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February 26, 2007

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.

Posted by hfogel at February 26, 2007 10:47 AM

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Bravo, Henry. Thank you for writing this. Scott Faulkner just forwarded this to the Group 5 & 6 Orchestras. I know that the group is positively reacting to your paying attention to our recent discussion. Hope you are feeling better. We'll get you to Sioux Falls one of these days!

Posted by: Tom Bennett at February 26, 2007 12:04 PM

As the Director of Education/Community Partnerships at Indian Hill Music in Littleton, MA where we are a unique hybrid of a national guild music school and a professional orchestra of the kind in this article, I am delighted to see support for the dynamic symphonic music that is being heard outside of the "Big" cities. I guess my question would be when will the grantors begin to see that an orchestra like ours provides symphonic music to people who also might not go to these kinds of events in nearby cities. We are actively sustaining and supporting the continuation of a style of music (of the highest caliber) that seems to be losing ground all over the country. All symphonies and grantors should see the urban sprawl (suburbia) as a valuable artistic hub for the survival of "old" art and the innovation of "new" art for humanity.

Posted by: Jo-Ann Wangh at February 26, 2007 3:48 PM

Henry...Thanks again for your fine work as the facilitator with Lincoln's Symphony and guild. Your words of encouragement meant a lot to those who are working so diligently for our fine orchestra. We are so blessed in Lincoln to have a wonderful Maestro and symphony. Your comments at intermission prove that you don't have to travel fifty miles to be an expert! Thanks Again...Dee Tenney

Posted by: Dee Tenney at February 26, 2007 8:08 PM

Mr. Fogel.

I've enjoyed your reports on various "small" orchestras in recent months. I am not the least bit surprised that you're finding a lot of excellent orchestras out there - indeed I'm surprised that you're encountering people in the music business who have low expectations of the quality of performance out there. Anybody involved in the orchestra world surely knows that even minor orchestras get huge numbers of highly-skilled applicants for open positions these days, and even most graduates from top music schools will be unable to find a good job. These people have to end up somewhere, so it should surprise nobody that many of them populate orchestras in Dayton, Syracuse, Grand Rapids or even many smaller-budget orchestras.

I saw much the same thing when I lived in Montreal for a couple years recently. Of course Montreal had the great Montreal Symphony, but CBC regularly broadcast orchestras from across Canada, and I was amazed at the quality not only of smaller full-time orchestras like the Calgary Philharmonic or Winnipeg Symphony, but even much smaller groups like the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony or Symphony Nova-Scotia. Even Montreal's second orchestra (Orchestre Metropolitain), comprised of local freelancers, while not a match for the OSM, would have done most cities proud.

While this is in many ways a good-news story, it does have a downside: These regional orchestras generally don't pay a living wage, so many of the musicians no doubt aspire to the big-time orchestras, if not for the prestige, then certainly for the financial security.

It would be nice to see more exposure for these orchestras. I've been wondering - concerns of low ticket sales notwithstanding - whether Carnegie Hall or the Kennedy Center might start up a "Less than Great American Orchestras" series (obviously with a better title than that), where they would feature some of the excellent, but less-than-major orchestras. Sometimes these orchestras turn up for self-produced vanity concerts. But it would be a different matter entirely for these big institutions to give their imprimatur, with the express intention of impressing upon the public the quality of lesser-known groups that populate the American landscape.

Posted by: Marko Velikonja at March 4, 2007 11:28 PM

Thanks for writing, Marko. Your idea is a good one. In fact, I know that the idea of a series of smaller American orchestras in one of our major city concert halls has been discussed among professionals in the past; I have taken part in some of those discussions. The issue always falls down around cost. It is not at all inexpensive to take 80-90 people on the road, and while some orchestras might find a local source for the funding, the question always arises as to whether that is the best use of that funding in the long term interest of the orchestra. There are some smaller orchestras that arrange their own appearance at Carnegie Hall, and present themselves on a rental basis - but the idea of a regular series is going to run into financial barriers that I fear are likely to be insurmountable. That said, I agree it would be a wonderful showcase for those orchestras.

Henry Fogel

Posted by: Henry Fogel at March 6, 2007 5:31 PM

Hi from New Zealand,on the other side of the world, where the same is true - people just do not believe that a local group can play just as well as a group from Europe. How many people will not even cross the street to support their local group, but go in the music store and pay top dollar for some ensemble from Europe, which will not always be better.

I think it just part of the increased standard of living - we can all travel, we have restaurants of all styles (You probably have an Italian restaurant in your home city that does better food for less cost than many restaurants in Italy.) And if you are in a city with a local music school, you will have an orchestra that enjoys making music, and it a great part of your community.

Since this discusssion is on a Naxos discussion board, perhaps it would be possible to links to audio clips from less well known orchestras.

Posted by: Alan Girvan at March 8, 2007 8:19 PM