SAN DIEGO — Murry Sidlin is a thinking person's conductor. He can articulate arguments of musical aesthetics with the same fervor and precision that he wields the baton at the podium. And he may be one of the few who is able to perceive similarities in the the problems facing baseball and the current crises of American symphony orchestras.
This week Sidlin is conducting the San Diego Pops at Hospitality Point in its summer season finale. Local audiences will be seeing a great deal more of Sidlin, however, because he will be functioning as the symphony's resident conductor, albeit without title.
Last March, when then-resident conductor Fabio Mechetti resigned, symphony executive director Wesley Brustad contracted Sidlin to conduct three of the orchestra's 1988-89 series: the children's concerts, the new family concert series and the new Saturday night "Classical Hits" series.
Last Wednesday, Sidlin flew into town to address the symphony's docents, the volunteers who go out to the schools and prepare students for the symphony experience. The subject of baseball came up later that afternoon in an interview at Symphony Hall. Sidlin had been discussing the problem orchestras face filling their halls with paying customers.
"Maybe the whole nature of what we do has to be changed," he said. "We need to put some sort of new adrenaline into the whole idea of getting people to concerts. Maybe the idea of midweek concerts is outmoded; maybe the idea of an overture, a concerto and a symphony on the same program is dead and we just don't know it."
"According to the implications of a recent Harris Poll, there are certain urban areas in the country now in which season-ticket (sales) for major cultural events are off 26%," Sidlin said. "Also, leisure time has diminished, and even with both parents working, the family entertainment budget has contracted. The attraction now is more to staying at home, with options such as HBO, movie channels and compact discs, which in the next two years will become video CDs. We are in a cultural evolution of some sort, and it has to do with those orchestras going out of business and with others teetering on the brink."
The orchestras to which Sidlin alluded were the Oklahoma Symphony and the Nashville Symphony, both of which dissolved earlier this year. When Sidlin mentioned the term "cultural evolution," his usual animated gestures came to a momentary halt. Somewhere, a light had gone on, and his smile broadened when he invoked the name of A. Bartlett Giamatti, president of the National Baseball League and retired president of Yale University.
"Interestingly enough," said Sidlin, "I had a conversation recently with my friend Bart Giamatti, who said that baseball is going through a similar evolution. In fact, we're going to deliver a joint paper on this subject of symphonic music and baseball at the American Symphony Orchestra League next June in San Francisco, called 'The Cultural Evolution.' Our premise is, that if it's true for baseball, it's true for everything in the arena of entertainment."
If sociological changes account for some of the challenges facing American orchestras, Sidlin was not willing to discount the federal government's less than modest commitment to the arts.
"The National Endowment for the Arts has a budget of $180 million. That figure is absurd. Would that amount run the Pentagon for even 12 hours? I'm not sure."
For Sidlin, more distressing than the government's meager monetary support is its neutrality to the significance of the arts.
"It is the attitude that says, 'If you want it, go ahead and do it--pay for it. Be our guest,' instead of someone saying, 'Music and all art are integral to American society, a vibrant necessity. And, though our contribution to it directly may be small, we'll do everything we can to help you succeed.' That's cultural and moral leadership.
"In 1956, when Eisenhower said that science and math were important, there was an explosion of support for those disciplines far beyond what the government supplied."
Sidlin has been no stranger to the turmoil of American orchestras in the 1980s. He now holds the title of music adviser to the New Haven Symphony, an orchestra he headed as music director for 11 years. And, for the past 10 years, he has been conductor in residence at Colorado's Aspen Music Festival, where he conducts and holds master classes for aspiring young conductors.
The bruises, however, came from his recently completed tenure with the Long Beach Symphony. The parting of ways was less than amicable and not expected by the conductor when the Long Beach Symphony board made its unilateral decision to fire him. Sidlin had presided over that orchestra's dramatic expansion in the early 1980s. But a massive financial crisis forced the symphony to cease operations in the middle of the 1984-85 season.
At the time, Sidlin received the brunt of local criticism for what was termed his "expansionist ideas." Although the orchestra revived in 1985, Sidlin's Long Beach days were evidently numbered.
In as much as the San Diego Symphony has endured recent travails not unlike those in Long Beach, it seemed logical to ask Sidlin if he had second thoughts about accepting a contract with San Diego.
"No second thoughts, thank you. I realize this is an orchestra in transition and have followed its past crises at times with a heavy heart. It makes me proud to be brought in at a pivotal time."
Asked if he thought it was strange that he was being asked to carry out a resident conductor's duties with no title, he said: "I don't need a title. I just want to be a permanent friend of the San Diego Symphony and the community--that's really all."