a failure of imagination

Next week, my orchestra begins rehearsals for John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls. With the release of the critically-acclaimed United 93 this past weekend and the Adams work on my music stand, my thoughts have returned to the tragic events of nearly five years ago. Today on the National Public Radio program Fresh Air, the guest was former Department of Homeland Security inspector general Clark Kent Ervin. In the course of talking about the response of the government to the attacks and the 911 Commission’s report, a phrase from the commission’s report was repeated several times, and it caught my attention:

“The most important failure was one of imagination.”

In fact, lack of imagination was so central to the failure to interdict the attacks that there is a subsection in the report entitled “Institutionalizing Imagination”. [1]

Studies link music education in children to improved academic achievement [2], and I think that one of the leading factors in this improvement relates to imagination. Music, of all the fine arts, makes the highest demands upon the imagination, in both of the participatory guises: performer and listener.

As performers we are called on to decipher symbols which tell us the length, loudness, tempo, and articulation of each note. Years of training help us to discern what is “in between” those notes, as it were, but much of the interpretive process that remains is left to our artistic imagination. If we’re playing a modern score, there is relatively little left to the imagination than if we are performing a solo sonata, partita or suite of J.S. Bach, where there is little indication of what lies underneath, with a minimum of instructions given by the composer.

As a listener, we have to make sense of sounds which may be foreign and/or distasteful to us, to concepts which we have not yet experienced, and take an abstract form and relate it to emotional concepts from our own emotional history.

The rigor of facing these dilemmas from an early age really do, I believe, give those who have had a musical education a real edge in reasoning and conceptual skills. By combining these skills with the increased aptitude demonstrated in other subjects, mathematics chief among them, we enable a generation of children to better take on the challenges that will face them in the future.

So, as September 11, 2006 draws closer, and there is much talk of the lack of imagination demonstrated by our government, industry, and citizenry – view it as a call to arms on behalf of a renewed dedication to arts education in our schools. We cannot afford not to take up this call.

1 http://www.9-11commission.gov/report/911Report_Exec.htm
2 http://www.amc-music.com/research_briefs.htm

piano quartet

piano quartet, originally uploaded by noble:images.

Lots of chamber groups sprouting up these days – it’s a good antidote to the daily routine of the orchestra, and a lot of fun. Here the OSO Principal violist Joël Belgique and Concertmaster Amy Schwartz Moretti are joined by two members of the Lanier Trio, Dorothy and Cary Lewis to form a piano quartet.

when will the dam burst? …

The following are my own musings on the state of the institution for which I work, and that I have no knowledge of any information that would be considered confidential.

I feel like the Oregon Symphony is poised on the edge of a precipice this week (not that this is unusual this time of year – when the vernal equinox comes around, the collective wills of the orchestra gird their loins and prepare to step into the breach and gather their breath for the home stretch of regional touring and the remaining, very demanding classical series programs). We still have no contract in place for the season we’re currently playing (we’re “playing and talking”), and I’ve heard no word on when we’re likely to have a settlement (the contract committee is being very discrete and circumspect on this matter). Our schedule this year has been one of the most chaotic and unpredictable I’ve ever encountered in 10 years with the ensemble – there literally has been no day in any series week that I have not had to check my palm pilot at least three times to figure out what I was doing the next day – and our programming has been the most intense and unfamiliar since I arrived 10 years ago.

On top of it all, yesterday we got the word that our President, Bill Ryberg, is leaving for the Palm Springs Beach Opera after only two years here in Portland. It feels like the collective wind has been knocked out of the sails of the players at this news. It is literally like being in a gale force wind in a small sailboat and suddenly having your seasoned, steady captain thrown overboard by a rogue wave. Bill has been a stalwart presence from day one – firm, reasoned and confident, with a banker’s grasp of finances and fundraising, and a musician’s grasp of the needs of an ensemble which is becoming more world-class with every passing season.
I’m really wondering where the symphony will go from this point – there are only two choices: up or down. Staying the course really won’t work – we have to either cut our deficits and increase our funding support or start cutting down the institution even more than it has been already. We have many new players who are or will be joining the orchestra, including three major principal positions: flute, oboe and trumpet, all of whom cannot negotiate their personal contracts because we have no base rate of pay specified for this season, never mind ’06-’07, and many of our newer members are already heading out on the audition circuit to find better paying jobs with more stability. Have we peaked in terms of talent? We have our ablest veteran players still in place, though retirement may come calling if the future starts looking more uncertain. Our new hotshot members are looking for other opportunities, and those of us in the middle are taking all of the side gigs that we can in order to put some money away for a rainy day (or season).

Does Portland want or need an orchestra of our quality and length of season? That’s a question that must be answered at the deepest gut level by our board and staff, and by our civic leaders and societal pillars. The answer? Stay tuned…