how not to fix the Oregon Symphony

Over the last two years, the coverage of the the Oregon Symphony in the local press has become more sporadic, and when it does happen, much more pessimistic, and maybe a little bit cynical. First, an outline of what constitutes the press in Portland, Oregon, for those of you who are not residents here. There is one daily newspaper, the Oregonian, which has one full-time classical music critic. They hire freelance writers when there are too many events for one person to cover. There is one weekly alternative paper, the Willamette Week, which has consolidated its classical department into a generic arts coverage, with several people contributing to classical event coverage, which is piecemeal at best. There is also a local paper published Tuesday and Friday, the Portland Tribune, which falls somewhere between the daily and weekly papers in both editorial outlook and quality of reporting overall.

I’ve been thinking about why coverage of the Oregon Symphony might have changed to the gloom-and-doom that we’ve been reading lately. I think there are three factors, which I’ll present here in what I perceive as their rank order. First, the Oregon Symphony is having financial difficulties. Second, because of increased competition from non-print news outlets (mostly on-line), print publications have to present more sensationalized coverage to sell papers – i.e., “if it bleeds, it leads”. And third, writers who are new to town have to make a splash, and they go looking for what will make a name for them, wherever and whatever the subject might end up being.

An orchestra in America having financial problems is about as rare as a stray dog having fleas – but for some reason it is big news these days. There seems to be a fetish to present pieces that show that classical music is ill, dying, or has been dead for some time already. These stories come in waves, and New Yorker classical music critic and blogger Alex Ross has commented at length about several of them, such as an article by the UK’s Guardian newspaper which calls classical music “a dusty, dying art form”. Ross pointedly suggests that “perhaps, it’s the desperately attention-grabbing “X is dead” headline that’s bit the dust”.

It seems a bit like shooting fish in a barrel to take aim at a symphony orchestra by highlighting everything that one thinks is wrong with it, especially financially. It’s also easy to take aim at programming: Oregonian critic David Stabler has alternately decried the OSO for first programming too conservatively, then turned around and complained that overly adventurous programming was alienating audiences. Hardly constructive.

Likewise, it increasingly strikes me as cynical that the recent Crosscut article attacked the idea of co-opting Thomas Lauderdale – a very popular local personality who straddles both the popular and classical genres and has mass appeal with many different audiences here in Portland – as a strategy for increasing the reach and draw of the OSO in the community. Cynical, because this is the very sort of strategy that has not been undertaken in years past – and part of the reason the OSO finds itself in its current situation, and because it’s a positive development which aims at what our management believes is the root of the problem, not something done simply for surface appeal.  But no credit is given. And frustratingly, if orchestra management had stayed the course, the cries of “dinosaur” would ring from the fourth estate’s rooftops, most likely with mention of what a force Lauderdale is, and why didn’t the orchestra tap his potential to pull new and existing audiences back into Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

If I’ve learned anything in my 12 years in the Oregon Symphony, in discussions with at least three management teams in that time, and discussions with orchestral colleagues around the country, it’s that there are NO simple solutions. Rash actions taken in haste and with little forethought can doom an organization that runs with such a tight margin as a symphony orchestra. You see, if you alienate a patron – and it might just take a single concert, or bad press, or an ill-timed soliciting phone call – you have less than a 50% chance of getting them back, and even if it is possible, it might take 4-6 years to do so. And that’s just your existing, loyal subscriber base. You’ve just cut off the only predictable funding that you have – your subscribers – and you’re even more at the whim of donors and grants.

What would I like to see in coverage of the Oregon Symphony? I’d like to see a wide-ranging discussion of possible solutions – frank discussions of the problems included. I’d like to see a range of current and potential donors engage in a forum to talk about what their impressions of the symphony’s problems are, and what they see as possible solutions. I’d like to see the citizens, business communities, and arts patrons of the entire Portland metro area come together to discuss whether or not they believe that the Oregon Symphony is an institution that is worth saving – and what the possible costs are to the community as a whole if the orchestra ceases to be a full-time professional ensemble of 86 players from around the country and the world. The OSO is worth that much, and the recent coverage is more an attempt to draw readership than to present solutions in order solve problems.

denk on brahms and nostalgia

Jeremy Denk, to whom I can only now just genuflect and give homage due, writes in his inimitable style about the Brahms G-major Violin Sonata, and in the end almost writes that which cannot be written (almost, to really get it, just listen to the sonata) in some of the best blog writing I’ve seen all year:

In Mahler’s 9th and Schubert’s Winterreise, to take two extraordinary instances, we have nostalgic works which begin from “game over,” from a condition of preexisting loss, where everything—happiness, life, dreams, hope—has already evaporated from measure one, and we merely count our disintegrating losses. But most composers of nostalgic pieces take the more traditional route: they create worlds of happiness in order to destroy them. This seems, perhaps, mean-spirited? But then the third, unpredictable step is applied, a door is opened onto neither happiness nor despair. An emotional note is sounded on a foreign clef, undermining and questioning the whole previous vocabulary and proposing a more meaningful, but even more evanescent understanding, which perches like a bird on the last note of the piece and flies away never to be heard again. In other words: the place where you arrive at the end of Brahms G Major Violin Sonata cannot be summoned to mind or soul “on demand.” It cannot be remembered. It is perishable, even as an idea. It is the precarious, extraordinary result of all the conflicting codes and messages of all the preceding notes, the message hiding behind the Motive which only tells you, at that moment, what it might have been. Someone is there working through the night for you, deciphering this code, your code, understanding your whole life, and they pass a final translation to you on a piece of paper which …