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Thursday, December 11, 2014


When I moved to Pennsylvania in 1989, I was struck by the contrasts in the classical music scene.  One could perform in a group of just about any level, and some of them were quite good, even the ones at the community (amateur) level.

One city boasted four "professional" concert bands, including one whose recordings get played frequently on WRTI, the public radio station out of Temple University. Being a solid player at the time, I was flummoxed when the first question out of everyone's mouth was, "are you a union member?".  Since I wasn't, I didn't get work, even though I could play rings around most of the local talent. This probably stems from the union shop atmosphere in the region, who had lost the major employer due to union nonsense. It was immortalized in a song by Billy Joel.  Some in the area still haven't forgiven him.

2) The leader of one of those bands was also the personnel director of the local Symphony orchestra, which meant that he got first crack at wind, brass, and percussion players who auditioned for the ASO.

3) There were three local professional orchestras, all staffed by pretty much the same players.

4) The local chamber music society seems to think that only orchestral string players and pianists play chamber music, and that's all they program. To be fair, they do have a "special relationship" with a local youth orchestra (translation: the kids get 10 minutes as a curtain raiser for no pay), and they are having a brass quintet fulfill this purpose once this season.

5)  One of the local community choirs had a gala fundraiser recently with a world-renowned performer who has performed many contemporary pieces. Her program that night? Bach, Beethoven and Brahms on the first half, and salon-style, I-can-play-this-faster-than-you pieces on the second. Yawn.

6) One of the local colleges built a new (and admittedly very nice) performing arts center. The opening concert featured no less than the New York Philharmonic, playing Bernstein's Overture to Candide, and Brahms' First and Second Symphonies--well performed, I'm sure, but a program they could have done in a drunken stupor. The next two visiting orchestras played Brahms First and Brahms Second.  I called them on that nonsense in the local paper, saying that the audiences in that area deserved better. To their credit, they did respond to me, but they didn't take me seriously. They should have.

7) Most ticket prices are exorbitantly high and will likely remain so.
Symphony Orchestra--$19-$52/$10 for students
Choir: $35-$36/$9
Chamber orchestra: $25-$35
College theater: $15-$22/$8
Same college's summer theater: $33/$18
Private college symphony orchestra concert: $18
Private college band concert:$15/$5
Private college choir concert: $15/$5
Community theater: $20/$10

I'm reminded of the trend in professional sports towards smaller stadiums.  Fewer seats means higher ticket prices--and many of these groups play in relatively small houses.

8) The only public college in the region (actually about 30 miles away) doesn't have much of a music department.  The region's private colleges, on the other hand, have well regarded music programs, but again, ticket prices remain unaffordable for many.

So what's the solution?

It could be argued that failure to pay union scale or better will cause the best players to go elsewhere. It has happened, and there's no reason to believe it won't continue to happen. Grants are out there, but with every arts group competing with a seemingly shrinking resource pool, some will swim, but surely too many will sink.

David Bowie, Hunky Dory, 1971.
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