The downbeat side of 2010: Orchestras in peril
For a while, it looked like the worst of recession's effects had done their damage on arts organizations and 2010 would be the turnaround year.
But as the days on the calendar dwindle down to a precious few, the clouds have thickened considerably. Things are especially dark on the orchestral front.
The Detroit Symphony, an ensemble fully deserving of the term world-class, remains shut down by a musicians' strike that started Oct. 4, and the two sides appear to be as far apart as ever.
In early December, the Louisville Orchestra went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, just shy of its 75th anniversary; the history of contemporary American music is tightly and richly connected to that orchestra.
Within a few days of the bad news from Kentucky, the Honolulu Symphony, having been in Chapter 11 for nearly a year, was heading into Chapter 7 liquidation after a remarkable 110 years of admirable service.
Compounding the loss for musicians and music lovers in those cities is the downright tragic realization that so few people seem to care about what has happened. No last-minute rescues, no sense of outrage. I guess we're all too used to this sort of thing by now.
I worry about an attitude that seems to be spreading inside some orchestra management and consultant circles, as well as among some music journalists -- an attitude that essentially dismisses professional musicians as
unrealistic. You want a 52-week contract and a good wage? Too extravagant. Go sell insurance or shoes on the side and be happy with 12 or 22 or 32 weeks. You think artistic standards will slip if we lower your pay and some of the best players leave to find greener fields? Who cares? There are young, hungry conservatory grads all over the place willing to take any wage. No one will know the difference.
(I wonder if full-time, nicely-compensated music journalists who buy into this argument would feel the same way if their publications pulled the plug on them, reasoning that there are a lot of young, eager writers willing to take any wage -- and, besides, no one will know the difference.)
The establishment of numerous full-time orchestras was a major achievement in this country during the past 50 years or so; the maintenance of dozens more was likewise a source of pride. If any more slip away in 2011, we will all be the poorer.
Henry Peyrebrune, writing on the Adaptistration site of Drew McManus, recently addressed the matter. After noting that people have long "raised questions about the sustainability" of the 52-week orchestra model, Peyreburne says
"We should keep in mind that we arrived where we are today as the result of a conscious long-term set of goals, shared by the leaders of business, government, arts and philanthropy. President Kennedy clearly articulated this philosophy in 1963:
'I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.'
Among the many challenges of the new year will be the one to find more leaders, political and otherwise, willing to stand up for the values Kennedy espoused. We need more forces to bolster endangered orchestras, to rekindle local pride in them. We need more people to acknowledge the value of music and all the arts to a community in the micro sense, to civilization in the macro.
PHOTO OF HONOLULU SYMPHONY BY HONOLULU SYMPHONY SOCIETY