Sunday, October 30, 2016

America’s Orchestras Are At War — Could More Jewish Musicians Help? 

In September, when a last-minute negotiation effort failed, the Philadelphia Orchestra went on strike after an audience had already gathered for its seasonal opening-night gala. Hackles were raised. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported:

“‘Shame on you!’ shouted a couple of philanthropists as players walked through the Kimmel Center lobby and out onto a Broad Street picket line Friday night.”

Other donors remained at the concert hall to enjoy a scheduled dinner while musicians circled in the evening drizzle, defending their salaries and pensions. Strikes were called recently by orchestras in Pittsburgh and Fort Worth, and not long ago in Indianapolis and Minnesota. Empathy lessons for some concertgoers and philanthropists — etymologically speaking, lovers of humankind — might be timely.

On October 4, an administrative letter was sent to striking members of the Pittsburgh Symphony. Addressed to “Dear Employee,” it noted that to keep Heinz Hall open during a strike “may require us to hire replacement workers, either on a temporary or permanent basis, as will be determined by the business necessity that we face.” The apparent intent of this missive, to warn about possibly hiring musical scabs to replace strikers, was later denied by Pittsburgh Symphony administration.

Personally identifying with musicians on a human level may not be essential for appreciating concerts, but surely helps create lifelong emotional bonds with symphonies as social institutions. Part of that bond is identifying with the cultural statements of an orchestra in its programming. Philadelphia music lovers were denied at the last minute a scheduled program of music from Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town,” George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” and other popular items. In Pittsburgh, cancelled concerts for October included performances by the Tel Aviv-born soloist Pinchas Zukerman playing Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, followed by events featuring the overfamiliar Dvorak “New World” Symphony as well as music by the Beatles and screen composer John Williams. Another concert paired Béla Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra” with songs written by the Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk in a seemingly indigestible mix. Is it pandering - or just realistic marketing - to presume that audiences are incapable of caring about anything but symphonic chestnuts, glitzy pops, and orchestrated rock n’ roll plus Hollywoodiana? What can revive audience interest in orchestras playing unfamiliar, as well as core classical, repertory?


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