Time to get on the stick

Times Staff Writer

THE latest news about orchestras has been very good. And it has been not so good.

A few Fridays ago, Marin Alsop was chosen person of the week by ABC News. That's not just good: A rising American conductor making the mainstream is practically unbelievable.

But I wonder whether Alsop, the first woman to be appointed music director of a major American orchestra, would have been person of the anything had the Baltimore Symphony not botched the news of her appointment. A leak to the Baltimore Sun that the musicians were unhappy with the hiring process, and presumably Alsop, created a media storm.

Sometimes it seems it takes a scandal, strike or bankruptcy to get orchestras attention. A freelance oboist and journalist, Blair Tindall, is generating ink for her first book, "Mozart in the Jungle," mostly because she claims to tell all about sex, drugs and sleaze among orchestra players, complemented by management greed. Her good news, I guess, is that the classical world is not rarefied but as real as government or business, even if in her myopic eyes orchestras are dysfunctional families going down the tubes fast.

That latter view is widely held -- not surprisingly, given the degree to which orchestras everywhere and those who chronicle them have become unhealthily obsessed with their organizational health. What's more, it's possible to emerge from, say, a magnificently played, if calculated and ever-so-chilly, performance by the New York Philharmonic in its acoustically aggressive, visually ugly hall -- amid unengaged, uncomprehending snotty socialites ready to trample you as they rush to hail a cab -- and feel as if you've been put off orchestras and classical music for good.

After hearing many of the country's most important orchestras during the last year, though, I remain convinced that, despite daunting problems, the orchestra hasn't completed its usefulness. But it's time to abandon a lot of received wisdom.

You've probably read the endless litany of woes: Audiences are aging and declining. Lack of music education has created a population of musically illiterate dolts. Young people won't sit still and can't concentrate without visual stimulation.

Among presenters, expenses are ever on the upswing. Management and players constantly butt heads. The St. Louis Symphony had a particularly nasty strike this year. The Montreal Symphony has been on strike for months, with no end in sight. Wounds from contract negotiations don't heal as quickly as they once did; grudges are held for years. Players want more of the pie and instead, like many of us, watch their healthcare and other benefits shrink.

Orchestras have become big businesses run by high-salaried executives. Star conductors are enticed with multimillion-dollar contracts for three to four months' worth of concerts. The organizations are overseen by bottom-line managerial boards lacking musical sophistication. It costs a fortune just to open the doors for business each morning.

Meanwhile, hustlers abound. Some tout specially programmed PDAs as a way to attract technological multitaskers. You can have music explained to you while it is played by following real-time commentary on the device's small screen. If that's too boring, you can switch over to the video function and see a fuzzy close-up of the conductor. Still bored? Pull out your Palm Pilot and plan your week or play solitaire. No one will know the difference.

In the face of all this, singles are singled out for special concerts. So are harried commuters. Video gamers are courted with orchestral renditions of their favorite computer sound effects. The musically curious are offered educational skits featuring second-rate actors dressed as composers and other historical figures.

Such publicity stunts may attract new listeners to the concert hall for a time or two, but they do little to build committed audiences, let alone to advance the art form. What works, I've found traveling around the country, what gets audiences really worked up, is when orchestral music, old and new, is played with real fervor. And perhaps a bit of smart, interesting talk or conversation thrown in.

It's really that simple. But every town is different. Every orchestra is different. That's part of the pleasure -- if sometimes the problem -- of orchestral life, and it too needs to be acknowledged.

No easy formula

THE orchestral landscape in America is not what it used to be. Once, American ensembles were lorded over by the "Big Five" -- the main orchestras of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Cleveland. East Coast critics, while conceding the orchestral energy emanating from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony, continue to use that proprietary term, but it means nothing. The real scene has no center.

The hot conductors are in Los Angeles (Esa-Pekka Salonen), Boston (James Levine), San Francisco (Michael Tilson Thomas), Atlanta (Robert Spano) and Minneapolis (Osmo Vanska). This fall, David Robertson is expected to put St. Louis on the A-list. In 2006, when Alsop begins in Baltimore, it too should join the party.

Most in the field agree that the Cleveland Orchestra, of which Franz Welser-Most is music director, has long been the nation's best ensemble no matter who conducts it. The New York Philharmonic, under Lorin Maazel, plays spectacularly these days, maybe better than ever. After that, the outlook is muddy. On a good night, the Cincinnati Symphony might outplay the Chicago Symphony, but that won't happen if Pierre Boulez is on the Chicago podium. The L.A. Philharmonic and Boston Symphony inhabit the best concert halls.

But what makes an orchestra thrive is a combination of many factors. The music director matters most. Los Angeles' current fortunes, for instance, are closely allied with Salonen, who brings to his job a fresh approach, creativity, an involvement with contemporary culture (he is also an important composer), phenomenal technique and all-around charisma. He worked closely with architect Frank Gehry and acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota in the building of Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Still, the music director is not the full story. Symphony orchestras are curious beasts. They are made up of more than a hundred virtuoso players who must give the conductor what he or she wants. They are incredibly exclusive organizations -- it is not out of the ordinary for 100 or more qualified musicians to apply for an opening in a major orchestra, and many players remain with a single orchestra for life. These bands are families, and true to Tolstoy, each is unhappy in its own way.

Among the former Big Five, the happiest campers are in Boston and New York, and only Boston is enjoying success on all fronts. After nearly 30 lackluster years under Seiji Ozawa, the orchestra appears elated with Levine, who will begin his second season as music director this fall. The members are even willing to play, and audiences to endure, large amounts of the most difficult kind of new music. A program of two wintry Sibelius symphonies and a new work by the king of complexity, Milton Babbitt, given in Symphony Hall on a frigid January night proved a thrilling blaze of fire and empathy. The hall filled up an hour early for a scintillating conversation with the composer, and many who were in that audience stood around in the icy chill outside afterward to discuss it.

To the southwest, the New York Philharmonic is said to love Maazel's stick technique. This year, I listened to it play a Mozart symphony with a finesse hard to find outside Vienna. Yet Maazel is widely disliked among the New York musical intelligentsia. He may wow audiences with brilliant playing, but his fussy interpretations and cool detachment from New York's rich musical life have made the orchestra seem irrelevant.

Christoph Eschenbach, an exceptional musician, a conductor full of energy and ideas, might have been the perfect choice to revitalize the Philadelphia Orchestra, but that hasn't happened. He was hired without input from the players, and they reportedly haven't taken to him. The orchestra also plays host to a famously conservative audience that hasn't embraced Eschenbach either.

One concert in Philadelphia this year should have been an important occasion. It included Luciano Berio's "Stanze" -- written in 2003, just before the composer's death, and a profound meditation on the meaning of life -- along with the last act of Wagner's "Parsifal." That is rich programming, but the evening was dispiriting. Orchestra and audience were unresponsive, and little of intelligence was offered to help guide listeners through the music's meaningful realm. The orchestra will soon change management; maybe that will help.

Politics instead of progress

CHICAGO is another orchestra that is not doing as well as it should. When Daniel Barenboim, one of the most famously gifted musicians of our time, became music director in 1991, he had difficulty wooing the players and the audience away from the blatant high-energy approach of his predecessor, Georg Solti. Barenboim was overconfident and too often worked on autopilot. But in recent years, as he has become more politically engaged, he has grown more musically engaged as well. He is exactly the kind of outspoken, suffer-no-fools, committed, controversial conductor who should be able to make an orchestra vital in a community.

Instead, when Barenboim announced last year that he was less interested in making nice to rich people than in making music that mattered, the orchestra agreed to his departure without protest. A concert I heard in Chicago in December was conducted by Leonard Slatkin, and the orchestra, which played a Shostakovich symphony, sounded slapdash, as though it simply didn't care.

Then there is Cleveland. In three concerts in Southern California in June, this orchestra played like a dream under Welser-Most. Yet for many the verdict on him is still out. He is young, at 44 still growing. He has a commitment to new work, European and American, and is also a traditionalist who grew up in Austria.

But the orchestra has a troublesome deficit, the region is economically depressed, and Welser-Most works under persistent attack by the chief local critic. This is an orchestra that will require courage to forge ahead.

What must not be forgotten, however, is that people like orchestras. Even the movies know that. Two of the summer's biggest blockbusters, "Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith" and "War of the Worlds," are unthinkable without John Williams' traditional orchestral scores. His music may be derivative of such 20th century composers as William Walton, but that traditional approach to scoring has been integral to the filmmaking of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg almost from the beginning of their spectacularly successful careers. From this fact alone, we can take hope.

But orchestras must continue to connect with their audiences. Nothing I heard from the old Big Five last season equaled the sensory thrill of Salonen conducting Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" at Disney Hall or of getting lost in the sex and spirituality of the Philharmonic's "Tristan Project." No one made as effective a cultural point as Tilson Thomas did in San Francisco when he devoted a captivating evening to examining the influence of Yiddish culture on American music.

The once Big Five are still big and could still be great. But big is not necessarily better. Fresh is better. Engaged is better. Rapport between orchestra and audience is better. Leading is better than following.

Times have changed. Capitals shift. Economies swing. The artistic climate is as unsettled as its meteorological counterpart. For the orchestra to survive, it must be flexible, true to itself and of its time and place. Everything else is fair game.

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Mark Swed is The Times' classical music critic. Contact him at Calendar.letters@latimes.com.

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