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Time to get on the stick

Attracting and retaining a symphony audience is not simply a matter of skill or gimmicks. It's about chemistry and making a resonant connection. And a look at the nation's leading orchestras shows that it's not easy.

August 14, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

THE latest news about orchestras has been very good. And it has been not so good.

A few Fridays ago, Marin Alsop was chosen person of the week by ABC News. That's not just good: A rising American conductor making the mainstream is practically unbelievable.

But I wonder whether Alsop, the first woman to be appointed music director of a major American orchestra, would have been person of the anything had the Baltimore Symphony not botched the news of her appointment. A leak to the Baltimore Sun that the musicians were unhappy with the hiring process, and presumably Alsop, created a media storm.

Sometimes it seems it takes a scandal, strike or bankruptcy to get orchestras attention. A freelance oboist and journalist, Blair Tindall, is generating ink for her first book, "Mozart in the Jungle," mostly because she claims to tell all about sex, drugs and sleaze among orchestra players, complemented by management greed. Her good news, I guess, is that the classical world is not rarefied but as real as government or business, even if in her myopic eyes orchestras are dysfunctional families going down the tubes fast.

That latter view is widely held -- not surprisingly, given the degree to which orchestras everywhere and those who chronicle them have become unhealthily obsessed with their organizational health. What's more, it's possible to emerge from, say, a magnificently played, if calculated and ever-so-chilly, performance by the New York Philharmonic in its acoustically aggressive, visually ugly hall -- amid unengaged, uncomprehending snotty socialites ready to trample you as they rush to hail a cab -- and feel as if you've been put off orchestras and classical music for good.

After hearing many of the country's most important orchestras during the last year, though, I remain convinced that, despite daunting problems, the orchestra hasn't completed its usefulness. But it's time to abandon a lot of received wisdom.

You've probably read the endless litany of woes: Audiences are aging and declining. Lack of music education has created a population of musically illiterate dolts. Young people won't sit still and can't concentrate without visual stimulation.

Among presenters, expenses are ever on the upswing. Management and players constantly butt heads. The St. Louis Symphony had a particularly nasty strike this year. The Montreal Symphony has been on strike for months, with no end in sight. Wounds from contract negotiations don't heal as quickly as they once did; grudges are held for years. Players want more of the pie and instead, like many of us, watch their healthcare and other benefits shrink.

Orchestras have become big businesses run by high-salaried executives. Star conductors are enticed with multimillion-dollar contracts for three to four months' worth of concerts. The organizations are overseen by bottom-line managerial boards lacking musical sophistication. It costs a fortune just to open the doors for business each morning.

Meanwhile, hustlers abound. Some tout specially programmed PDAs as a way to attract technological multitaskers. You can have music explained to you while it is played by following real-time commentary on the device's small screen. If that's too boring, you can switch over to the video function and see a fuzzy close-up of the conductor. Still bored? Pull out your Palm Pilot and plan your week or play solitaire. No one will know the difference.

In the face of all this, singles are singled out for special concerts. So are harried commuters. Video gamers are courted with orchestral renditions of their favorite computer sound effects. The musically curious are offered educational skits featuring second-rate actors dressed as composers and other historical figures.

Such publicity stunts may attract new listeners to the concert hall for a time or two, but they do little to build committed audiences, let alone to advance the art form. What works, I've found traveling around the country, what gets audiences really worked up, is when orchestral music, old and new, is played with real fervor. And perhaps a bit of smart, interesting talk or conversation thrown in.

It's really that simple. But every town is different. Every orchestra is different. That's part of the pleasure -- if sometimes the problem -- of orchestral life, and it too needs to be acknowledged.

No easy formula

THE orchestral landscape in America is not what it used to be. Once, American ensembles were lorded over by the "Big Five" -- the main orchestras of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Cleveland. East Coast critics, while conceding the orchestral energy emanating from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony, continue to use that proprietary term, but it means nothing. The real scene has no center.

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