A Plea for Clemensy

I’m conscious of the practice of  defaulting to the Chinese… or Mark Twain… when trying to attribute a quote – but in this case, I’m fairly certain there’s a traditional Chinese curse that states “May you live in interesting times.” According to Ben Cameron, the industry guru from the Doris Duke Foundation we heard speak on Friday, the entire classical music industry has been thus execrated for over a century (although presumably not by the Chinese), with the interesting times rarely if ever relieved by periods of stability and growth.

Ben’s an extraordinarily engaging , energetic speaker, but given the state of the industry, he’s only the latest in a long line of well-informed Cassandras resolutely cold-shouldered by the performing arts. His is an important voice calling for change, but sometimes I get the feeling that the performing arts just aren’t listening. In their partial defense, there have also been many ill-informed prophets of doom over the years peddling apocalyptic clichés concerning live music or dance, none of which have come to pass. Still, that doesn’t excuse the static, almost moribund nature of the sector.

I have some direct personal experience with this systemic intransigence. About two years ago I was a finalist for a conducting position with a professional Canadian orchestra, an organization I forbear to name.  The audition process was somewhat unusual in that the conducting component came first, after which two finalists were chosen to be interviewed.  During my interview, I spoke, as I always do, about my belief in the need for orchestras to develop a participatory culture in audiences, while referencing el Sistema-like ideals.  They couldn’t show me the door fast enough. It’s almost superfluous to add that I didn’t get the job.

But I recall very well the reaction on the faces of the people around me. It was fear: cold, rank fear. They had stumbled along for however many years and were content to continue stumbling, because the only alternative they could envision to the status quo was utter collapse. Again, I don’t fault them entirely for this attitude, because in the past that might have been true. In the face of larger economic and social changes, however, it felt like a policy of “don’t rock the (leaky) boat” while remaining oblivious to the tidal wave about to demolish the dinghy. That simile reminds me of  a western US conservatory, in which the student society rejected a proposal to fund lessons to disadvantaged but talented children, in favour of continuing to make capital purchases on behalf of the school. (In this policy they were aided and abetted by the conservatory leadership, who saw the society funds as existing solely to supplement their own purchasing budget.) The tidal wave hit: the society’s funding was reduced by NINETY  percent ($5000 dollars down to $500) by the student senate. Clearly, the consequences of doing nothing can be as dire as the consequences of doing something – and personally, I’d prefer to make apologies for having acted rather than having failed to act. Perhaps that’s just me.

Frankly, most music conservatories are as happy in their quicksand as their professional performing counterparts. The schools view themselves as the guardians of a sacred and ancient tradition, in which “innovation” is limited to the painfully esoteric area of computer music or the pointless, ever-changing realm of “music business” as viewed only through the narrow lens of technology. New England Conservatory is a startling exception to the rule: the fact that Abreu Fellows Program even exists speaks volumes about the leadership. In the world of musical academia, where schools cling to “the most recent bad performance” like the emperor to new clothes, it takes incredible vision and commitment to break the normal mold and support an alternative vision of the future of music.

The alternate vision is only one half of what is required to compel system-wide change. The other half is simple: not to decry or denounce the current model, but render it obsolete. As Mark Twain (might have?) said : “A person with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.” Change is coming, of that you can be certain. We can either lead it, or be left behind by it.

And if you want to use that quote, please credit me and not Mark Twain.

2 thoughts on “A Plea for Clemensy

  1. Dear Jonathon:

    I read your Articles from the Phonograph – “Taking Beethoven to the Bank” with great interest. As you discuss the need for innovation in the funding of Music, I could not help but reflect on what was lacking in the minds of those in the financial industry who have led our planet to the economic brink recently. What was missing in their ability to see the entire score and interpret its counterpoint? Why were they not able to imagine where the music would take us?

    Something you wrote made me ask:
    What kind of life skills are we providing the next generation if their education does not include music? Will it be only the privileged who understand the technology their futures will be built on? And how will they appreciate the impact of their judgments on the lives of their fellow man when applying that technology? In the face of what almost occurred recently it makes my heart pound in my chest.

    In our drive to prepare the next generation with technical skills, how will they be able to bring the discernment of their hearts and their souls into the process of evaluating their vision of reality? Will they have the sensory integration to make sense of it all and rescue their earthly home from harm’s way? How will they have any chance of coming face to face with those higher angels with in themselves?

    If we are going to ask our fellow citizens to contribute their hard earned time, effort and cash for the arts programs in their community, we need to communicate why music is significant to their survival in a way that is as timely and salient to their experience as possible.

    When you finally find time to gather the words and wisdom for the essay topic below, I am all ears.

    “We need to think of the role that music plays in our social fabric as a matter of base survival.” – J Govias

  2. Hi Jonathan,

    I think you raise a good point about the state of orchestras, and how they need to change in order to survive. Recently, Arts Journal (artsjournal.com) has posted several articles on why the orchestra model needs to change and the bankruptcy of the Hawaii Symphony! Orchestras need to become more relevant and present in our lives, and outreach/community engagement is definitely one way of doing that.

    Currently, I write for the blog for From the Top (greenroom.fromthetop.org), a radio show that features very talented kids who play classical music. I’d like to raise the issue of the need for orchestras to change and reference this blog post. Would that be okay? Your story about your conducting interview is an inside look that many people would be interested in reading!

    Thanks for keeping a blog! I’m very interested in reading about your experiences. And please tell David Malek that he should have a blog, as well!

    Jane Park

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