Flying in to Flyoverville
Last week, I posted up a link to a piece I wrote for Montana Journalism Review, in which I took issue with New Yorker theater critic John Lahr's assertion that, "If it's not in The New Yorker, it doesn't exist in the culture." My main point was that America is not a homogenous culture; and as such, the culture that The New Yorker documents is only some small portion of what the rest of us experience and value.
The same day that my Montana Journalism Review piece went public, I was alerted by a friend to an essay by Alex Ross in The New Yorker, documenting Ross' whirlwind sampling of a trio of orchestras that don't perform in New York: the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra; the Nashville Symphony Orchestra; and the Alabama Symphony Orchestra.
On the surface, Ross' piece demonstrates what we've been trying to say here at FlyOver: that important art happens outside of the celebrated arts scenes of major cities on the coasts. Ross himself says as much: "I learned what touring musicians have been saying for years: that lesser-known orchestras can deliver sure-footed, commanding performances, and that the notion of a stratospheric orchestral élite is something of an illusion."
Unfortunately, as one reads along, it becomes evident that Ross still suffers from the same biases his road-trip supposedly cured. He mentions in a scoffing tone that, "Orchestras at the level of the Nashville used to be described as 'regional.'" The horror! The injustice!...And yet, a mere two paragraphs later, he declares the Alabama Symphony, "one of the country's most adventurous regional orchestras." (emphasis added)
Given the short list of intriguing factoids and subjective assessments that Ross provides about the Alabama Symphony -- anticipated performances of works by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood and a host of other young, international composers, all within a concert season that's considerably shorter than that of the New York Philharmonic; and a performance of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony that Ross declares to be "as potent a performance of Beethoven's revolutionary symphony as I've heard in several seasons" -- why isn't it simply one of the country's most adventurous orchestras, period?
The answer, it seems, is that it's still not the New York Philharmonic.
Well, no kidding.
This is the implicit bias that we outside of New York marvel at: It's not in New York, so it's not really worth the serious consideration of the New Yorker - unless, of course, some writer feels like it's time for a little junket out into the wilds of America.
Alex Ross is an open-minded music critic; I've met him and been impressed by both his studied standards and his willingness to listen. But it seems that he is still stuck in an antiquated way of thinking about culture, one that posits that a single standard should be applied to all art everywhere.
Instead of racing through town and trying to judge, on the basis of one performance, whether the Indianapolis Symphony sounds good enough to play in New York, perhaps he should have take a few extra days to get to know the local lay of the land, and to figure out: What does the orchestra do for the people of Indianapolis?
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