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September 13, 2007

High Quality Across the Map

At the start of the concert season, I decided to take time to actually count just how many American orchestras I have heard, in actual performance (or dress rehearsal) in my 43 years of functioning in one way or another in the classical music world. Mainly, I just did it for fun - people do ask me, and I feel a bit stupid saying, "Oh, I don't know...but it's been a lot." So I thought I should actually know. I printed out the list of member orchestras of the American Symphony Orchestra League, and started to check off those that I have experienced in person (recordings wouldn't count, in this little game I made for myself)...

I started going to concerts as a teenager growing up in New York in the 1950s. That was exclusively the New York Philharmonic - two high school friends and I got Sunday afternoon subscriptions in the upper balcony of Carnegie Hall. For some time, that was my only orchestral experience. Then, when I went to school in Syracuse, N.Y., the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra was formed (in 1961), and I was working for an FM radio station and recorded the orchestra's opening concert (for you youngsters, that was when FM was a brand new medium - about 27% of the homes in Syracuse had FM radios, and there was no such thing as FM in the car.) I heard that orchestra in every program it performed, through its remarkable development into a wonderful orchestra, for seventeen years, until I left Syracuse in 1978, and along with that I heard every visiting orchestra from the US and Europe. There were some memorable concerts: Jacqueline DuPre made her American debut in Syracuse, playing the Elgar Concerto with Antal Dorati and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the beginning of their US tour! And I began to understand even then the wonderful variety of approaches to making orchestral music that was possible in this seemingly broad universe.

Then, as I got into the orchestra administration world in 1978 and took a stronger interest in emerging conductor careers, trying to catch future stars at the beginning of their careers, I began to travel around the US listening to orchestras and conductors with as much frequency as time and budgetary considerations would permit. An additional development was some pro bono consulting work that I did with a number of orchestras, particularly smaller ones, enabling me to hear even more of them in performance. In the four years that I've been president of the American Symphony Orchestra League, it has been a policy that I would visit and meet with constituents from orchestras around the country. I've visited 108 as of this writing, and heard about 80 of them perform.

So why do I share this with you? I guess that I want to underline that the views I have about the overall high quality of symphonic music in America are based in reality. I truly believe that most music lovers would be shocked, and shocked in a positive way, if they had had the experience I have had. There remains an assumption that while second-and third-line European orchestras (perhaps even fourth line!) are probably pretty good - after all, Europe is the cradle of this art form - most orchestras located in smaller American communities would probably not satisfy a "sophisticated" listener. Many times I have found myself at a cocktail party or dinner, being asked what I do for a living. I describe my job, and when I get to the part about visiting orchestras in Montana, Nebraska, Arizona, or Alabama and listening to concerts, I far too often get looks of pity, or comments like "I'll bet that can be painful."

It gets me angry. It really does. Have I heard some bad concerts? Absolutely. I would never deny it. But the overwhelming majority have been decent, good, quite good, very good, or superb. And this is not "good when you consider the size of the city." I mean good in the sense of satisfying me as a music listener and music lover who has a record collection of more than 20,000 recordings and heard every program of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra over an 18-year period. The chances are that whatever community you travel to, for business or to visit family, has an orchestra - and you should, in fact, give it a shot. You will probably be pleasantly surprised too, as I used to be. I'm not any more - I expect quality. I've heard it in too many places to consider it a surprise. Somehow, in some way, we have to find a way in this country to celebrate what we have achieved in symphonic music performance.

Oh, by the way - that count? The number is 154!

Posted by hfogel at September 13, 2007 10:29 AM

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How right you are. Growing up in a smaller town in a rural state, I was consistently surprised at the quality of the concerts I attended. It also strikes me as important that orchestras in smaller towns or civic ensembles in larger cities offer an affordable way for people to interface with classical music and a live, orchestral performances.

Posted by: Zach Carstensen at September 13, 2007 6:32 PM