Wednesday, September 22, 2010

New Paradigm

Perhaps the Young Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra from Seattle Conservatory of Music is on the right track. A self-governing group of highly skilled and motivated teen-aged musicians, they select their own programs, choose  coaches, and host auditions. I happened to be present at one session and witnessed the process of voting in a new cellist. "Tell us about yourself," said one member of the committee. "How many years have you been studying cello and what school do you attend?" After a brief round of questions, the panel of young musicians voted, and chose to offer the cellist a position. What followed was a vigorous reading of Mendelssohn's Octet.

As I see it, this is the first step in broadening an awareness for future job skills and creating a new paradigm. While orchestras throughout the nation are undergoing a crisis of identity and dealing with economic uncertainty, conservatory students are encouraged to become entrepreneurs, and figure out ways to effectively manage arts organizations. How else to survive in the 21st century with the arts pushed to the periphery?

The Young Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra is learning about proprietorship along with the rudiments of ensemble playing. The musicians might take this valuable experience even farther by designing programs, creating discussion groups, and hosting post-concert forums. They might adventure into public speaking and creative writing as a means to connect with audiences. Economics, as in what makes an ensemble sustainable, should be integrated into the conservatory curriculum. The students might be asked to balance organizational costs with ticket revenue. Since the public sector can no longer be relied upon for regular hand-outs, and funding sources are strained, these youngsters might help to create an effective business model.

That being said, as I follow the news of Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and the impending strike or lock-out by the end of this week, I recognize the tell-tale symptoms of cultural-entitlement mentality. The veteran players are unwilling to accept work-rule changes, such as splintering into smaller groups and participation in community outreach for less compensation, even though their survival depends on it. At a time when the city is in desperate financial straits, supporting a symphony orchestra is obviously not top priority. Musicians who maintain they must be paid what they believe they deserve, regardless of what the rest of Detroit's society has endured by way of depressed economy, are deluding themselves. As the late Ernest Fleischmann, executive leader of the Los Angeles Philharmonic said in his 1987 commencement address to the Cleveland Institute of Music,"The orchestra is dead. Long live the community of musicians." DSO might replace the entitlement attitude with gratitude for having playing jobs. Besides, why would a cut in salary for a musician be any more devastating than for an auto worker?

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