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Friday, June 21, 2013

The Days, My Friend

Gazette’s Loss Dept.: In 1990 the idea was floated around the Schenectady Gazette that I might merit a column. I wrote a few samples for the arts editor. Nothing ever came to fruition. I’ve posted other examples here and here; below is a piece depressingly prescient. Since the departure of Charles Dutoit as the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Saratoga-season music director, the programming has grown more ridiculous still. (But you can see Dutoit conduct the BSO at Tanglewood this summer Aug. 3, 4, and 6.)


I'M BETTING THAT Charles Dutoit is going to give the Saratoga Performing Arts Center the musical personality it needs. It’s been touch and go since Eugene Ormandy died, a man whose charisma may have been exceeding his conducting ability towards the end.

Charles Dutoit
The Dennis Russell Davies interlude of the past few summers was a proud and exciting period, forcing a bemused crowd of racing enthusiasts to confront the works of such non-mainstream composers as Lou Harrison and Philip Glass and William Bolcolm (guys still alive, yet).

Brahms and Schubert and Beethoven were in there, too, so as not to make the name-chasers too nervous. Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma have been tossed at us fairly regularly because it’s nice to see someone live whom you’ve seen on Johnny Carson.

But Dutoit has already been making comments in the same wild, no-nonsense manner he adopts with the baton. Confronted with the charge that this summer’s programming for the Philadelphia Orchestra at SPAC is too heavily weighted with warhorses, he tossed the ball right back to Philadelphia.

“We don’t believe it’s fair to the audience or the composer or the musicians to present music that isn’t well prepared. And there just isn’t rehearsal time enough to prepare these new works in the summer. So we’re relying on pieces that have been played during the orchestra’s regular season.”

In other words, he’s confirming what we were kind of guessing all along: the musicians would like a little vacation too, you know.

And the folks in Philadelphia haven’t been asking for that non-mainstream stuff.

I don’t interpret his comments to mean that the players aren’t going to prepare for the August concerts. On the contrary: Dutoit and the orchestra both have reputations to maintain. They’re professionals who want to do a good job.

In fact, I think it’s kind of nice that they’ll be asked to concentrate their energies on the already-played, then take some time to relax on Broadway or Phila Street or wherever they like to hang out in Saratoga. Place few bets at the track. Catch some polo. By the time they hit the stage they’ll be in a good frame of mind for high-passion playing (assuming nobody loses a bundle on some plug that sits down seconds out of the gate).

What worries me is the Philadelphia Music Diet. We’re getting their menu, and it’s been pretty well chewed over.

The problem begins with the expense of the orchestras. Keeping a 70- or 80-piece full-time ensemble going racks up a few bills. Who pays them? Not the audience. We’ve seen the graphs_ticket prices cover very little. Grant money covers a lot, but grant-getting is tricky now that politicians are trying to call the cultural shots. “Jesse Helms” and “taste” fit in the same sentence only with the use of quotation marks.

Who foots the bills? Rich people. You might even see some of them at the track in August. I’m not going to batter their cultural awareness as long as they don’t try to tell the National Endowment for the Arts what to do, but you have here a handful of folk still stuck in the 1880s. They got maintenance doses of Brahms served in their silver spoons, and they want to hear it again. And again.

A few generations of composers have gone in some mighty strange directions, most of them away from the patronage system that provided so much of the repertory. If you’re a composer and you’re fretting that you stand no chance of getting your music played by the Philadelphia Orchestra anytime soon, you’re probably right. It’s like getting that novel published: publishers don’t really want to publish unpublished people.

You want Dutoit to conduct your music? Here’s what I think you should do. Hit Saratoga this August. Go to the track and adopt a rich person. Promise a specially-composed piece of music with your would-be patron’s name in the title. Make it sound like Brahms.

– 29 April 1990

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