Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Live and Let Die

That was the name of Ian Fleming’s book and the resulting 1973 movie, the first to feature Roger Moore as James Bond. Not a huge critical success, it nevertheless became quite popular with audiences. It opened the eyes of many to drug trafficking.  The title song by that name, sung by Paul McCartney and the Wings, was also a big hit, being nominated for an Academy Award.

Today that title could be given to arts organizations. To quote an article on the mess in Detroit: In recent months, DSO music director Leonard Slatkin has openly acknowledged the possible need for a dramatic makeover. The debate has centered on two scenarios: sharply cutting the number of musicians under contract, or retaining the full complement of 85 musicians but reducing the contract to perhaps 35 weeks a year from 52 weeks.

If an organization such as an orchestra reduces its workforce, it becomes a “live and let die” situation. How to decide which employees are to survive and which are to be terminated? Of course this has become a common scenario in the business world from Microsoft to General Motors, but in the arts world such massive reductions will change the nature of the company. A big symphony ensemble would become a classical or even a chamber orchestra.  Whether it is for the better or worse is of course up to interpretation.

My fondest memories, as far as orchestra playing goes, are with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. LACO at that time had its residence at the Ambassador College in Pasadena, which then was run by Herbert Armstrong and his Worldwide Church of God (originally Radio Church of God). The church observed the Sabbath which meant that Saturday night concerts could start only after sundown, a somewhat tricky issue late in the spring with daylight savings time. Also, musicians coming to a rehearsal during Pasadena’s often very hot days were not supposed to wear shorts or expose a bare midriff.

The orchestra itself was going through some major changes. Their previous highly regarded gentleman of a conductor, Sir Neville Mariner, had just left, and a young brass-player-turned-ballet-conductor was named as his successor. During the first year or two under the new directorship there was a mass exodus of the orchestra’s best musicians, but since Los Angeles has an endless pool of excellent musicians working in the studios, finding replacements was not all that difficult. Some were hired based on being attractive to the conductor, but the overall level managed to remain high. The new conductor’s supporters would admit he was still green but that he’d grow. Sometimes the ego does just that but the skill level doesn’t match the growth. At its best, often with a guest on the podium, the orchestra could play splendidly; especially the woodwinds and French horns were better than those of the Philharmonic. Probably the high points of my five years were two tours with Helmuth Rilling and his Gächinger Kantorei, during one of which I served as the group’s concertmaster.

The orchestra was just the the right size to be able to travel and we were on the road constantly. We served communities within 2-3 hour radius from L.A., from Santa Barbara to El Cajon, a suburb of San Diego with an excellent medium-sized hall. We had first rate soloists and most accompaniments benefit from an orchestra of that size. A string virtuoso didn’t have to battle with the orchestra, neither was a pianist forced to break  strings of the Steinway. The diminutive but wonderful Alicia de Larrocha sounded just perfect every time. If the work performed called for additional instruments, finding good extras was no problem. I have always known that people come to concerts to hear their favorite soloist, not to waste their time on some unfamiliar orchestral work which some conductor has an urge to perform and then possibly record. LACO as a group basically went to the people, instead of having the people come to them. Audiences like to attend concerts and other event in their own community and understandably so. In the greater Los Angeles area we performed in numerous colleges and even high schools, and it was in those places I sensed the greatest appreciation.

A few weeks back I was flipping channels and saw an excellent cross-over violinist, 28-year-old David Garrett, perform in a fascinating show in his native Germany, during a fundraiser for the local PBS station. Classically trained by such famous violinists as Ida Händel and Itzakh Perlman, he played his amplified violin extraordinarily well, even when combined with music of “the other side”. It was a show worthy of a pop star, with fancy lighting effects and giant screens that displayed close-ups. The audience went wild and for a good reason. I was wondering what their reaction would have been if the same artist stood in a penguin outfit in front of a typical symphony orchestra, playing the Beethoven concerto, observed from a distance.

We expect everything to be such a show these days. When was the last time a motion picture, which told a simple but powerful story without any special effects, did well at the box office? You might find one in France or another European country, but in our country we are stuck with the familiar Hollywood formula of success: a couple famous movie stars and most importantly, action-packed special effects trying to outdo anything seen on screen before. An orchestra or chamber music concert, not to mention a recital, fares very poorly in this regard. An audience sits far away and sees almost no motion, except a small figure on the podium who looks like he/she is trying to learn to fly and not very successfully. It is just a question of time when someone will install big screens in a concert hall and have cameras zoom in where the action is. That, of course, has already happened in sports arenas. Then the question will be: why not transmit the images directly to a high-definition screen in one’s home and pump up the volume as high as necessary? Parts of  Symphonie fantastique might actually shatter some glass!

I shall visit the topic of Live and Let Die again after the New Year. In the meantime, here’s to your health! Kippis, Skål and L’Chaim!
Roger Moore as James Bond