There’s been quite a bit of unfortunate news for American orchestras in the past week or so. Here’s a roundup of what I’ve noticed lately. Fortunately, there is no mention of the Oregon Symphony here – and in fact, ticket sales for next season are very strong. I think that people here in Portland are catching on to what some of the major orchestras in the U.S. are now realizing – that we’ve got great leadership in Carlos Kalmar, along with a great orchestra and management staff.
The Baltimore situation is disheartening, as that orchestra has been through hell and back with major financial problems several times over the last two decades, and the musicians have had an especially hard time of it. 12.5% is a big chunk of change to give up, especially when times are tough, and I give a lot of credit to the musicians – they are showing that they have a intense willingness to do their part to keep the ship afloat. It’s too bad that it seems to always come down to major wage cuts when orchestras find themselves in difficulty – and I say this knowing full well that there’s only so much that you can cut the nuts and bolts of running an organization before you simply must start cutting payroll. And since you have to have a full symphony orchestra to play concerts for a full season, you cannot simply lay musicians off, so it comes down to cuts in wages and benefits.
The abrupt firing of Mario Venzago in Indianapolis points to a major duality which I think needs to addressed in a serious way by American orchestras. Orchestras desperately want someone whom concert goers and the community at large can relate to, but they also remain bewitched by conductors with a foreign accent and an exotic pedigree. And yet boards are surprised when the European conductor doesn’t like their boring, provincial town [not my opinion] and are even more surprised when this great find of theirs actually is in demand around the world. They want to have their cake and eat it, too. So why aren’t more orchestras digging deep and finding some of the very good American and Canadian talent which certainly exists? Boston has James Levine, New York has Alan Gilbert, Baltimore has Marin Alsop – clearly they are relating well to their communities, boards, and musicians – and there are hundreds of other very good conductors out there who are dying for a mid-level post. I don’t get it.