Monday, April 18, 2011

The City That Has Fallen

A strong sense of beauty somehow clung to the mental image of the town, even to one who, as I, had never seen the place, its glamour always had a sort of hidden foreboding in it. There was ever the same suggestion of lethal malefic genius behind all the story that was told of its curiously morbidezza, amorousness of the day, and its childlike desire to forget the night. It was too far, as it sometimes seemed, and in the glory in which it lay and in which it lingered in thought, there seemed something of a light that held a pale tone of bale back of all its bliss. Its people loved it with that intensity with which we love what we are likely to lose. William Marion Reedy (h/t)

Despite having adopted Philly in recent years, I am a San Franciscan in birth and heritage. I haven't been back very much since I went off to college in 1998, especially now that my parents live elsewhere, and whenever I do return the city grows less and less recognizable. In 1998 the internet boom had started but had not yet fully transformed the city; there was no Pac Bell Park or expensive farmers market in the Ferry Building. It was impossible to look at the waterfront and in your mind's eye not see the horrible Embarcadero Freeway rushing by. Traces of the 1989 earthquake were, in fact, still visible everywhere--scaffolding intermittently going up to do repairs, various operations to buttress sagging walls, and condemned buildings still pitting the city. I was back in the city for a wedding this fall, and it was as beautiful as ever, but I felt like a tourist. Certainly my parents could never afford to live there now, at least not in a two-bedroom apartment in the Marina they rented from a retired Italian barber for a ludicrously low price in the 1970s.

Something about the annual observance of the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake. Over a century later, the city still observes it, and I'm glad it does. I had family in the city back then; I think it was my great-great grandfather's generation? Something like that. Recent enough in the past that my grandmother knows stories about her grandfather (I think it was?) sitting on a hill at the Presidio watching the city burn down. That's the quintessential San Francisco experience, as Reedy says, loving something you know you are going to lose.

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.