Do regional orchestras still make artistic sense?

Terry Teachout, of the Wall Street Journal Online doesn’t seem to think so.  He asks:

What, if anything, justifies the existence of a regional symphony orchestra in the 21st century? Many people still believe that an orchestra is a self-evidently essential part of what makes a city civilized. But is this true?

He goes on to compare regional orchestras to regional museums and theater companies.  These are probably good comparisons to make, since it’s probably the same group of people who are attracted to these artistic activities.  But what point is Teachout driving at with this comparison?  He first offers that the justification for museums and theaters is obvious, all you have to do is go and see it and it’s value is self evident.

Let’s start by considering some superficially similar cases. What justifies the existence of a regional museum? In the case of, say, Kansas City, Mo.’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the answer is self-evident: The quality of the art in the museum’s collection, which includes such eye-popping treasures as Caravaggio’s “St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness” and one of Monet’s most spectacular water-lily panels, is its own justification.

What about theater ensembles? Palm Beach Dramaworks mounts first-class productions of a sophisticated repertory of classic and modern plays in its 84-seat theater. In recent seasons it has presented such challenging shows as Eugène Ionesco’s “The Chairs” and Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen.” Once again, the justification for its existence is self-evident: All you have to do is take a look.

However, Teachout doesn’t see the same value in attending a performance by a regional orchestra.  He bemoans the programs of familiar and overplayed classics and the pops concerts.  He would rather download an MP3 and listen to the same music at home than go hear it performed live.  I know many others feel the same.

He continues:

I speak as a devout believer in the power and permanence of Western classical music. But if I were the head of the Podunk Foundation and had to choose between funding the Podunk Philharmonic and a nonmusical group identical in quality to Palm Beach Dramaworks or the Nelson-Atkins Museum, I’d dump the orchestra in a heartbeat. The best regional theater companies and museums provide an aesthetic experience that cannot be duplicated by any other means. Not so third-tier orchestras. Their primary historic function has been rendered obsolete by technology, in much the same way that many of the historic functions of regional newspapers have been usurped by the web. You don’t have to buy a ticket to the Podunk Philharmonic to hear Beethoven’s Seventh any more than you have to buy the Podunk Times to figure out what movie to see on Saturday night.

Teachout ignores the role that similar technologies affect museum and theater attendance.  Why go see a play when you can go watch Avatar in 3D?  Or simply wait for the DVD to get mailed to you and watch it at home.  The number of people who have viewed artwork in a museum is tiny compared to the number of people who have seen that same art in reproduction in a book or on the internet.

But more problematic to me is the implication that the experience of hearing a good orchestra (and many regional symphonies are quite fine) perform great works (and even overplayed great music is still good).  Teachout claims to be a music fan, but most serious music fans I know prefer to hear music performed live when possible.  Just as the experience of watching a play in person is so much more than watching it on a screen or seeing a work of art on the computer monitor, watching the music being performed in front of you in person is an experience unto itself.

He is correct in that keeping regional orchestras alive is going to require more than simply trying to aim towards the lowest common denominator and keeping your fingers crossed.  He compares it to the newspaper business and in many ways this seems like a valid comparison too.  Americans consume their art very differently today than when many of these regional orchestras were originally formed.  Tastes in music are also quite different and change quickly.

My participation in a number of regional orchestras, both professional and amateur, as a trombonist and board member perhaps makes me a little biased here.  Teachout seems to be playing devil’s advocate and in that role raises some interesting questions that I think I’ll blog about later.

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