Sunday, April 17, 2011

Life After Mahler

"Let's face it. There are very few things left in Philadelphia that are still world class. The Philadelphia Orchestra tops the list," wrote Stuart E. Hirsch in a note to Worley and CEO Allison B. Vulgamore.

So yes, the news out of Broad Street is bad: the great Philadelphia Orchestra is declaring Chapter 11 so as to restructure its various obligations, although as Peter Dobrin points out, the obligations about which the board seems most concerned is the musicians' pension fund. The Orchestra in fact still has very substantial assets and no debt, but apparently annual operating expenses are out of whack, and they hope to work out something favorable with a bankruptcy court judge.

A lot of ink is going to be spilled on this issue for some time to come, most hinging on that anxiety voiced by Stuart Hirsch: how can Philadelphia, a relatively poor city by the standards of our East Coast neighbors (let alone international competitors), continue to maintain a world-class orchestra? I am disappointed, however, in the terms of the debate. Neither the board nor the musicians seem to be asking what I think is the more important question: what does it mean to be a world-class orchestra in the twenty-first century? Do I want Philly to have one? Hell yes! Do I think "world-class" should be equated with the ability to play Mahler better than anyone else? I really don't think so.

Just this weekend, the Delaware Symphony Orchestra did Mahler 2, with none other than the illustrious University of Delaware choirs in support, and although I was unable to attend, I gather they did a credible job of it. Would the Philly Orchestra have done a better job? Probably, but does that make us world class? In my book, to be world class means being at the forefront of the musical scene. It means challenging and educating its audiences, it means building a broader base of support for musical culture. Frankly, it means making headlines with daring (and hopefully successful) programming choices. That's what world-class orchestras do. In the year 2011, it is simply not enough to just find the best musicians in the world and let them have at the greatest hits of 1890-1910.

I mean, look at the program for next season. I attend fairly regularly, and would like to be a subscriber, but I honestly have trouble finding enough interesting concerts to justify it. There are a few warhorses I wouldn't mind hearing, but the closest thing I see to a conversation starter is a concert version of Elektra next May. The only nods to contemporary music the entire season are one work by Higdon, another by Michael Torke, and then Esa Pekka is conducting his violin concerto. You want to be world-class? Try keeping up with the world.

And it's not an either-or proposition, a world-class orchestra should be able to branch out creatively and still do a great job with Mahler 2. SF and LA have long done it, NY has started to. Stowkowski and Ormandy were our heyday because they placed the Orchestra at the center of western musical cultural in the middle of the twentieth century. It's a losing proposition to try to put today's Orchestra in the center of western musical culture of...well, sixty years ago.

So the position of this Philadelphian is as follows: I believe the Philadelphia Orchestra needs to reorganize and restructure, and maybe Chapter 11 will allow for that to happen. But we need to put musical choices at the center of the discussion, and aim for the future not the past.


Kendra said...

I was thinking about blogging about this today, too, but you've said it better than I could. The PSO programming is moribund and unadventurous, the ticket prices are too high, getting in and out of the city is a pain, and that pretty much sums up why I never go. I too hope that the reorg gets them to re-think what they choose to play, who they bring in as guest artists, and how they can reach audiences who are sick to death of the old warhorses.

Steven Baker said...

You drove me to blog about this as well. I'm moving into Brooklyn in four months to start graduate school and am happy to be getting away from the PSO. As much as I love all things Philadelphia the orchestra has made me so frustrated with their lack of vision and energy. It's not worth it for me to see concerts in Philadelphia anymore when they are cheaper, and more interesting in New York.

Oh yeah, and don't get me started on the cost of tickets and the Rush availability (or do, but I already blogged about that!)