A few late nights ago, with the help of a mileage-calculating website, I added up my travels for ICSOM and other orchestral industry activities over the past fifteen months or so. I was only slightly surprised when I finished the math to see that I had flown over 40,000 miles during that span. I have met with musicians across the country, addressed young people entering the arts management field, visited with our friends in ROPA, OCSM, RMA, and TMA, toured concert halls, and heard rehearsals from San Juan to Honolulu—not to mention the many fine patty-melts I have enjoyed at airport diners.
I feel that I am gaining a unique picture of orchestras in America. I am meeting with musicians and their leadership in our orchestras. I am listening to rehearsals and attending concerts. I am backstage in the musicians’ lounges, and visiting them in their homes. I am meeting their board members and their executive directors. My visits in all of these cities are far too brief, but I do get a wide-angle snapshot of these organizations that has served to educate me in a profound way about our musicians’ lives and the great potential of our orchestras to serve their communities.
During these past fifteen months, I heard the New York Philharmonic rehearsing in an empty Avery Fisher Hall and returned for a magnificent performance there. I heard the Puerto Rico Symphony in their rehearsal hall, and the San Antonio Symphony onstage at the visually amazing Majestic Theatre. I met with the Virginia Symphony in a giant dressing room at Chrysler Hall (the first place I ever heard a live orchestra), and the Charlotte Symphony onstage at the Blumenthal Center. I had the honor of speaking with the musicians of the Honolulu Symphony at their union hall, the legendary Local 677, when the vast majority of the orchestra spent close to five hours visiting with AFM negotiator Nathan Kahn and me on their day off. I toured the concerts halls of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Nashville Symphony. As I write this, I will soon be listening to The Cleveland Orchestra and meeting with the Jacksonville Symphony and the Oregon Symphony.
I am learning enough to fill several volumes. At the risk of putting a viral tune into your head, I’ve learned primarily that it truly is a small world after all. For while every orchestra I visit faces some unique issue, many of our issues are the same. Far too often our musicians have come to believe the negative rhetoric about the future of the arts in America, and they need to hear a message that compels them to unite and believe in themselves. They need to hear that, through ICSOM and their union, they can be a part of something greater than any individual.
Our orchestras all face some dispute within their own ranks, disputes that can only be addressed through the highest tone of debate and open democracy. But, all too often, they also face a board that is dealing with the very same issues. These problems, with their unavoidable fatigue and discouragement, tend to create a culture of hostility within our industry. This hostility sometimes inhibits our ability to communicate with our boards and our managements. It bears poison fruit in the media that perpetuates a negative future. Worst of all, it contaminates our ability to communicate among our ranks as a supportive bargaining and artistic unit.
There is nothing wrong with dissension, as long as it is expressed in a respectful environment. We are all performers, which means that something inside must convince us that we can command the attention of thousands of people on stage every night. Only strong-willed people who believe in themselves can pull off such a feat. It is only natural that self-assured people will occasionally need to debate their differences. That is the essence of the human and artistic experience. It is healthy, and the churning of emotion is how great art is made.
What I hear everywhere I go are incredible musicians performing at an absolutely astonishing level, no matter the size of the budget of their organization. The musicians I meet are inspired and inspiring people dedicated to serving their communities at the highest cultural level.
We must not let our souls fall victim to the culture of hostility. We have the ability to change all of that. And, most notably, we have the ability to put out a true and positive message about just what it is that our orchestras can do for our communities.
Here is a fact about the future of classical music: Last year, the genre of music that saw the greatest increase in downloads, an increase of over 22%, was classical music! That’s right—the rumors of the death of our chosen art form have been greatly exaggerated.
I write often of my early years as a musician, where I was playing all kinds of music in all kinds of settings, some glorious and some unsavory. I was surrounded by mentors. There were sane and mundane people, crazy and brilliant people, and they all offered me an education into the world of music. I listened and I learned; and I heard all kinds of music imaginable.
But there was something else I first heard back then: the myth of the graying audience. I was told, back in 1979 when I started, that the audience for classical music would soon be dead.
And yet, when I look out at audiences today, I see the same faces I saw then. I see the young and the old, the well dressed and the sartorially challenged. I was thrilled on a recent visit to Avery Fisher Hall to see the youth that dominated the lobby at a New York Philharmonic concert. It made me feel a bit old! I left the concert that evening and wandered the streets of Manhattan, pondering how we might change the concert experience to insure that symphonic music continues to appeal to the older generation.
The playwright Eugene Ionesco wrote, “A work is not a series of answers, it is a series of questions…it is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” Maybe that is what I have learned in my travels. Maybe it isn’t the answer that is as important as the question. I’m reminded of that Harry Chapin song, where he sang “It’s got to be the going, not the getting there, that’s good.”
We must remember that this we did with our lives for a reason. I read a great article in a Victoria, Canada, newspaper recently in which there was this quote: “A civilization is not judged by its ability to generate income.”
It is our job as artists to remember that. We must rely on our managements to present the other truth, the real truth, that the arts do indeed generate income for everyone in a community. Where our managers are not promoting that message, we must point out the tremendous opportunities presented to them by just how impressive our musicians are, both as artists and as human beings. The good managers will hear our message and thrive. The others will fail. This we assert without hesitation: It is a new day for symphonic music in America. ICSOM is spreading a different message. It is a message of hope. It is a message of the most profound community service.
Over 40,000 miles have I traveled, and over 40 years has ICSOM persevered. But, we’ve barely begun. Opportunity awaits, and the message must be spread. When I grow weary, I am comforted by the knowledge that there is a generation of friends performing on the same night, at the same moment, as I. There are mentors that went before me, and generations that will follow.
As The New York Times reported just last year, this can be classical music’s golden age. In a world that is weary with conflict and hostility, we can serve as a beacon, a beacon that has every opportunity to grow brighter with every note we play, and through every life we touch. Some of the orchestras I have visited have generously said that ICSOM’s presence has been inspirational. But, to those orchestras, I would say that ICSOM, and I, owe them our thanks. I have been inspired by every musician I’ve met and every orchestra I’ve heard. We exist because of our members, and, on all-night flights back to North Carolina, I am never alone. I hear their music, and I carry the strength of our community of musicians with me everywhere I go.