Monday, September 02, 2013

Musical Organizations and Restaurants: A Ramble

Now that the public at large understands the problems that American orchestras have been battling during the past few years, it's time to trot out my restaurant analogy.

We live in a city that has difficulty sustaining any restaurants that are not chain-type fast food restaurants, Pizza restaurants, Mexican restaurants, or restaurants that are attached to bars. We do have one very good Thai restaurant (they serve Chinese food as well), which is really the only place I can get a decent vegan meal. When we arrived in town during the mid 1980s, there were a handful of pretty good "slow food" restaurants, but the only ones that have survived are the ones that serve food that appeals to the local tastes and to college students. That's the way it works.

The next town over (ten miles down the road) has a Chinese restaurant that has been open and running for the past thirty years. They served very good spicy Hunan food, and they had a menu that was typical for a "city" Chinese restaurant of the '80s. We went often during our child-raising years (the owner-waitress and I were even pregnant at the same time). During the 2000s the restaurant modified (i.e. "blanded") the menu and sprung a buffet (they were trying to appeal to the bland tastes and large appetites of the townspeople and the times), so we no longer went there to eat. The restaurant apparently thrived during those times (even without our business), and expanded. The area around the restaurant (sidewalks and parking lot) has been improved, and the front looks beautiful and inviting, but we never went because of memories of the buffet days.

We went (reluctantly) last week because it was a chosen meeting place for a group of people. It was a great surprise to find that the menu had changed, and that he food was wonderful. It was creative, tasty, and very well prepared. They even offered brown rice. We went again the other day, and we plan to keep going.

The buffet was gone. The restaurant owners might have decided that it is better to offer quality at a higher cost than quantity at a lower cost. Quantity restaurants abound in our area, but there are very few that offer quality.

There are times when people go to restaurants for convenience, but people usually go to restaurants to mark an occasion, to have a nice experience, to get away from routine, or to have a meal that they trust will be sensually stimulating. People go to concerts for entertainment, but they also go for nourishment. There are times when people want to listen to music while they are doing other things (like eating in a restaurant). That's what recorded music is for. (It's really too bad that live chamber music in restaurants is so rare these days, but I digress.)

When you take a seat in a restaurant you are in same "captive" state as when you take a seat in a concert hall. You look at the menu in a restaurant, you pick from what is offered, and you hope for the best. You are at the mercy of your hosts, at least for the next hour or so.

When you buy tickets and make the necessary arrangements (babysitting, travel, scheduling, company) to go to a concert, you are making a commitment and putting your trust in your "hosts." Sometimes you don't know what's on the "menu" for the evening, and sometimes you do. If it's something you've heard many times, you want the performance to give you a fresh perspective. If it's something you love, you want the performance to do justice to your expectations. If it's something new, you want to be interested and engaged.

Concert goers are usually most skeptical about "something new," but there are also concert goers who go specifically to hear music they have never heard before. Sometimes we rely on pedigree to set our expectations, but there are times when pedigree disappoints. Seasoned concert goers learn to put the experiences that disappoint into perspective, because they know just how rare greatness in music is. Novices are sensitive as well. They might not understand the relative rarity of truly great performances, but they can often tell when the musicians miss the mark.

Regardless of the quality of the food or the music, the price of admission is still the same for a given restaurant or performance. Musical organizations that try to appeal to the perceived "buffet" mentality of a musical audience will lose that audience if they don't offer something truly satisfying. I don't believe that people's interest in good music is fading, and I believe that we need live music more than ever in these highly-automated times, but the audience for the buffet is not the audience that will come back to order from the menu. Too many musical organizations "market" their music to the people who would (figuratively) come only for the buffet.

Every musical organization needs to make choices that take the concerns of their ideal audience into consideration, because the larger organizations set the tone for attitudes and trends, at least in America. "Classical Music" is nourishing for all people, but it is really not "fast-food" entertainment, and it shouldn't be treated as such. We also have to remember that it is the kitchen staff that does most of important work in a restaurant, and those people should be treated with respect and rewarded appropriately for their expertise. It's the same for the musicians who play in orchestras. Without musicians there would be no music, and we all have to eat.

1 comment:

ksh said...

Well said, Elaine. I've been thinking about the whole "slow food" movement.
Could people who happily jump on that bandwagon support a similar idea in music? Thoughtfully and creatively prepared and presented music v. the fast food equivalent?