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why orchestras matter

[This past week, the Oregon Symphony held its annual meeting. Various heads of the different stakeholders in the organization gave remarks at the beginning of the luncheon. Among the most moving and persuasive of those remarks were those of our players’ association committee chair, bass trombonist Charles Reneau. He gave me permission to post his remarks in full. I hope you find them instructive.]

Hello ladies and gentlemen.  Thanks for coming today.

You here are the Oregon Symphony’s greatest fans and benefactors.  I’d like to thank you deeply for the work you do on behalf of this institution, your volunteering, and your attendance at our performances.

Today, I’d like to speak to you about the great benefit that you provide for our Portland community.

To do this, I’d like to relate your support to a concept that we might call a musician’s lineage or pedagogical genealogy.  As a musician would say, I’m going to talk about my teacher’s teacher, and his teacher before him.

At the University of Georgia, I studied with Dr. Philip Jameson.  He was a crotchety old braggart whose favorite advice to students was to “Play like you’re good,” and “Never let them see you sweat.”  Another preferred teaching method was to call his students early on Saturday morning: make sure we’d been staying out of trouble.

Dr. Jameson, in turn, studied in New York City with trombonist Roger Smith.  Mr. Smith was a long time member of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, and taught at The Juilliard School.

Now our story gets a little more interesting: Roger Smith’s teacher and mentor was Simone Mantia.  Signore Mantia came over to New York City on a boat from Palermo, Italy in 1890, with his family and a euphonium.  He also brought a great talent for brass playing, steeped in the Italian brass band tradition.  He became known as a fine euphonium soloist, and joined John Philip Sousa’s band.

He also played in the Brooklyn Opera Company on the valve trombone, until the company offered him an ultimatum: switch to the slide trombone or give up your chair.  He learned the slide trombone in one week and retained his chair.

Later, he joined the trombone section of the Metropolitan Opera, under the direction of Arturo Toscanini.  Toscanini led the Met through some difficult Italian opera scores, and occasionally some of the trombone players would voice the concern that the parts were too difficult to play on the slide trombone.  Toscanini would direct the virtuoso Mantia to play the music in question, thus settling the matter.  I don’t think Maestro Kalmar has had to do that, yet.

We don’t have the details about Simone Mantia’s teacher.  But classical musicians are taught, not born, so we can rest assured that someone in his youth showed him how to make music.  This line of transmission from teacher to student, generation to generation, passes back through the years to the 14th century, when the trombone was invented as an improvement over the trumpet.

My students at Portland State University and in my private studio are the latest in this line of transmission.  As we musicians grow from students to educators, we pass on centuries of accumulated wisdom: best practices for putting one’s lips together and blowing into a brass tube to make people smile, laugh, cry, or dance.

Not only do our students learn to perform their instrument, but in doing so they learn a suite of skills and values that can bring them into a successful adulthood: clear-eyed self criticism, confidence under pressure, patient determination in the face of challenges.

Generations have passed along this tradition of classical music like a flame passing from one candle to the next.  No candle lasts for very long, but the flame still burns, and will continue to burn for centuries to come.  In our own way, we have the opportunity to pass something of great value from our parents to our children.

This is what you, the Oregon Symphony family, do for this community.  That’s because without an audience and without our benefactors there wouldn’t be any of this great music.

Without the Esterhazy family, we might not even know of Joseph Haydn today, and without Prince Leopold, Johann Sebastien Bach might never have written his Brandenburg Concertos.

Without an audience that hungers for this art, we musicians would all be at home playing for ourselves.  Actually, that’s called practicing, and I’d much rather perform for people!

Luckily for me, the citizens of this great city are hungry for this art.  Why?  What is it we offer?

Imagine, for a moment, that your favorite band, the Supremes, REM, Pink Martini, you name it, takes up residency here in the Schnitz.  Here they’d begin to play two or three shows a weekend to crowded halls.

Now imagine that same band after nine month’s worth of concerts, almost every single weekend. Do you imagine that they could still sell tickets to thousands of paying fans?  What about after a decade of concerts?

With all due respect, they could not.  The Oregon Symphony Orchestra does this every single year and has done so for decades.  A symphony orchestra offers a variety of repertory, a depth of emotional content, and a sophisticated presentation that outshines every other performance art.

In this day and age of push button entertainment, we offer a truly live, truly local, truly organic form of arts entertainment that remains relevant precisely because of its rejection of cheap digital replicability.

You cannot download a concert hall full of fellow citizens to share the cheering after an exciting Tchaikovsky Finale.

You cannot stream the emotional tension of watching a great soloist negotiate a difficult concerto.

You cannot experience the bone shaking fortissimo of a Mahler Symphony on an iPad screen or through tiny plastic earbuds.

The benefit you offer this city is an engaging community experience that is unmediated by beeping gadgets and gizmos.

Your support helps to conserve this tradition of great depth and value for future generations.  You are lighting the next candle.  Thank you for all that you do.

Charles Reneau