The Value of Regional Orchestras

The Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout has been making waves in the classical music internets for a provocative column questioning (in light of the Pasadena Symphony’s recent troubles) whether “regional orchestras” have any value in today’s musical world:

[T]his leads me to ask a tough question that nobody in the music business ever asks, at least not out loud: What, if anything, justifies the existence of a regional symphony orchestra in the 21st century? Many people still believe that an orchestra is a self-evidently essential part of what makes a city civilized. But is this true?..
Most, after all, offer a predictable mix of ultrafamiliar classics and soufflé-light pops programs. If I lived in a city with such an orchestra, would I attend its concerts? A century ago I would have said yes, because live performances were the only way to hear music you didn’t make yourself. But downloading and the iPod have made it possible to hear great music whenever and wherever you want. Is there any point in going to hear a pretty good live performance of a chestnut like Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations” or the Schumann Piano Concerto, all of which figure prominently on Pasadena’s five subscription programs for the 2010-11 season? For a fast-growing number of Americans, the answer is no.
I speak as a devout believer in the power and permanence of Western classical music. But if I were the head of the Podunk Foundation and had to choose between funding the Podunk Philharmonic and a nonmusical group identical in quality to Palm Beach Dramaworks or the Nelson-Atkins Museum, I’d dump the orchestra in a heartbeat. The best regional theater companies and museums provide an aesthetic experience that cannot be duplicated by any other means. Not so third-tier orchestras. Their primary historic function has been rendered obsolete by technology, in much the same way that many of the historic functions of regional newspapers have been usurped by the web. You don’t have to buy a ticket to the Podunk Philharmonic to hear Beethoven’s Seventh any more than you have to buy the Podunk Times to figure out what movie to see on Saturday night.

Terry Teachout is a professional troll, but there have been many spirited defenses of America’s orchestras going around. Charles Noble, a violist with the Oregon symphony defends regional orchestras as a sort of musical farm league, allowing local players to get better and play classical music. Sound and Fury snarks that perhaps, if Teachout is satisfied with MP3s on iPods, he should forego art museums and theater in favor of coffee table books and DVDs. David Stabler, classical music critic for The Oregonian, writes that the communal experience of being in an auditorium and listening to a piece of music at the same time as hundreds of people is a rare experience in today’s world. I myself wondered if we should get rid of most of the NBA just because only a handful of teams could be champions.
Teachout’s argument makes me sad. I appreciate the local orchestras I’ve patronized throughout my life for both tangible and less tangible reasons. I find listening to music–just listening–very hard. A live orchestra provides a visual accompaniment to the music. It’s for this reason that I prefer YouTube videos of unfamiliar works to recordings where possible. If not, I use a score. I think it has to do with mirror neurons; by watching the musicians, I get to feel a little bit of what it feels like to directly manipulate the sound.
I also think that a reliance on recordings for the “quality” or “right” performance is a crutch that hurts music in the long term. The mentality that if you’re not going to hear (or produce) a perfect performance, then the whole thing is worthless runs counter to individual participation with music. Why participate in a community softball league if nobody is going to the world series? It’s a ridiculous standard that is not applied to any other part of community life, but this gets confused by the quality and ubiquity of recordings.
By coincidence, the same day that I read that Teachout article, I came across this BBC report on the Kimbanguist Symphony Orchestra, the only orchestra in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It has been making music for over 25 years, amid neverending war and strife. There’s a video in the report, and one can tell immediately that it’s not the highest quality orchestra in the world–exactly the kind of ensemble that Teachout questions. You can tell from the video that every member of the orchestra is dedicated to the mission of the ensemble–the music director describes how in the orchestra’s firs years of operations, there were only five violins for twelve violinists.
Not every regional orchestra has the problems of the Kimbanguist SO, but the root problems are universal: maintaining funding in uncertain economies without government support, growing an audience, balancing artistic ambition with financial considerations. Some of those questions only apply to the orchestras, while others apply to classical music as a whole. None of them can be solved with an iPod.

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