Somewhere my friend, Ernest Fleischmann, is chuckling.
Ernest gave me my first break more than 20 years ago when I was just a young punk trying to figure out how to get into the conducting business. He was the Great and Powerful Oz reigning in his Emerald City of Los Angeles, and for some strange reason the ex-pat from South Africa and the crazy black kid from Buffalo, N.Y. got along. If I had actually listened to most of the advice Ernest gave me my life and career would have been very, very different. But that’s neither here nor there. What I did listen to was the famous 1987 rant of his proclaiming the death of the orchestra, and many of my friends listened to it as well. We were all nearing the end of our conservatory lives and suddenly this mover/shaker had thrown down a tremendous gauntlet which we were determined to pick up.
Then reality set in.
This may come as a shock to all of you but the Classical Music business is not exactly a bastion of ultra-radicalism. “Change” is most definitely a four letter word in the industry. Though just about everyone I know of my generation who heard it was immediately inspired by Ernest’s vision the reality of the situation was that the vast majority of us went out on the traditional audition circuit, we got traditional jobs, with traditional orchestras, or traditional colleges, playing traditional music, etc. etc. etc. Sure, we’ve all heard of Bang on a Can or Eighth Blackbird, but let’s be honest – how many of us play with those ensembles? My generation continued the journey that every generation before them has gone on – the art of surviving, or even making a decent living, as a musician.
But now the gauntlet that Ernest threw down all those years ago is slapping us in the face. For every “top 10” orchestra with a 52 week season, tours , a recording contract, and an endowment in the multi-millions, there are 10 more orchestras facing deficits year in and year out that have discovered that the fiscal model that we have used for decades might, just might, not be viable anymore for the rest of the business. We can bemoan this change all we want. That will do nothing but cause us to ignore the inevitable and delay the transition.
Ernest saw it. After all the years he spent in the business he saw the writing on the wall, and so he offered his challenge. Most of the business either laughed him off or thought that the old man had finally cracked. But the generation still in college heard, and listened, and it took 20 years and a financial collapse of epic proportions for his ideas to bubble to the top and that generation to come into its own. Now, suddenly, those ideas seem to be the basis of the whole Detroit Symphony situation. That article I linked to is fascinating, and there are two moments that leap out and scream for attention. First, what has been going on in Memphis? Almost completely below the radar this orchestra with a $4 million dollar budget is blazing forward along the very path that Ernest laid out. This paragraph about how the Memphis Symphony operates cannot be over-emphasized:
The work ranges from student mentoring and teaching to a musician-produced concert series. One player produces a radio program, another works on the symphony’s Web site and two others do music therapy work. About 85% of the players participate and individual assignments are chosen in consultation with management. Lansing-born violist Michael Barar, chair of the orchestra committee, says the system was at first met with skepticism but that most players find the experience rewarding.
Change, originally met with extreme skepticism (I’d be willing to bet my entire year’s salary that Mr. Barar vastly underplays some, if not all, of the initial reaction to this whole idea) but now a whopping 85% of players are involved. I am not surprised by this since this is work most of us already do! Whether it is teaching, community outreach, going into schools, producing, whatever – many of us do this on a daily basis. For us there is more to music than just playing our instrument onstage. It is telling that many of the major conservatories have drastically changed their curricula over the past decade to stress these changes in how our profession functions. And, since those who are in charge of public education in this country have seen fit to expunge music from their schools, what other institution besides the local orchestra can possibly step into that void?
Second, there is this absolutely critical sentence from one of the members of the negotiating committee in Detroit, ‘Cellist Haden McKay:
“Detroit doesn’t want to be first.”
And there you have it. In this or any other language syntax is everything, and in this one little sentence is a direct admission that an industry wide move in this direction is all but inevitable. Funny enough, whether Detroit is the first or not is almost completely irrelevant. I know of at least two other top 30 budget orchestras where management has asked for musicians’ contracts to be re-opened specifically to lay the groundwork for these kind of changes. If Detroit doesn’t want to be the first then they only have to wait a couple of months, or at the most a couple of years. However, it is going to be very hard swim against this current. I detect a sea change in the business coming on and if we want our orchestras to not just survive, but to truly prosper, then we should all get onto this bandwagon as soon as humanly possible. It is Change, and Change is the one truly inevitable thing in the world, even in classical music.
Ernest may have been (in the words of Martin Bernheimer) “ruthless, a manipulator, and very smart and very progressive.” I doubt if anyone who knew him would really challenge that description. But his legacy might be found in that famous rant. That has the potential of sowing the seeds of the next revolution in the classical music industry, a revolution that is long overdue.
Thank you, Ernest. Sleep well, my friend.