Here Lies the Orchestra

The Humboldt Hotel, the mountain-top edifice in Caracas that was at one time the symbol of Venezuela’s progress before being abandoned and rendered derelict, is apparently close to reopening at exorbitant cost, with the joke being that few if any Caraceños could ever afford to stay there. The story serves as a discomfiting evolutionary metaphor, which is why in a prior posting I referenced the history of the building as a potential parallel to the development of Sistema. In a comment on the same posting, Geoff Baker went one step further:

Another image with which you might have ended is the opulent and hugely expensive new Sistema HQ nearing completion in the midst of a rapidly deteriorating Caracas – a shining symbol of El Sistema’s success in hoovering up vast amounts of public money without having any appreciable effect on wider society.

To be fair to Maduro, as fair as one can be to an over-promoted bus driver who sneaks empanadas on live TV while his constituents starve, crude oil was trading at near historic highs when the decisions were made about both these projects. That doesn’t change the fact that Baker is right, but this particular misuse of public funds isn’t limited to Sistema or South America: it seems to be the prerogative of classical music internationally. The big story in Britain is yet another vanity project concert hall planned for London. In the US, it’s in San Antonio where the local symphony has announced its impending collapse short of a drastic change in financial circumstances.

I take a very dim view of the orchestra industry in North America in general, perhaps an odd position for a conductor but one formed by manifest experience within it. Canadian and American orchestras have for the most part perfected the theater of innovation, also known as the art of appearing to evoke change while in fact happily maintaining the status quo. The old argument for funding, that of value and importance to the community, is brought forth time and again, though in practice it represents a minimal expenditure of resources on a few badly designed educational programs led by the lowest person on the conducting staff. Larger orchestras can afford larger theatrical productions, and big orchestras on both coasts have virtually perfected the art of presenting the trappings of large social change for the purposes of soliciting funding, while achieving very little in practice.

As a one-time aspirant to the lowest person on the conducting staff, I auditioned at the San Antonio Symphony more than a few years ago. As part of the process I was asked to present a short introduction of a work I was to conduct, as if introducing an educational concert. This I did, but to the raised eyebrows of orchestra and committee I delivered the entire speech in simple, if not slightly imperfect Spanish, as if speaking to a young audience.

At a subsequent portion of the process, I was interviewed by the chief administrative officer of the organization.  Well, it wasn’t really an interview, it was more of a monologue as he admonished me for my temerity for having spoken Spanish, while waving a pudgy finger in my face. His argument was that the Hispanic population of San Antonio (which by some counts exceeds 60%) would be insulted by the gesture, particularly the “old families” of the city, long since assimilated into the American fabric, who would view my approach as a grotesque condescension.

Perhaps he was right, perhaps my introduction would have caused offense to the Spanish-speaking families that supported the Symphony … both of them.  My take is that he thought I was showing off (well, I was) and that it was his job to put me in my place. But even then, he didn’t see possibility, only threat – so imagine how more revolutionary ideas about outreach might have gone down. Needless to say I didn’t get the job, but I don’t think I conducted particularly well at that audition, so I bear no personal grudge against the symphony.

That administrator has moved on, and so have I. I don’t see innovation being led by a zombie-like industry which insists on repeating the same lines while rarely if ever living up to them, but then again, expecting social leadership from symphony orchestras is basically the same as demanding showjumping from a cow. Professional groups, operating under collective bargaining agreements, are not inclined, designed, or aligned for progressive social action, and it would take seismic upheaval in the very nature of their business model for the necessary reorientation to take place.

I have my own lines that I repeat ad infinitum, and when it comes to issues of music sustainability, the line is simple: if you want to be supported, be worth supporting. Identify and deliver genuine impact, in the many forms it can take beyond an annual performance for school groups. I currently lead the orchestra program at a large American university, and although that comes with its own operational limitations, I’ve also done my damnedest to live up to my own values and vision in building the area both operationally and pedagogically. It hasn’t been easy or without friction: if there’s any sector more resistant than orchestras to new ways of thinking, it would be academia. Nonetheless, I want my orchestra to be the exception to the industry rule, the ensemble that is supported because it is worth supporting.

I do not claim direct social change. I claim that my program exposes students to many forms of genuine musical activism and encourages them to explore them. Given the number of graduates I’ve had recruited by regional Sistema programs, I think my claim is justifiable.

Growth, much like learning, is never linear, much though we pretend or hope otherwise. And much like Caraceño hotels, individuals, institutions, and sectors take steps forward and then backwards, sometimes compelled by external pressures, sometimes undone by internal lapses. This is perfectly natural and pretty much unavoidable. The only – only – safeguard available for orchestras and Sistema programs in times of regression is honesty and transparency about plans, inevitable failures, revised objectives and means to achieve them. The rampant self-deception on the part of symphonies simply accelerates the process of decay. If there’s a lesson here, one that the orchestra industry continues to show, it’s that the most damaging lies are the ones we tell ourselves.

An extreme example of symphonic decay. Don’t worry, it’s just a stage they’re going through.

3 thoughts on “Here Lies the Orchestra

  1. If these organizations were serious about the social impact of music as an agent for change they would be starting with urban underserved preschoolers. Everything else will follow.

    1. I don’t think everything has to be about children. There are many ways to achieve social impact – pick one and deliver.

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