Monday, February 17, 2014

The Scourge of "Sameness"

Michael Drapkin writes:
We need to move away from the scourge of “sameness”
plaguing even our best American symphony orchestras. The alternative is boring orchestras that suffer
declining attendance, resulting in budget shortfalls, shortened seasons and more bankruptcies. Audition
by committee needs to be replaced by a system that favors the John Bruce Yeh’s of the world, rather
than passing them over in favor of bland players that can appeal to an entire committee. There is no
shortage of these bland players around, which means that they can be easily replaced by other bland
players, which is a problem when it comes time to negotiate salary and contract. How can you make
demands for your services when what you do is virtually undistinguishable from the next guy?
Distinctive soloistic players are a rarer commodity – their unique voices are a competitive differentiator,
using business school terminology, which means that they are much harder to replace.
[John Bruce Yeh is a very expressive, artistic, and distinctive member of the clarinet section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra who has playing that is deemed too "soloistic" to warrant a principal chair in an American orchestra; even his own.]

Drapkin gives a sober assessment of the current realities of orchestral musical life, including what he aptly identifies as "followership." If you have any interest in the direction the professional practice of orchestral music has taken, you should read his whole article.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The article launches, and sentences conflate. "The days of a conductor identifying and arbitrarily hiring an orchestra musician on the spot, as well as summarily firing them, are long gone, as collective bargaining over the years has eliminated this system of engaging or dismissing musicians in orchestras that offer multiweek contractual employment. While musicians can still be dismissed, the process of doing so has become much more onerous, and this has virtually eliminated the ability of the conductor to summarily fire someone solely because they don’t like him or her, or because they have identified a better player..." leading to "orchestra musicians to lose a great deal of control over their futures."

I have and continue to hold the notion that orchestras, concert series, choirs and more should be dictatorships, not "collective bargaining" entities. One has watched opera companies and orchestras collapse into bankruptcy, and then what does the community in question have? Less. All for the sake of the perceived "more" which collective bargaining hailed as the wave of the future. It was the wave goodbye, as far as I am concerned, though beautifully couched in populist sentiment. Very contemporary and very bankrupt, once the end game is seen.

Maybe there just are too many performing ensembles today for any given market. Maybe the pop culture has snuffed out audiences, courtesy of "education" which has left the classical music tradition to be a cipher.

Whatever the causes (certainly there are many) the situation is purely economic. If a market cannot or will not sustain a performing ensemble, all the collective bargaining in the world is worthless. My own community symphony of years back is defunct, and rightly so, though sadly so.

Sameness? I don't think so. There is room for more Beethoven and Brahms yet, though the modern rhetoric tells us there isn't. You've got a program to fill. Educate the audience with repertoire they might not well receive, and that's the end of it, collective bargaining and all. I recall a retired conductor who attended a concert and after a piece which got little applause, leaned over the balcony to berate the audience. "Play it again," he demanded and the conductor did. The applause was less. Sameness? There are some tunes I will not do without, and there's too much repertoire to survey, no matter how long we live. Some of it I've heard and dislike very much, as one concert last week proved. If it hadn't been for Brahms on the second half of the program, I would have left in the middle of the first half.

The end of the article speaks the truth, saying there is an "...oversupply [ of ]the market with unemployable ]musicians.. [ to ] create orchestra musicians that are increasingly marginalized as their
symphony orchestra employers continue to disappear..." is a perfect description of today, of collective bargaining and the loss of the era of orchestras as beautiful "dictatorships" led by what once were our philosopher-kings of music. That time will come again. When the population is culled as we already see happening. The Met lives on while the NYCO is a zero, as an example.

Thanks for the link to Drapkin's spot-on article. With respect, you are helping clear the air. Thank you.