6 days ago
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.