More to it than meets the eye: The orchestra crisis

  • Article by: MICHAEL NESSET
  • Updated: April 30, 2014 - 6:32 PM

Osmo’s back! But look around — it doesn’t mean our classical music crisis is over.

Photo: BRIAN PETERSON • Star Tribune file,

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When I heard that Osmo Vänskä was returning as music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, I thought that now, at last, the great orchestra crisis of 2012-14 is over: First the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra went back to work, diminished in numbers but not in virtuosity, and then the Minnesota Orchestra, or that part of it not filling in with other orchestras, started giving concerts again in a refurbished Orchestra Hall. They sounded good, and under Vänskä, the guest conductor, they were splendid. And now Osmo’s back as music director. The crisis is over.

Then I remembered the SPCO and the Minnesota Orchestra concerts I’ve attended since the lockouts ended, and I realized that it’s not over. In the first place, there are the empty seats. The chamber orchestra’s first post-lockout concerts were sold out, so starved were we music lovers for live classical music — and really, no recording, not even on my really-pretty-good-for-the-money stereo system, can match a live performance for clarity and range of sound, especially from the strings and the woodwinds.

Yet, even before the Minnesota Orchestra’s lockout ended, there were empty seats at the Ordway. The first Minnesota Orchestra concerts were also sellouts, and probably will be for some time; yet, when the novelty of again having two world-class orchestras has subsided, I fear that I, looking out over the audience from my nosebleed balcony season-ticket seat, will see hundreds of empty seats on the main floor, as I did before the lockout.

The Star Tribune’s Graydon Royce was right when he said that Vänskä’s and his orchestra’s ascent to world-class status did not produce an increase in ticket sales and that the declining revenues that resulted were a major cause of the financial shortfalls of the past few seasons, the board’s unsustainable draws on endowment funds and, finally, the lockout.

We members of the audience have lots of excuses: a reluctance to take all that trouble at the end of the workweek, too much competition for the entertainment dollar (though a Haydn symphony, that joyous affirmation of reason and order, that compound of intelligence and delight, is really something considerably more than entertainment). Whatever our excuses, we often didn’t support these magnificent ensembles with our presence; we didn’t know what we had until it was taken away, and when the memory of the lockouts has faded, we may not know again. We who blamed the board’s intransigence for the lockouts also have to look in the mirror to find another villain: our own inert distracted selves.

But there’s another reason that the crisis in classical music isn’t over. When I look over even a sold-out crowd at Orchestra Hall or the Ordway, I see lots of gray heads. The classical music audience has not been renewed; to a great extent, it has not renewed itself.

There are many reasons for this nonrenewal: the ubiquity and the lavishly funded promotion of popular music; a lack of funding for school band, choir and music education programs; a youth culture that regards opera as uncool; the extraordinary amount of time and energy and money Americans spend on sports. What’s to be done about it is less clear. The orchestras play novice-listener-friendly favorites like “Pictures at an Exhibition” and “The Rite of Spring” at local schools, but these are infrequent experiences of a kind of music that requires frequent experience to be understood and loved.

Which suggests one thing we senior music lovers can do to renew the audience of the music we love: take young people with us when we go to concerts. This solution is already being practiced — most of the children I see at concerts seem to be there with their grandparents — but it needs to be practiced more. Take a grandchild, a niece or a nephew, or the kid next door to kid-friendly concerts with pieces like “The Pines of Rome,” “Scheherazade,” “The Planets” or anything by John Williams — movies being one of the last great preserves of classical music. Talk to them about the music, before and after the concerts. Introduce them to the musicians who work the lobby — a pleasant practice that has increased since the lockout began. Sit as close to the stage as possible, so she or he can see the musicians making music with their instruments.

Ten-year-old Mario was all ears and big eyes in the second row of the SPCO concert we attended, even during a Stravinsky chamber piece (I had, I must admit, promised to buy him a pack of Yu-Gi-Oh! cards if he didn’t fall asleep).

Then there’s the entertainment value of attending concerts with kids. Fifteen years ago, when I made my operatic debut as a shepherd in my church’s production of “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” I insisted that 12-year-old Paul attend this “play” that I was a part of (I avoided the “O” word), as I had sat through a long season of his Little League games. After the performance, Paul was entranced, starry-eyed: the “play” was wonderful, he said, and he wanted to be in the next production.

“Well, Paul,” I said, “you’ve just seen your first opera.”

“That was an opera?” he exclaimed. “But I liked it!”

And so I say to my senior peers, unless you’re sick or out of town, go to every concert of our wonderful world-class orchestras. And take a child with you.

 

Michael Nesset lives in North St. Paul.

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