The 6/12/2010 edition of the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “The Zero Option; Do regional orchestras still make artistic sense?” by renowned culture journalist Terry Teachout. I was planning on writing something about it but instead, I decided it would be better to reprint one of the reader comments to Teachout’s article…
The comment’s author is Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra principal tuba, Craig Knox and is reprinted with his permission.
If a reader is not careful, he may be so distracted by the inaccuracies contained in this column that he will miss entirely the faulty reasoning on which the article is based. While claiming he “is not calling for the disbanding of the Pasadena Symphony or any other regional orchestra”, Terry Teachout does just that, saying he “would dump the [Podunk] orchestra in a heartbeat”. It is hard to take comfort in Mr. Teachout’s assertion that he is a “devout believer in the power and permanence of Western classical music” who is simply trying to help by attempting to “cast new light on an old problem”; with concerned supporters like Mr. Teachout, small orchestras hardly need worry about their sworn enemies.
Teachout begins by brandishing the Knight Foundation’s recommendation that some orchestras may need to “re-examine how they define their constituencies and how they select, package and deliver their musical products”. Somehow, he then “translates” this into a recommendation of “Less Schubert, more ‘Star Wars'”. A cursory examination of the Knight report shows no such absurd simplification. In fact, many of the examples cited in the report are of ensembles (such as the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the New World Symphony) which partner with other arts institutions – such a local art museums – to present topical programs in unusual locations. Luckily, Mr. Teachout would preserve the art museums, so presumably those initiatives will be able to continue.
Teachout then betrays his bias as a drama critic, saying that while the justification for small theater companies is “self-evident”, small orchestras can enjoy no such privilege. He bases this claim soley on the fact that theater companies such as Palm Beach Dramaworks mount “first-class productions of a sophisticated repertory”, including “challenging shows” by Ionesco. “Most” regional orchestras, he says matter-of-factly, offer a “predictable mix of ultrafamiliar classics and soufflé-light pops”. Performances by the local theater, he says, “cannot be duplicated by any other means”, while the familiar classics of the local orchestra can just as easily be heard on iTunes. Thinking about this for more than a few seconds, one wonders if Mr. Teachout has heard of the DVD player (or the VCR before that, or “Masterpiece Theater” before that for god sakes). Why is it that Teachout so glibly replaces live music performance with recordings, but submits as “self-evident” the fact that drama cannot in any way be duplicated outside of the theater? Even accepting Teachout’s theory, however, there is still the matter of the facts. On what does he base the claim that most regional orchestras play unadventurous programs? On the Pasadena Symphony 2010-11 schedule, which he points out contains such tired standards as Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The fact that their season also contains a work by Philip Glass and a concerto for kanun (about as novel a concerto offering as you can get) notwithstanding, the tiniest bit of research would unearth small regional orchestra schedules throughout the country which are rich with performances of “sophisticated” works. A simple google-search reveals that the 2010-11 season of the Santa Rosa Symphony – a similarly-sized organization a few hundred miles to the north of Pasadena – includes works by Berio, Berg and Gubaidulina (all of those every bit as “challenging” as Ionesco), as well as the commission of a world-premiere work by Aubert Lemeland.
I realize that Teachout’s article is a “thought experiment”, but its premise is as poorly thought out and supported as someone asking: given the availability of quality music criticism in, say, the New York Times, do we really need comment on the state of American music from the drama critics of financial papers? The pity is that American classical music institutions – small and large – are indeed challenged in these times and do need to adapt, and there is a need for intelligent and informed discussion.