Why Orchestras Matter

MSOWhen orchestras hit the headlines, the news is rarely good. The latest example is the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO), which announced in December that it must raise $5 million just to complete the season. Although management and the musicians have cooperated to come up with substantial cost savings, the orchestra’s survival has become highly uncertain.

But why should you care? More to the point, why should a community support an institution that cannot finance its operations out of ticket sales?

As all musicians and regular concertgoers know, the best answer to these questions can be found in the concert hall. And the MSO, in a concert I recently attended, made a strong case. The program was intriguing: it featured orchestrations by Webern and Schoenberg of works by, respectively, Bach and Brahms, as well as the Berg violin concerto (which quotes a Bach chorale). Berg’s violin concerto, dedicated to a daughter of friends who died at the age of eighteen and written during a particularly turbulent time in the composer’s life, is intensely emotional music. While considered a master piece by many this concerto is not performed often, and I had only heard recordings of it. As I was listening to the MSO’s performance with soloist Jennifer Koh, I realized that this was the first time I felt the full impact of the piece.

Classical music—which I consider to be part of America’s cultural heritage as much as it is Europe’s—truly comes to life in live concerts. This is as true for war horses as it is for lesser-known compositions. There will always be audience members for whom a performance of, say, a Beethoven or Tchaikovsky symphony is a first introduction to the work. And for those of us who have allowed ourselves to become so jaded that we yawn at the thought of sitting through yet another rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth, every once in a while we will be caught off-guard by a performance that reminds us of the work’s greatness.  (Marquette Law students, take note: at the PILS auction you can bid for tickets to Beethoven’s Ninth performed by the MSO, plus dinner at a location to be determined.)

If the MSO folds, however, Milwaukee stands to lose a lot more than the orchestra’s concerts. Having lived in Amsterdam and New York City, I was surprised to find some very innovative music initiatives in this mid-sized city. Take the new-music group Present Music. To get a flavor of the kind of stuff they do, read the announcement for their upcoming show “Temptation’s Snare,” which I hope to attend:

Danceworks Performance Company (DPC) joins Present Music (PM) in a collaboration of “new” new music inspired by “old” new music with an evening-length premiere featuring the music of Igor Stravinsky’s timeless Soldier’s Tale interspersed with new music by the hipster composers of Sleeping Giant composers collective on March 6-9, 2014 at Next Act Theatre. Together, DPC and Present Music will reimagine and reinvigorate the classic tale with a contemporary twist, with narration by special guest Jason Powell and brand new choreography by Dani Kuepper.

Don’t resist the temptation.  Come see what happens!

Or consider the chamber music series put together by the MSO’s concert master Frank Almond, under the name “Frankly Music.” This season the series includes works by Mozart and Mendelssohn, but also by Britten, Messiaen, Glass, and Rorem. Some of the participating musicians are MSO members; others are well-known musicians from all over the country. (In other bad news–horrible news, really–, as I was finalizing this blog post I learned that the Stradivarius violin on which Frank Almond has been playing was stolen from him during a vicious armed robbery after a Frankly Music concert last night. I hope the violin gets returned to him very soon.)

These initiatives don’t exist in a vacuum. Without the MSO, Milwaukee would not have Frankly Music, and I suspect the same is true for Present Music. The MSO, in other words, forms the core of a sophisticated music scene.

Of course, excellence matters little if professional musicians perform in empty halls. And the current predicament of orchestras stems, in part, from the classical music world’s insularity, elitism, and failure to address its lack of diversity. While these issues are real, they will only exacerbate if orchestras like the MSO cease to exist. The MSO organizes school concerts and participates in the Arts in Community Education Program. I am sure many MSO musicians teach on the side, and that several have significant others who are music teachers. These efforts don’t add up to the kind of systematic music education every child should receive for at least some time, and there is a lot of work to be done. Making music even less accessible, however, can never be the solution.

We often don’t fully appreciate the things we have until we stand to lose them. At the MSO concert I attended, you could sense that every single person in the hall—on the stage and in the audience—was acutely aware of what is at stake. The high level of playing achieved by the MSO cannot easily be recreated.  It is the result of the individual players’ lifelong dedication to their craft.  In addition, there is the less tangible phenomenon of an “orchestra sound” that develops when musicians rehearse and perform together for many years.  Milwaukee is a better city for having a terrific professional orchestra that has flourished under illustrious conductors, including maestro de Waart, its current music director. Let’s all make sure that the MSO doesn’t just survive, but that it will continue to thrive.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Sarah Nagle

    The last paragraph. Enough said. Take it from someone who lives in Minnesota – it’s worth fighting for.

  2. Irene Ten Cate

    Sarah Nagle: I happened to attend the Minnesota Orchestra Musicians’ all-Tchaikovsky concert in December, which was a moving experience. While the circumstances were different, the sense of mutual respect and support between the musicians and the audience was very similar to what I have felt at recent MSO concerts. I’m so happy your musicians are returning to Orchestra Hall, and hope the Minnesota Orchestra will be able to recover and rebuild.

  3. Nick Zales

    No fine arts group survives on ticket sales alone. They all raise money from private donors. Many, like the MSO, also receive money from UPAF. The MSO is excellent. It’s up to those who can afford it to see that it survives.

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