want to even think about pay cuts and lesser benefits. If the survival of GM is questionable under the existing system, workers have to come to terms with facts. Why musicians feel that they are immune to the market beats me. After all, everyone needs transportation, but music is mere entertainment and a luxury we could well do without. That's All Folks!

Porky Pig (Warner Bros)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter 2009

Today is the High Holiday for Christians, the most important day of the year, Easter. Even to those who don't agree with Jesus having been the promised Messiah, the day should be a reminder that there is life after death. It should also remind us that those who were killed unnecessarily, for their good deeds rather than sins, but who did not agree with whims of the ruling class, did not die in vain. There have been so many martyrs, some who are remembered but most forgotten. Even if we don't know about them, collectively they have helped mankind and humanity to make progress. This has been slow, for sure, but at least the direction is correct.

In addition to individual human beings, Easter should bring hope to organizations that have died or are about to. Perhaps the important humanitarian non-profit group that has had to fold due to lack of funding will one day be reborn and continue its mission. Businesses we shouldn't worry about, as they exist only for a demand that is there. Who cares if a bank goes under as there are healthier ones ready to take over. Yes, investors may lose money, sometimes a lot, but one shouldn't forget that they initially bought stock out of hope of making a handsome profit. Many would call it greed or gambling. There is nothing noble about the latter as people either win or lose.

If an arts organization suffers and dies or is forced to shrink its operations, again one should not grieve. It is a supply and demand situation, too. There is nothing sacred about an orchestra or a theater. Yes, art in all forms should be valued and treasured, but when people in such an organization have become so greedy that their demands cannot be supported by the society, it is time to wipe the slate clean and start again, more modestly this time.

We fear the word "socialism" in our system, although some 70-80 years ago the tone was very different. Across the Atlantic, countries have generally taken a different direction. Often their most conservative parties seem far more left-wing than our extreme liberals. Nobody over there would question a citizen's right to health care or education, for instance. We should be lucky enough to enjoy such different values instead of fearing them. Yes, they do appreciate the arts, too, but also educate their young people in them. Support comes almost entirely from the system. Opera houses and concert halls don't carry names of the very wealthy and usually the boards which are responsible for running these organizations consist of knowledgeable people, not totally ignorant but rich people.

Florida with its Madoff-type and also more honest super-wealthy class is an excellent example of what is wrong with our system. That state has no shortage of philanthropists. It has probably more fancy auditoriums than other places, yet it has no orchestras or other such groups for the performing arts to speak of. A training orchestra hardly counts. Instead of paying for musicians and other artists, it is more important that the donors have their names engraved in the marble of large dominating buildings. It is easy to fly in groups from the outside. Yes, the Cleveland orchestra probably sounds better than a local orchestra would, but for an audience with hearing aids and very limited knowledge of music to start with, I don't think it would matter. But the well-to-do are aware that Cleveland and other such groups are world famous and therefore they are getting "the best" for their money. Following that thought process the entire country could get rid of its provincial arts groups and the very best could serve us all, traveling from one city to another. We don't need twenty subscription concerts a year plus a number of others. Why not make every performance special, worth fighting for a ticket? Or should we follow in the footsteps of the Metropolitan Opera and Berlin Philharmonic and attend high definition format concerts and other performances either in movie theaters or at home? We could see and hear a lot better for one things and, in case of opera, the subtitles would be easier to read that the supertitles high above the stage. One would also have the option of turning them off. For a person like me this choice would be a no-brainer.

But let's go back to this holy week of Easter and Pesach. More and more Christian congregations are celebrating Passover as we all share the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. My wife and I played two performances of the Fauré Requiem on Good Friday in a church. Between the beautiful services there was dinner served for the choir and the orchestra, mainly leftovers from their Seder. One had to be a bit careful with what to put on the plate (even shrimp was present) but we managed fine. We had fifteen people at our own Seder, but Anna, our oldest, had a third Seder for her friends in Bellingham and had eighteen participants at her house there. The second one was at her Hillel with a larger crowd. Marjorie is probably dreaming about bread by now but I could probably go on indefinitely as long as my wife's absolutely delicious matzo ball soup was available. I never get tired of macaroons, either.

It has been a long time since the Exodus. With all recent news I sometimes wonder if the Hebrews are attempting a reversal and want to return to the Pharaoh. Why wait for the Red Sea to part when one can conveniently wipe out the Gaza Strip? There must be enough snobs in Cairo to fill a concert hall. We could help with building the orchestra by sending a few string players and a couple of tooters, in addition to a conductor. Some of the Madoff fortune must be still there hidden somewhere and since he is behind bars (reportedly unhappily so), he would probably be delighted to lend his name and give some financial assistance to the group. Move over West-Eastern Divan, this is the Bernard Madoff North-Southern Diva World Class Band.

Easter Lily