Great idea!

Yesterday I was talking to Eric Booth, a dynamic guy who works as a consultant, facilitator, and provoacateur in the arts. He’s been talking to some orchestras, and working very closely with one of the big ones, and he’s full of good ideas. One of them just knocked me out — why, asks Eric, shouldn’t the Chambers of Commerce in cities of all sizes fund local orchestras to compete with each other?

Eric calls this “The Battle of the Biggest Bands,” and imagines a kind of orchestral world series, with orchestras all over the country competing for a championship. This would, to say the least, bring attention to orchestras, and get them backed by some local pride. Immediately I wondered how the competition could be scored, and together we decided that it could be judged like figure skating, with a panels of judges awarding numerical scores. The panels, I thought, could each have nine people, three critics, three musicians, and three members of the audience. We’d have to refine this, of course, since the people from the audience shouldn’t live in cities the orchestras they judge are from, and the musicians can’t be soloists who might play with any of the orchestras. We’d also have to make sure the orchestras played the same music at the competition, and that, if soloists were involved, the same ones played.

But the details could be worked out, and the competition wouldn’t have to be nationwide, at least not at the start. It could begin with just two cities, with orchestras of comparable size (measured, usually, by the size of their budgets) — Houston and Dallas, let’s say. (Somehow the idea of this competition seems perfect for Texas.)

Now, someone’s sure to object (and maybe many someones will) that this is undignified, that the arts aren’t about competition, that a public battle between orchestras would demean classical music. To all of which I say, “Piffle.” For one thing, I could cite a George Bernard Shaw review from the 1890s, of two concerts in London, one by a local orchestra and one by a visiting one, both involving virtually the same program of Wagner excerpts. Shaw thought the implied competition was a fabulous idea, since it would show listeners how well their local orchestra measured up, and would also put that local orchestra on notice that it ought to measure up.

Now, this applies to America in 2003, but with a vengeance. Because my main answer to all the purists would be that, as things stand, our orchestras aren’t held accountable in any way at all. Do people in Houston have any notion how good or bad their orchestra is, compared to Dallas (or, for that matter, to Minnesota, Kansas City, or Seattle)? Will their local critic tell them? How would their local critic know, if the comparisons are to be extended nationwide? The only critics even remotely in a position to make these comparisons are critics in New York, who at least have the chance to see most of the country’s larger orchestras when they come through on tour.

And even New York critics couldn’t tell you much. Quick, which American orchestras has the best principal bassoon? Whose brass section is best in loud music, and which plays softly best? Which orchestra would you most like to hear in Mozart and Haydn? (That’s easy, actually: The Orchestra of St. Luke’s, though to be honest, I’m guessing. St. Luke’s plays Mozart and Haydn so wonderfully — with such style, grace, and feeling, not to mention clarity and precision so relaxed that they’re positively joyful — that I can’t believe any orchestra in America can do it better.)

No critic I know can answer these questions, and if musicians or orchestra administrators can, they’re not telling. Public competitions could tell the world just how good each orchestra is, which in many cities would be a revelation. Let’s not forget that, under Seiji Ozawa, the Boston Symphony sounded horrible for years, and nobody called them on it, at least not in public, even though everybody in the music business knew the truth.

If it weren’t too cumbersome, we could even score the competitions in great detail, with judges giving not a single overall rating, but separate ratings for different aspects of performance — for separate sections of the orchestra, the strings, brass, and percussion, for precision, clarity, expression, style, you name it. Then people in each city would know not just how their orchestra was rated, but why, and if the rating wasn’t high, could begin demanding changes. This could be one of the best things that ever happened to American orchestras. Chambers of Commerce, are you listening?

(And check out Eric’s book, The Everyday Work of Art. It’s a deep and also lively and accessible training course on how to bring an artist’s outlook into everything we do. I’ve never seen anything that bridges so easily the gap — which shouldn’t really exist — between artists and everybody else.)

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