Thursday, February 4, 2010

In Reverse

It's interesting how dreams unlock the prison which is our mind. Often, in my sleep, I step back into the past and play beautiful concerts for appreciative audiences. Sometimes, an apology emanates from the lips of a baton wielder who inflicted undue pain and suffering on my family, but I soon wake up and realize it's only a dream. This reminds me of an interview I heard when Christopher Reeves "Superman" spoke of the sadness he'd feel after awakening from dreams after his tragic accident. During dream state, not only could Reeves move his arms and legs, but he could soar through the skies as Superman. Sleep must have acted as a balm. But then, he'd awaken to reality; a quadriplegic with no hope of recovery.

Lately, I've awakened from dreams in which my car is going wildly in reverse. At dare-devil speed, there's nothing that can be done to stop my Eurovan, and I'm strapped to my seat. There's a dose of rationality here;  Ilkka, as a Finnish driver, tends to leave me white-knuckled in the passenger seat. But I think this recurring dream could be indicative of our lives in music, especially as I witness a reversing trend in the arts throughout this country.

Jean Godden wrote a thoughtful article which states that even in the best of times, the arts are strapped. As she points out, it's a struggle just to keep the stage lights on. With supporters and donors diminishing during economic hard times, and younger people less willing to subsidize for the "finer things in life", organizations will be forced to downsize their way into sustainability. We're experiencing a recalibration period, a gradual return to a responsible business model that, in the end, will hopefully become financially stable. I remember my former days in the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble that was made to vanish a few years ago. From the moment I stepped in the door, each day was a fight for survival, with board members, management and players at loggerheads as to how to keep the group viable. One elderly board member, bless his heart, took out a second mortgage on his home to try and save the orchestra.

When Ilkka and I first moved to Seattle from Los Angeles in 1984, many of the local musicians were employed in areas outside of music. There were a couple of bass players that side-lined in carpentry, a violinist friend who delivered pizza, a cellist who worked for Boeing. In those days, the Seattle Symphony was not a guaranteed full time salary. If I remember correctly, there were A contracts and B contracts; left over vestiges of an era when not everyone was entitled to full membership, yet players were grateful to play. As I became acquainted with Seattle freelancers who eked out their paltry livings by piecing together an assortment of church gigs, wedding dates, and private teaching, I realized that well paying opportunities were going to be limited in the Pacific Northwest. Obviously, if Ilkka and I had preferred the material world, we would have remained in Los Angeles.

The orchestras on life support or listed as Do Not Resuscitate are growing longer each day in this area. Everett Symphony is the latest casualty. Bellevue Symphony, while paying its musicians minimum wage (a whopping $8 per hour) might consider a return to its former community orchestra status, as it was in its heyday.

As one might expect, arts organizations are playing it safe with programming, dumbing down to the lowest common denominator. Unlike our European counterparts who can venture into challenging new repertoire, less fearful of risk taking due to government subsidies, artists in this country have little chance of growing their skills. In America, box office and senior donors rule.

Remember that nice little phrase: Time to move forward?
Try reverse.

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