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Tuesday, June 08, 2004


The New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross wrote a review last week of a series of concerts featuring the music of Charles Ives. He says some things that bemuse me. How is Ives’s music the embodiment of a “prankster aesthetic”? Meatily sincere, audio-visionary, bracingly life-embracing are closer to the mark, and if he’s sometimes humorous, it’s affectionate razzing rather than pulling pranks.

Ross worries that the poor turn-out for the Ives concerts along with the spectacle of many of the patrons leaving before the end will discourage orchestras from further adventures in adventurous programming. As a classical fan who’s skeptical of the special subsidized status that classical “enjoys,” this worry raises -- what’s the word? -- oh yes, “issues” for me.

Classical partisans argue that its special subsidized status derives from its superiority to other available music, combined with its commercial unviability. Leaving aside the question of superiority, if orchestras justify the government and private foundation subsidies they receive on the grounds of commercial unviability, then why do they worry if the box office does poorly and people walk out? Isn’t that part of the justification for the subsidy in the first place?

Money money money. As a semi-pro (mostly amateur) musician and amateur blogger, I have found inspiration in Charles Ives’s example. Don’t expect to be paid for doing what you love, he said, and he didn’t get paid. So, while, yes, guilty, I confess, I’m jealous of the money I don’t make from my music, that’s not the whole story. I love what I’m doing.

Which is one of the sorrows of orchestras. According to conductor Daniel Barenboim, in his book of conversations with Edward Said, “Parallels and Paradoxes,” job satisfaction among orchestral players is among the lowest of any profession. How could that be? Aren’t they getting paid a middle class salary for doing what they love?

Apparently not. Orchestral players -- in most cases -- have no say over the music they play. Even though they’re the ones producing the sounds, and what they do requires an incredibly high level of skill, higher than that enjoyed by all but the most accomplished rock and pop and country players (jazz is a different story), they have very little control over the expressive interpretive nuances of the music they don’t choose whether to play in the first place. The dude standing in front waving his arms gets to make the interpretive decisions. (Almost always a he-dude.) Sometimes the conductor isn’t even the one calling the tunes, if he’s not the artistic director. Orchestras are large complex bureaucratic organizations, which in general are alienating places to work anyway.

If orchestras-as-institutions (as distinct from orchestras-as-groups-of-musicians) are worrying about box office, there’s some bad faith somewhere. Clearly, it’s true that they couldn’t survive without the subsidies. An orchestra in London tried a few months ago and went out business within two months. But if they’re programming their shows to appeal to the widest possible orchestral audience, they’re laboring under commercial considerations.

I’m not saying they shouldn’t worry about box office. Alex Ross thinks the Ives concerts could have had better box office with better outreach and education. I say, if these giant organizations are sucking up hundreds of thousands of dollars of grant money, they should be selling tickets for cheap. That would help box office.

I pity the unhappy workers of the world, orchestral workers included. It’s hard for me to listen to records when I know that someone within earshot doesn’t like the music. (No Albert Ayler when my beloved spouse is in the room.) After reading what Daniel Barenboim had to say about unhappy orchesters, hearing orchestral music will haunt me.

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