Rewarding quality

Some thoughts on the news from Seattle, about that city having the highest concentration of arts-related business. That, the story suggested, had something to do with Seattle being a smart place, and might say something about the quality of Seattle’s art.

Well, Seattle has one of the absolutely top opera companies in America, a really high-quality operation, and one of the worst music directors of any major orchestra. The larger issue here, though, has nothing to do with the intelligence of any city, or the concentration of arts anywhere. I think it’s something really odd, that unfortunately speaks to the weird situation of classical music these days — there’s often no relation between the quality of a classical music enterprise and its success. It’s as if many of the people who buy tickets for classical concerts don’t know how good or bad anything is, once it reaches a decent professional level.

Look at the Boston Symphony under Ozawa — an artistic desert, shunned by Boston-area musicians. But they had no trouble selling tickets. Likewise the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. Or look at the Pittsburgh Symphony, with declining ticket sales for many years, even while, under Mariss Jansons, it reached artistic heights.

It would be interesting to study this in some formal way. Do the best classical music performances sell the most tickets? But wait, that’s not really the question, since the best movies don’t sell the most tickets, and the best books aren’t the top bestsellers. The question might be whether a decline in quality — at an orchestra, let’s say — gets noticed by the audience, and leads to a decline in ticket sales. It’s a complex question, and I’d love to know more about it. I do know that declines in orchestral quality aren’t always noticed by the press. Did the main Boston and Seattle papers say anything about the problems there?

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