Monday, June 14, 2010

Welcome to Philly

The big music news 'round these parts today is the selection of 35 year-old Yannick Nézet-Séguin as the next director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The Inqy's Peter Dobrin has the full story here. I like this headshot they're circulating of Yannick; the short hair is a definite improvement over the longer spikier thing he's usually seen in.

The Orchestra has been in rough shape these past few years, with severe financial problems. Philly is not a wealthy town, and it's hard to support an expensive band like this one. The press release I got about the appointment tried mightily to sound as excited as possible about Yannick, clearly trying to draw parallels to Dudamel-mania. And who knows, maybe having a good-looking young Canadian at the helm will help things.

May I be blunt, however? The real problem with the Philadelphia Orchestra is an institutional culture of snobbery and conservatism. I say this knowing plenty of great people who work and play on Broad Street. It's not the fault of any one person, even the recent music directors. But you frequently hear complaints about disrespectful treatment of concertgoers, especially if one is involved in student rush or any low-priced ticket situations; I've experienced that myself. The repertoire that gets played is invariably stodgy, even the new commissions, and the moldy oldies are often pretty moldy. I still mentally fall asleep everytime I remember hearing Eschenbach do Le Sacre a few years back. Granted I'm spoiled from having grown up with the San Francisco Symphony as my hometown orchestra, and then spent four years in LA during the Esa-Pekka reign.

Why the stodgery in Philadelphia? I think part of the answer to that question lies in the city's own deeply institutionalized snobbery. Philadelphia was the height of this country's high culture for a very long time, and it never really came to grips with the end of that era. The wealthy suburbs of the Main Line are beautiful and quaint, but the dirty secret is that there isn't actually that much money in them compared to NYC, DC, or Boston, let alone the West Coast. I have a lawyer friend moving here from California, and he quickly realized that there wasn't a single corporate law firm in the city as big or prestigious as where he's coming from. Native Philadelphians (I am obviously not one myself) are always quick to brag about having the nation's first public library, first zoo, first stock exchange, etc. But that all happened a long time ago. The Philadelphia Story would never be set here today.

This produces a situation in which Philadelphia clings rather desperately to its now faded icons of high culture, and in a sad tautology therefore enforces upon those icons a conservatism that actually bleeds them of their vitality. High art institutions in NYC, and especially in SF and LA, don't have that kind of insecurity, and are therefore able to experiment and push boundaries.

So I hope that Yannick is able to take a stab at this problem, at least in his corner of the Kimmel Center. But I also don't care that much. I think Philadelphia would be surprised at how little we'd miss the Orchestra if it disappeared. All of that fading high culture actually produces a really great city to live in. The arts scene here is tremendously vibrant, spurred on by housing and living costs that are much cheaper than the other big east coast cities. Mary and I are moving next month into the most desirable neighborhood in the city, and you would not believe how cheap it is. There are fabulous restaurants, a great music scene, tons of artists running around, lots of cozy little neighborhood bars with local beers, what's not to love. There are lots of schools, great chamber ensembles, community choruses, everything you could want. Who needs an expensive storage facility for Mahler? Not me.*

*Obviously I would miss the steady employment for a bunch of the world's best orchestral musicians and then the trickle-down effect of that on the city's musical economy. But allow me some rhetorical excess here.


cpo said...

I know a lot of people involved in the music scene in Philly, and I wonder how many of them even think about Philadelphia Orchestra, like ever. Funny.

joe musicology said...

Yo Buddy, shut up and eat a friggin' Steak-Umm! From the git-go yous a placard for gentrification. If yous don't like the philly orchestra why don't yous give the a shot and drink yer fancy Heine kins at the Deerpahk Tavern in da small wonda? Yous sad der aint no "big corporate law firm?" Da Main Line ain't rich enough fer ya? Do you believe this guy? Mahler's da man baby, and da philly orch is one a da big five baby! As fer dose fancy pantsy Calerfornia orchestras, in 1932 Philly played Hank Cowell's first big orchestral thingie and four years later yous Calorfernia folks sent him to the pokey. And fer what? Talk about hipstercritical! Better yet, why don't yous put down the Heiny, pick up a yuengling and get over yer "edgy" self?*

*can I have some rhetorical excess too? Please?

Ralph Locke said...

I heard Andrew Davis conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in Vaughan Williams's Fifth Symphony about seven years ago, soon after the Kimmel Center opened. It was an intensely memorable performance, in the good sense. Except that the acoustics were odd: certain high-pitched instruments jumped out of the texture, at least where I was sitting. I imagine they've been able to tune the hall to make things smoother since then.
An orchestra and its long season of concerts is always an immensely variable enterprise, and listeners will vary as well in what they bring to the experience and take from it.
My impression is that the Phila. Orch. has done a lot of community outreach. Which isn't to say that more can't be done (given good financial support--I don't know the details of all this).
Perhaps somebody at the Phila. Orch. could bring us all up to date on what is already being done and what is in the works at the Orchestra to help knit the Orchestra--and symphonic music--more closely to the larger community. It's a challenge that lots of orchestras are facing. Perhaps a bigger challenge among older orchestras in declining cities, as Phil implies.
Thanks for raising these important issues!

cpo said...

Yes, because the only options are to be whatever you're trying to be or the educated elite? I grew up going to see the Philadelphia Orchestra's kid concerts, and came to this blog (a favorite of mine!) right after 1. reading a long messageboard discussion about live music in Philly and 2. explaining to a non-musician about how the term "music" is often used as an exclusionary term (in this case we were interviewing people that kept on referring to "music" and "what they listen to"). This post is great, but the first sentence made me giggle.