Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Odd State Of Arts Affairs

About five months ago I wrote about auditions and promised to return to the topic at a later date. A lot has happened since that time: a one-time famous orchestra, the Detroit Symphony, is on strike and the National Ballet at the Kennedy Center has decided they can't afford an orchestra for this season, thus performing to recorded music. One seldom hears positive news. San Diego's orchestra is celebrating their centennial. For two years the group had ceased operating but got back on its feet with a much shorter season and reduced salaries, and of course, thanks to the largest donation ever made to an American orchestra in 2002, $120 million. At some point, a competitor to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Diego's present base salary is barely more than a third of its northern neighbor. Aside from Mr. & Mrs. Jacobs, the orchestra still hasn't been able to broaden its support base and depends on less than three thousand donors. However, for the time being the show goes merrily along.

Like some other orchestras, the Oregon Symphony has taken deep cuts but appears to be surviving. Unlike the musicians in Detroit and many other places, they are willing to face reality and don't claim they deserve something the organization's finances cannot support. I wish them continued success and brighter days ahead as they are worthy of a successful life. Portland is too far from other big cities for its music lovers to travel to a concert elsewhere. The only other option would be broadcasts in HD format streamed to a movie theater, something denizens of cities and towns without a decent orchestra might also welcome. As a former long-time student of mine just won a position in the Oregon Symphony, I would like to see her content in her new workplace.

Many ideas have surfaced regarding re-inventing classical music performances. Some seem like copies of my suggestions: the New Jersey Symphony has transformed itself into an ensemble on wheels and intends to serve the entire state. Granted, New Jersey is not very large in area, but the musicians will be on the move a lot nevertheless. During my days in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra every program was performed in numerous locations. One of our favorite venues was a suburb of San Diego, El Cajon. On paper it seemed crazy to travel two and half hours in one direction to play in a lesser known place, but that city had the most enthusiastic audience; the auditorium was the perfect size for a chamber orchestra. I can't remember a concert there that wasn't a delight to play and even the acoustics were pleasing.

There is a geographical limit beyond which people stay away. Or rather, a potential audience member is only willing to drive a certain amount of minutes to attend a performance. Thus arts organizations, which insist on performing only in their home auditoriums, can at best serve only a relatively small portion of our overall population. Even in New York City, many of the boroughs are simply too far for music lovers to make the commute, at least regularly. If the event is something spectacular, an exception will be made perhaps once a year, but then we are talking about something on a grand scale, such as the Three Tenors shows used to be. A symphony orchestra is not very interesting to look at, unless the players are young and eager. Often it seems like musicians don't really want to be there, playing the same old stuff with the same old boxer (no, not the dog) on the podium. I can visualize screens appearing in concert halls, with close-up video of players otherwise unseen, to add the element of a show to the concert. This of course already happens in major sports events and rock concerts. Unfortunately, music is best served when observed with ears, not eyes.

The present system or protocol of auditioning instrumentalists for a vacancy is rather bizarre. Orchestras have more or less agreed on which snippets of which compositions are to be heard. Ask for something else and candidates are ready to protest. After a mandatory 2-2½ minute introduction of a Mozart concerto a violinist is prepared to play a total of 10 to 15 minutes of orchestral excerpts. A typical example is the first page of Don Juan, a Richard Strauss war horse. Most violinists taking auditions know it by heart, as well as the opening of a certain Schumann symphony movement. However, these works are not programmed all that often and when they are, audiences expect to hear the complete work, not just a minute's worth.

Certainly an orchestral jury member will get some idea how a musician sounds from this material, but two contrasting Bach movements, a Paganini Caprice and segment of a major concerto, the exact spot given right then and there, would be a better indicator of an individual's musicality and technical ability. Every finalist should be made to play a quartet movement with orchestra members, of a work no longer widely available or newly composed for the occasion. As rehearsal time has become more and more in short supply, prima vista a.k.a. sight-reading should be the skill for which most points are given. A conductor used to have as many as twelve rehearsals for a program behind the Iron Curtain; we are lucky if four are allowed. If a candidate has perfect pitch and plays decently, hire him/her right away! I can count with the fingers in my two hands the people I've heard over the many decades who can actually read well. The opposite is more often the case: a person sounds good and the snippets have been learned and memorized to perfection, but the reading stinks. Yet orchestras perform certain repertoire, such as Pops programs, often with one or maximum two rehearsals. 

Drawing by Kari Suomalainen
Simple math will give an orchestra musician a minimum of 50 hours of different material to play in any given season, often quite a bit more. Those hours translate to 3,000 minutes. In four years that adds up to 12,000, and 15,000 in five. Every one of those minutes should be performed at the highest level, not just the required ten to fifteen, presented at an audition. So perhaps an orchestra hires a player based on how he/she manages 0.08% of the task. The first page of Don Juan isn't even the toughest spot of the work! I remember an in-house audition, nowadays forbidden in most groups, where the conductor gave a couple passages of a Bruckner symphony as sight reading. I was horrified and none of the individuals trying out, including a maestro's favorite, could play the material at all; yet it had been in the orchestra's concert repertoire the previous week. Truth is often ugly. Does it really matter that a few pre-selected passages are played well, when later, especially after having earned tenure, everything is faked?

If a person's appearance becomes an issue, with video close ups and possible broadcasts, we can say farewell to unbiased auditions. Odd-looking individuals won't have a chance and the eye-candy effect will become an increasingly important factor. In many cases, orchestra managements are reassessing the tenure clause in contracts. Ballet dancers cannot remain graceful forever, and no one expects to see a 250-lb upper middle-aged ballerina on stage. The dancers have to learn to do something else for a living; why not musicians who at present hold onto their positions until rigor mortis sets in?

Thinking forward, here are some New Rules to meet today's industry requirements: after a successful audition, offer winning candidates a trial period of 2 months. The qualified player might be seated next to the section leader for half that duration. A psychological evaluation should be mandatory, to prevent bullies and sociopaths from entering the workplace. This goes for the music director as well. Every four years, an audition, recital, or orchestral re-audition would determine renewal. Non-biased adjudicators must be selected from the outside, to prevent "friendship bonus points" from entering the decision making process. And finally, disruptive or back-stabbing behavior would be cause for immediate dismissal.

These rules probably sound harsh to musicians, yet they are in effect for professional sports; nobody questions them. Great team spirit is essential, as well as top individual performance. Every few days we read about a coach being fired and a new one hired. If there are issues with an orchestra, replace their music director and management. Like professional sports, orchestras and other such arts organizations are entertainment and people like to get their money's worth. Playing a solo, a recital or even a chamber music performance counts as art: blindly following the interpretive ideas of an egotistic conductor as a member of a 100-person orchestra doesn't.