Of the many lessons absorbed during ICSOM’s 2016 conference, one of my “eureka” moments took place far from the air-conditioned comfort of Loews Madison. Nats Park on a sticky summer night might not conjure images of a setting ripe for introspective discovery, but then again, learning can take place at any time, any place.
Although I dislike the term ex-patriot (expat) with its implications of patriotism gone astray, as an American-living-overseas in Amsterdam, a place that the New York Times’ Russell Shorto dubs “the world’s most liberal city”, I have to admit that an insider-outsider viewpoint takes shape over time. I can twang with the best of the Midwest but find myself mystified by the multiple changes in what I perceive to be my “home” culture. Raised with the unbridled optimism of the Great Society, I often have trouble recognizing America-the-Angry lurching toward one of the strangest elections in history.
So what did an evening in the nosebleed sweatbox up high at Nats Park impart? And, how on earth does this relate to the challenges faced by orchestras on both sides of the pond?
Song and symbol: togetherness and pride
A rousing rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” in which thousands of people—young, old, black, white and everything in between—stood and sang in throaty unison brought home the message that love of country, unabashed pride without prejudice, is nothing to be ashamed of. It is the stuff that binds us, that gives us a sense of belonging.
As orchestral musicians, our passion for making music takes hold in our communities, from Albuquerque to Amsterdam: this is what keeps us ablaze. A pundit once wrote that the music profession is not for the meek, but for those of blood and guts who believe passionately in the message of their art. Belting out an anthem reminded me of the importance of sharing our pride in what we do, in what we represent.
Baseball fans connect with the past: replays and reminiscence
The fans seated right in front of me spent much of the game scribbling notes. When I asked them what they were doing, why they weren’t watching the action, they responded in disbelief: “can’t you see, we’re tracking the game, it’s important to record what each batter did and where the pitches went.” Following the score, tracing the present and comparing it to the past is familiar to professional orchestra musicians. Keeping tabs on box scores links the past to the present: how did the individual, how did the team stack up and what does this say about the future? In our daily lives as musicians, we strive to meet the highest standards as we reinterpret music to grant it a new lease on life.
For those of us in the midst of thorny bargaining processes, looking back to the past could be quite instructive. Take a moment to reflect on a time when getting to yes was less of a battle than it is today: perhaps this mode might tip the balance in our favor. A fantastic anecdote from the hallowed halls of the New York Philharmonic shows that “let’s drink a beer and talk” worked wonders with a bargaining bone of contention even before the first sip.
No high culture or low culture debate on the pitch
Whether joining in a chorus of “Take me Out to the Ball Game” in the middle of the seventh inning stretch or listening to diehards take apart the umpire’s calls, there is something for everyone at the ballpark. No discussions of high or low sport, either. Just like our craft, sport knows no barriers: the experience is what counts. All the palaver on elitist culture needs to be wiped off the slate. Our game is every bit as rousing and visceral as a nine-inning wonder.
Ballpark etiquette: to Wave or not to Wave, to clap or not to clap?
Feeling free not to agree seems to be the modus at the ballpark. To illustrate the point, a couple of diehards carefully laid out their arguments concerning the Wave. “Us [sic] ‘Kill the Wave’ supporters know what’s good for the game. Baseball is serious business: we are looking in on professionals and their strategies in winning a great game. The Wave kills concentration needed to focus on the real game.”
But the majority of the crowd loves the Wave. It’s our moment to show the world that we are here right now, at this game, and “we are lovin’ it.” Doesn’t this remind us of concert etiquette discussions? Should we stare down enthusiastic audience members who clap between movements? Is a part of our mission to educate the philistines to sit still and listen? Or, should we celebrate the fact that a concertgoer who purchased a ticket to hear our music liked it so much that he/she cheered us on, horror of horrors, between movements. The ballpark just put that discussion into perspective.
Stand by them: a true fan remains…true to the end
ICSOM 2016 imparted a wealth of information and inspiration thanks to presentations by Bruce Ridge, Kevin Case, Randy Whatley, and many others who challenged us to breathe hope into doomsday scenarios as we work hard to build new futures for our orchestras. While many European orchestral musicians are encouraged to look out for their own orchestras first and foremost, ICSOM 2016 proved that to persevere, we must all stand together. The higher the stakes, the greater the solidarity: when the Fort Worth representative shared her anguish, the whole room stood with her. Their trials are our trials and their triumph will be shared by all of us over and beyond social media.
It’s not over until…
It’s time to replace that overused adage of a fat lady singing. Yet before we retire her, remember it really isn’t over until….
That hot and sticky night, the Nationals held a comfortable lead up into the penultimate inning. A steady mass swelled towards the exits. Focused on my own exit strategy, I stopped in my tracks. My newfound baseball buddies told me in no uncertain terms that to walk was sacrilege: true fans do not leave until the game is over. Although tempted to unstick myself from my perch, I realized that to leave was tantamount to walking out on Mahler’s 3rd Symphony after the upbeat 5th movement. To miss the transcendence of major chords after unspeakable pathos would rob the listener of the totality of the experience.
At Nats Park, the rewards were worth the wait as the Rockies hit a homer; the scoreboard reflected the tension of a close call and an extra rush of adrenaline coursed through the crowd as the home team triumphed. From our daily messages of hope through music to ICSOM’s Calls to Action, our game has only begun.
The Author, who presented at the 2016 conference, is on the Faculty of Law at the University of Amsterdam and a violinist in the Netherlands’ Sinfonia Rotterdam.