Dis­so­nant sym­phonies

Pasatiempo - - Listen Up - JAMES M. KELLER

Amid the on­go­ing tales of eco­nomic woe, the plight of sym­phony orches­tras is strik­ing a par­tic­u­larly res­o­nant dis­cord among mu­sic lovers. His­tor­i­cally, the in­sti­tu­tion of the or­ches­tra stands near the heart of Amer­i­can cul­tural sen­si­bil­i­ties. When the first great Amer­i­can orches­tras were es­tab­lished as on­go­ing, fi­nan­cially vi­able en­ti­ties dur­ing the 19th cen­tury — the New York Phil­har­monic in 1842, the Bos­ton Sym­phony in 1881 — they were ap­plauded as sym­bols of out­stand­ing civic at­tain­ment. A great city de­served a great or­ches­tra; in­deed, it re­quired one, no less than it re­quired a fine mu­seum to dis­play the phys­i­cal trea­sures it had ac­cu­mu­lated or a well-stocked li­brary to serve as a repos­i­tory of the world’s knowl­edge. The sym­phony or­ches­tra gave voice to what were ac­cepted as the most el­e­vated ex­pres­sions of tone. Opera had a whiff of “mere en­ter­tain­ment” about it, cho­ruses in­vited am­a­teurism, and cham­ber mu­sic de­manded in­ti­macy in its pre­sen­ta­tion, thereby re­duc­ing its pos­si­bil­i­ties for pop­ulist cel­e­bra­tion. But a sym­phony or­ches­tra sup­ported mul­ti­ple im­per­a­tives of 19th-cen­tury Amer­i­can op­ti­mism. For the “cul­tural elite” an or­ches­tra fed in­tel­lec­tual as­pi­ra­tions; for the man in the street, it could not fail to pro­vide “im­prove­ment.” As a busi­ness, an or­ches­tra could prove un­wieldy and ex­pen­sive to main­tain, but our an­ces­tors never doubted that it was worth it.

As I write these words, some 900 miles to the west-north­west of Santa Fe, the sound of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony wafts through a re­hearsal monitor. The group is gear­ing up to cel­e­brate its cen­ten­nial next sea­son, and it ef­fec­tively owes that mile­stone to the fact that the city was de­mol­ished by the earth­quake of 1906. The city was re­built with unimag­in­able alacrity, or so it seems by cur­rent stan­dards of ur­ban rede­vel­op­ment. From our per­spec­tive a hun­dred years later, it may seem as­ton­ish­ing that, of all the things that needed to be done at that moment, found­ing a sym­phony or­ches­tra should have been among the pri­or­i­ties. To our an­ces­tors, how­ever, it was a chal­lenge that needed to be met. That a sym­phony or­ches­tra should rise out of the smok­ing rub­ble served no­tice to the world that San Fran­cisco was not merely re­turn­ing but that its re­turn was crowned by great­ness.

We move ahead a cen­tury and find that orches­tras are much changed. Surely they sound in­cal­cu­la­bly bet­ter, and the mu­si­cians who con­sti­tute them work in a care­fully reg­u­lated en­vi­ron­ment that does not al­low the ex­ploita­tion, abuse, and un­cer­tainty that many of their in­stru­men­tal fore­bears had to en­dure. Pow­er­ful unions ne­go­ti­ate and en­force the mu­si­cians’ byzan­tine work agree­ments, and pro­fes­sional ad­min­is­tra­tions have grown up to sup­port the ac­tiv­i­ties — skilled spe­cial­ists who tend to mar­ket­ing, fundrais­ing, com­mu­nity ac­tiv­i­ties, com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and the lo­gis­tics of pro­gram­ming and op­er­a­tions at home and on tour. Not­with­stand­ing all this or­ga­ni­za­tion, the orches­tras are show­ing signs of sever­est strain, one af­ter an­other.

In De­cem­ber, the Honolulu Sym­phony So­ci­ety turned off its lights. Af­ter hov­er­ing for more than a year in “Chap­ter 11 bank­ruptcy re­or­ga­ni­za­tion” sta­tus, it gave up the ghost and filed for liq­ui­da­tion. Thus ended the old­est sym­phony or­ches­tra in the Amer­i­can West, an en­sem­ble that had been founded in 1900. Thus, too, did the list of en­dan­gered orches­tras grow shorter by one. Oth­ers, how­ever, wait ner­vously for the pos­si­bil­i­ties that their tum­brels may be al­ready on the way. The Louisville Or­ches­tra, ex­tolled as a dar­ing lab­o­ra­tory for

New Mex­ico Sym­phony Or­ches­tra

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