In Support of American Orchestras

I usually avoid commenting on the works of other arts writers in this blog, but on the occasion of “The Zero Option,” an article by drama critic Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal on June 12, I just had to make an exception. His premise can be summed up by one question found in his article: “What, if anything, justifies the existence of a regional symphony orchestra in the 21st century?

I’m not sure whether this harsh opinion springs from his specialty as a drama writer (not music) or from a position of cheerfully self-imposed blindness of what the music world is really like outside the major markets. Whatever the reason, I would have been embarassed to offer such a broad overstatement in national media with so little data, other than personal taste and conceit, to support my argument.

Teachout opens his article with a reference to the troubles of the Pasadena Symphony and their issues in the Los Angeles market. He then manages to extrapolate the situation of a secondary orchestra in a major market to cover all second and third tier American orchestras: “Most [orchestras], after all, offer a predictable mix of ultrafamiliar classics and soufflé-light pops programs.” Of course, that would depend on what one’s definition of “most” is. In my experience and survey, programming among American orchestras varies wildly from adventuresome to mundane with qualities that vary wildly as well—but data most certainly does not exist to paint “most” music programs with such a broad brush. Teachout goes on to offer that regional museums and regional drama programs do not suffer the same issues. He cites as example Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Palm Beach Dramaworks as those with interesting mixes of contemporary and classic works. Perhaps, but there are numerous examples of American orchestras that do the same. And equally, there are unfortunate examples of regional theatres with little programming imagination.

Teachout really steps off the path with “A century ago … live performances were the only way to hear music you didn’t make yourself. But downloading and the iPod have made it possible to hear great music whenever and wherever you want. Is there any point in going to hear a pretty good live performance of a chestnut like Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations” or the Schumann Piano Concerto?… For a fast-growing number of Americans, the answer is no.

Of course, technology has changed, and is changing, the ways we hear music. But exactly which Americans is Teachout speaking for? And how many Americans who are truly interested in music would dare to compare a live performance, any live performance, with that of a digital ear-bud dependent recording?

Despite making unsupportable broad statements, Teachout’s failing is that he has an extremely narrow “blinders on” view of the arts in America. He sees music, and perhaps all art, as a personal gratification like thumb-sucking, instead of the society-wide benefit to performers, audiences, and communities. Is there room for more imagination in arts programming outside the major markets in the U.S.? Yes, absolutely. But before weighing in on art in America, perhaps Teachout should see, and hear, a little more of it.

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One response to “In Support of American Orchestras

  1. Nice post. I read Teachout’s article and found it completely ridiculous.