R.I.P. Pandit Ravi Shankar

Pandit Ravi Shankar
Pandit Ravi Shankar

Pandit Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar passed earlier today and despite the fact that I never got the chance to hear him perform live, much less just meet him, this is a sad occasion for me.  I found out about this from a facebook update by Saskia Rao De Haas, who is a phenomenal cellist doing classical Indian music and whose husband, Shubhendra Rao, was a student/protege of the master.

I really don’t care about the connection he had with the Beatles (since I really don’t care about the Beatles, anyway) but here is a musician who had an international career that spanned at least six decades and who probably did more than anyone else to expose people to Classical Indian Music which is every bit as sophisticated and complex as Western Classical Music!

Arts Funding Is Supporting A Wealthy, White Audience: Report

This is the title of a recent Huffington Post piece that discusses a study by the Washington-based National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.  Given the demographic trends I’ve been blogging about, this is, as Drew McManus says, obvious.  What is also obvious is that the ‘Chicken Little Think-Tank’ (as Drew often refers to classical music reformists) will probably see this as another reason the institution of classical music is failing and must be invigorated with methods of relevance found in the popular cultural world.  The thing is, I suspect if a study were done on the economics of the pop culture world in the US, we’d have a piece titled something to the effect of “Pop Music Industry Is Supporting A Not-So-Wealthy, White Audience: Report.”

Some of the select quotes could just as easily be said about popular culture:

“We’ve got the vast majority of resources going to a very small number of institutions,”

“That’s not healthy for the arts in America.”

“pronounced imbalance restricts the expressive life of millions of people,”

Drew counterpoints the piece with a discussion about the Grant Park Music Festival, which is an outstanding–and more importantly, FREE–summer series of concerts that is incredibly well attended.  Since some of the barriers to classical music is as much the high ticket prices as well as some of the stuffy formality many associate with it, it is encouraging to find something like this working and drawing in large audiences.

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Are Orchestra Musicians Replaceable?

Drew McManus pointed out a piece written by Michaela Boland which had some interesting quotes by Greg Sandow with whom I don’t necessarily agree on many points though he is one of the critics of the current status quo of Classical Music in the US.

Among the orchestras that have shut their doors and dismissed players there are some groups that have survived due to radical restructuring, which is where Sandow sees the future of the industry. Columbus Orchestra, by way of example, staved off closure in 2008 and retained 53 full-time players by reducing salaries by 27 per cent. Detroit Symphony Orchestra is engaged in similar talks with players.

Sandow argues that players in America’s top orchestras have traditionally been well paid, with salaries above $100,000, and the cuts are having an invigorating effect. “It’s interesting to talk to young musicians about this; they don’t see it as a problem, they’d consider themselves lucky to get any of these positions,” he says.

Historically, however, because of the status and the good pay, few of them could secure such jobs.

Sandow says that if the Philadelphia Orchestra were to suddenly discharge all its musicians and replace them with young players on contract, what might be lost in polish could easily be made up for in pizazz.

“I wonder if that wouldn’t be more exciting to hear,” he says. “It might really surprise people.”

This echoes some things said by Eric Edberg during the Detroit Symphony Orchestra debacle

I’m living in New York this semester, and have met a number of young free-lance players, some of whom are graduate students at big conservatories.  Guess what?  Most have little if any sympathy for the DSO players (who have not managed to successfully reframe the conversation and are losing the PR war, even with music students). They love all sorts of music in addition to classical music.  Plenty find traditional symphony (and other) concerts boring.  There are plenty of classical-change advocates, in various stages of self-awareness, among them. Right now, they have little or no work.  Student and, in many cases, instrument loans to pay.  Fantastic players.

Many see the union as the problem (even if they’re not going through one of those college-age Ayn Rand phases).  The players have been successfully characterized to/construed by them as greedy, selfish, and/or out of touch.  A lot of these incredibly-accomplished young players (and I bet there are bunches more in Baltimore, Bloomington, Cincinnati, Cleveland, LA,Miami,  etc.) seem excited at the idea of going to Detroit to work in a “new model” symphony.

While Unions may or may not be the problem (cf. Michael Kaiser’s recent post, Are Unions to Blame?) there is this sense that for good or ill, with younger musicians (many of whom are, as Eric says, struggling as freelancers much less in this economy) who haven’t matured in the Union environment, few are going to have as much sympathy as those musicians who rely on collective bargaining to sustain their livelihood.

On the other hand, a question I’ve been exploring–or rather, I could reframe the title of this blog post in a different way–is, “Are Western Orchestras Replaceable?”

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Classical vs. Pop [vs. the Rest]

The Firebird Youth Chinese Orchestra in San Francisco is one of several dozens of large ensembles formed in the US which don't follow the European Orchestra model. There are over two dozen ensembles of traditional Chinese instruments in the Bay Area, ranging from grade school ensembles to semi-professional/community orchestras as well as traditional Chinese Music Education at various k-12 schools and colleges in the area.

Takht Ensemble of the Michigan Arab Orchestra

There’s a phrase in post-colonial criticism and politics that essentially states that the overriding dichotomy is the “West vs.the Rest.”  One of the things that strikes me about discussions (in the US and in Europe to some extent) about the decline of Classical Music (and by “Classical Music” I’m obviously meaning the Western or European Classical Music tradition) is the debate about relevancy and/or the relative (though usually couched in terms of absolute) worth of “Great Art Music.”

The title to this post reflects that di(tri)chotomy as the bracketed section is the part of the discussion that so often gets left out.  I’ve blogged somewhat about what I’m calling the false dichotomy of Classical vs. Pop in the past and have attempted to infuse some of these discussions with a much broader context than most of the disputants are willing to acknowledge.

A recent piece in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette by Emma Downs has made me think more about the changing demographic of the US and how that is ultimately going to impact the quality (in the hierarchical sense) of music in the US.  The piece is titled Orchestras slowly add racial, ethnic diversity and is a discussion of the proportion of ethnic minorities in US orchestras in general and the ethnic make-up of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic (which is slightly higher than the national average) in particular.

The piece starts with the bold (and sometimes tired)

Although racial and ethnic diversity is increasing in the United States, many orchestras and symphonies across the country still do not represent the communities they play for.

which I don’t think is a controversial claim when looking at the basic numbers and implied issue of a “quota.”  On the whole, US Orchestras are primarily composed of whites.

Los Angeles Balalaika Orchestra, formerly known as the Los Angeles – St. Petersburg Russian Folk Orchestra

The piece gives a few reasons for this, but this one is the important one for my purposes

The lack of diversity is based on several factors, including historical precedents. For hundreds of years, orchestral music was predominantly a European tradition and a venue for self-expression that seemed to be “an unwelcome field for minorities,” [John] Bence says.

This is obviously a problem–and something that non-minorities can’t fully appreciate.  A poignant story Eric Edberg posted about one of his former students (full disclosure: I am also one of Eric’s former students), Troy Stuart, can drive this home.  I’m taking the quote Eric posted from a profile in the Baltimore Sun (link is dead) about Mr. Stuart:

In the 1980s, as a graduate student at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, the toughest challenge Stuart faced wasn’t in the pieces he studied, but in a large mirror on the practice room wall – the reflection of an African-American staring back at him.
“I had to cover it for the first half-year,” Stuart says. “I wasn’t gaining any confidence from seeing myself.  If I had had a Yo-Yo Ma to look up to, I know I wouldn’t have had any problem looking into that mirror. I still remember the first time I saw an African-American on a classical album cover, I almost fainted.”

Not having a role model to look up to can be very trying psychologically.  I remember while growing up in the States that the only Asian role models on television I could see were those found in the occasional Hong Kong Kung Fu films or in Japanese Daikaiju (e.g. Godzilla, Gamera).  Of course, I’m neither Chinese nor Japanese, but Thai and we could probably debate the relevancy of having revenge-minded martial artists or giant-monster-fighting heroes (to be candid–I always identified with the “good” monsters) as a role model for participation in real life society.

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Changing US Demographics and Classical Music

Re-posting Ramon Ricker’s blog about Changing US Demographics and Classical Music in full, just because it can never be said enough!

Posted on November 9, 2009 at 5:00 am by Ramon Ricker
in General
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Here’s a personal observation and some thoughts.

When my wife and I visited the Netherlands a couple of years ago we were fortunate, at Judy’s persistence, to get tickets to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. We started a couple of months early trying to book tickets online, but they were “sold out.” Knowing that tickets often get returned on the day of the performance, we went to the concert hall that afternoon and talked to the ticket people. They put our names on a list (we were first on it), and they told us to come back a half an hour before the start of the concert. Long story short, Judy charmed our way into the Queen’s seats. The Queen did not attend the concert that evening and the seats were made available at the last minute. I’m not kidding. We got them—the best seats in the house. (I don’t know why I’m setting the stage like this.) Anyway—It was their new conductor’s debut, (Mariss Jansons), and he did Mahler 6—the one with the hammer blows. The percussionist with the hammer must have made it himself. It was gigantic and beautifully made, all of wood. He picked it up like he had a Strad in his hands.

As we waited for the concert to start, I looked around the hall and noticed that the patrons didn’t look like any of the people we were seeing on the street. The concertgoers were stereotypical “Dutch people,” in my mind—good sized with mostly fair complexions. But the people on the Amsterdam streets were much more diverse. There were many more dark-skinned people—I suppose from Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East. I thought to myself, “The people in the streets can’t be listening to European classical music. I’m not hearing it anyplace out here. The demographic of Amsterdam must be changing. But if it continues to change who will be coming to these concerts in 50 years?”

Now, scroll over to US orchestras? In my mind it’s the same as the Amsterdam example. As I look out at the audience at a Rochester Philharmonic concert, the attendees don’t look the same as the general population of Rochester. I ask myself, “Why were US orchestras formed in the first place?” My guess is that the population was predominately of European descent at that time, and they probably wanted to experience or recreate the culture of their homeland. It felt natural to them.

Thinking about the well-documented changing demographic of the US towards greater numbers of citizens with other than European (read: white) ancestry, I can’t believe that this population, in 50 years or probably less, will want to sit in a concert hall and listen to Mahler. It’s not in their DNA or culture. And that’s not a put down. They also don’t get exposure to this music in schools. If I keep going along this line of thinking, I don’t see a bright future for “classical” music in general or US orchestras in particular. Sure this music will be with us, but will professional musicians be able to make a living playing it? That’s already difficult to do today in all but the largest US cities.

In order to maintain their competitive advantage, companies must spend time and money trying to envision the future, asking themselves questions like: Who will be our customers? Where will they live? Will they need our product? In what form should it be? Etc., etc. As musicians it is probably a good idea for us to do the same. If I were a young musician just graduating from music school and bent on a performing career, I would be asking myself these questions too. I would also be flexible and ready to take advantage of opportunities that may arise.

When trying to envision the future, I am reminded of this quote that is attributed to hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. It’s a good one. When asked how he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, and consequentially scored more goals than others, he replied, “I don’t go where the puck is. I go to where the puck will be.” Orchestras and musicians—maybe we should try to be like Gretzky.

What do you think?