It is Time for a Change
When I began traveling around the United States spending time with orchestras, I found myself surprised with regularity at the high quality of music-making that I found in small city orchestras. These are orchestras that play, perhaps, six or eight or ten concerts a year, and yet still have about them a sense of ensemble and level of execution that would do much larger cities proud.
Now, after three-and-a-half years of listening to orchestras around the nation, it is time to change my vocabulary...
Recently, I wrote about the "sheer astonishment" I felt in hearing the Dayton Philharmonic perform Mahler. But I realize that we cannot keep encountering the same phenomenon and continue to be "surprised." While it is admittedly true that I have heard orchestras of varying levels of accomplishment, it is equally true that the overall level that I have encountered is far, far higher than I would ever have anticipated, and far higher than others would guess.
Often in conversations with people - even people in the music business (but whose exposure is limited to large-city "international level" orchestras) say to me things like "you must have had to adjust your expectations downward in order to keep your sanity during your travels." Simply not true - and I am growing increasingly intolerant of those who make statements like that without having any of the experience necessary to back them up.
We suffer in the orchestra business from a glamour complex. Those who are music directors or managers of small orchestras encounter colleagues all the time who convey somewhat condescending sentiments, expressing pity, or hope that "I'm sure you'll advance to a bigger orchestra soon." Those statements usually contain an unspoken (well, sometimes it is spoken) assumption that these folks have to put up with poor quality music because they're tied to small-town orchestras. Actually, there are managers who prefer that life - and who know that the experience can be artistically satisfying in a way that those who know Chicago, New York, or Cleveland might never know or believe. Peter Smith was one such manager in previous generations - thrilled to have spent most of his career with the orchestras in Fort Wayne and Grand Rapids. Peter, like me, is an addicted record collector and a music nut - and if you have actually heard those orchestras in concert you would understand why he could find satisfaction in those positions.
I wish more people in the music business would get around the country and hear America's orchestras - and that includes in particular our music critics and press. It is a sad fact that if I were running a presenting series (at, say, Carnegie Hall - or the series in Chicago at Symphony Center that I used to be in charge of), I know in my bones that I could more successfully sell tickets to a concert by a second-line European orchestra than I could to the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, let's say, or Lincoln's Symphony Orchestra in Nebraska, where I recently heard a terrific Tchaikovsky Fourth. The last movement taken at a whirlwind clip by conductor Edward Polochick and executed with utterly clean articulation and panache. Those American orchestras play easily at the level of some European orchestras that tour these shores - but we Americans still have an inferiority complex about our orchestras.
This is not a brand new phenomenon either. More than 25 years ago, I was in Grand Rapids on business and was invited to hear the Grand Rapids Symphony under their then unknown young Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov; the program was Mahler's Second, and I (still in my more naïve days) went with great trepidation. What I heard was a performance of Mahler's 2nd that riveted me from opening to conclusion - and started me re-thinking about my prejudices.
But those prejudices still hold in many people's minds. If you have cause to travel to some of America's smaller cities or towns, and there is a local orchestra - do yourself a favor. Take in a concert. Perhaps you, too, will be surprised.
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