Performing Gustav Mahler In Abject Squalor

Perhaps classical music isn’t so far removed form cultural consciousness than we thought.  On last evening’s episode of The Simpsons, the town of Springfield’s Cultural Advisory Board determines that the best way to raise their cultural standing compared to their refined neighbors in Shelbyville is to build a new concert hall.

To put themselves at the cusp of the cultural edge they contact Frank Gehry to design their hall (Mr. Gehry has a fabulous house and a mailbox patterned after his Disney Hall design).  After skimming over their request letter Gehry crumples it up and throws it on the ground only to have the same crumpled paper inspire him to design the hall anyway (at which point he also declares himself to be a genius – he did his own voice for the episode; he must be a good sport).

I’m already a Simpson’s fan so combining that with timely events torn from the cultural headlines made for a very entertaining episode.  Beyond the fact that the episode was the first television program to actually make me laugh out loud in a long time it could also be useful as a training film for orchestra managers and Cultural Advisory Board’s across the country.

The episode if rife with the same real life drama involved with performing arts center projects.  You’ve got the sincerely concerned members of the Springfield Cultural Advisory Board who justify the expense of the new hall by proclaiming,

“The Philharmonic is playing Gustav Mahler in abject squalor!”

Then there’s the opportunistic mayor who sees the project as a rallying point to gain public support and convinces the townspeople that,

“This will be our $30 million Screw You Shelbyville!”

The episode is rife with cultural stereotypes:

  • The Springfield Philharmonic currently performs in a gymnasium.
  • When one of the clarinet players responds to getting hit with a basket ball (remember, they perform in a gymnasium but they only get to use half of the basketball court) he answers with a noticeable lisp in his voice and throws the ball back like a little girl.
  • On the opening night of the concert hall, the orchestra performs Beethoven’s Fifth, and after the first two bum-bum-bum-bum phrases the audience rises in unison and promptly heads for the exits.
  • While leaving, one patron turns to his companion and says “I thought this was going to be the soundtrack to the movie Beethoven, was I sadly mistaken” (yes, I’m sure it’s supposed to be ironic) whereas his companion responds with “Sounds better on my cell phone” and on cue his phone goes off with the same opening phrase to Beethoven’s Fifth; beep-beep-beep-beep.
  • In an effort to keep the people from leaving the hall one of the more dedicated Cultural Advisory Board members rises up to say “Don’t leave now, the next piece is an atonal medley by Phillip Glass” at which point the audience stampedes for the exits (including the orchestra musicians).

The next day we see the marquee in front of the new concert hall read “SYMPHONY TICKETS HALF PRICE!” which quickly fades into “XXX MOVIES ALL DAY” and finally changes into “AN EVENING WITH DAVID BRENNER”.

At the next town meeting, Springfield’s mayor berates the citizens saying,

“You stupid hicks, why didn’t you tell me you hated classical music? Now we’re broke!”

Whereas the citizens respond by stating that they didn’t have time because the hall was designed and built so quickly (it’s safe to say the episode wasn’t a parody of Miami).

Undoubtedly, the wonks in this business will have a hay day with this episode, saying it’s a representative example of what happens when you don’t do economic impact studies or attempt to overbuild cultural endeavors and so on and so forth.

But the reality is that this episode shows everyone in this business exactly what sort of mindset up we’re up against.  If you’re an arts manager and you don’t laugh at this episode (get from a friend who saved it on Tivo) then you probably can’t figure out why you aren’t able to attract an audience either.

This episode is a representative example of the fact that cultural stereotypes are not only continuing to run strong but those stereotypes are no longer associated with just people, they’re for everything associated with cultural activities; including the boom-bust cycle related with many new performing arts centers (by the way, Springfield solved their financial problem by allowing a private interest to convert the building into a prison).

Springfield built a shiny new hall and everyone showed up when it opened, but because their public didn’t know how to appreciate the art they didn’t stick around.  There’s a lot to think about in all of that

Postscript: At least the writers knew enough about what’s going on in this business to make accurate stereotypes.  We’re not dead yet!

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

Related Posts