Nashville is a fine place to live! Last weekend I went to see our treasured symphony play in our world-class hall, the Schermerhorn. They played selections from Leonard Bernstein and Dvorak’s 1893 New World Symphony. The night started as it always does for us, up in the wine bar listening to a pre-performance lecture. On this night, it featured the symphony’s concert Master Jun Iwasaki. For thirty minutes, Jun gave us an inside view of the work he puts in off stage and outside of symphony hall. He works on bowing patterns for upcoming pieces and with the conductors to help bring their vision of a piece to life, not to mention the myriad of tasks in his role on stage and off stage, as the conductor’s liaison with the symphony. He may not be hauling in amps and speakers into a smoke-filled bar or hauling them out at 2am into the back of a barely street-worth Jeep Cherokee (or maybe he is,) but his is just another example of how much work goes on with musicians behind the scenes of what we all see on stage.
The concert was as always, expertly played and heartfelt. After the concert, like most nights, there is an informal gathering with the conductor and the soloist at the back of the hall for another short lecture and Q&A session. On this night, it was guest conductor, Maestro Lawrence Foster and the brilliant Russian born pianist Kirill Gerstein. Barely ten of us showed up in the last rows of the hall for the after-performance talk. It began with the Foster giving us some funny and insightful anecdotes about the pieces and the times in which they were written. There was also some inside baseball on what it’s like to tackle such pieces as a conductor versus a soloist. All very interesting, but quickly overshadowed by a single question from a young woman in the audience, probably in her early 20’s. She asked of Larry Foster, simply and directly, did he have any advice for a young concert conductor looking to break into the business. He replied curtly, “don’t do it!” The reply seemed the standard joke and it received the obligatory laughs, but he was serious, sadly serious. He stated that he had never seen the state of music, especially live performance, so fragile and seemingly anemic. He said to her, “I’m not sure there will be a business of music for you to make your living in by the time you educate yourself, work hard and take the necessary risks, and I am devastated to tell you that.” At 73 years old, Larry Foster has truly seen it all and done it all, so his diagnosis of where the state of the arts is heading, is both damning and difficult to refute.
That single question and answer sparked an open discussion about arts education, arts funding and the overall role of arts in a society. Though alarming, it was incredibly refreshing to have this discussion outside of my own narrow field of country, acoustic and bluegrass music, and with people so incredibly credentialed, that they could have their say without worrying about whose toes they were stepping on. We talked about how competitive the slots in almost any symphony have become as competitive as slots on a commercial album have become. And when you get the slot, the pay is rarely what your work or talent level deserves. We talked about how the public is far less supportive of live performance than they once were and certainly less interested in paying the kind of money they would be willing to pay at a sporting event or a night out drinking.
Maestro Foster talked of his second home in Italy. He angrily denounced Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon and three-time Prime Minister of Italy for his evisceration of the arts in that country. Berlusconi, through his Minister of Culture, had a habit of opening many of the country’s famous opera houses during daytime hours in order for tourists to visit. They would take pictures behind red velvet ropes and return home with a musical snow globe of the very place where opera was born. However, those same opera houses were shuttered to performances at night, due to the lack of funding. That brought about a spirited discussion of public government funding versus private grant funding of the arts and the role politics and big business plays in the withering of a once vibrant art scene. There were no shortages of people and entities to be blamed during that conversation and rightfully so. But it got me thinking.
The powerlessness that comes from blaming others is exponential. I don’t think Maestro Foster was intentionally skirting personal responsibility; in fact, he struck me as a passionate warrior for the arts. However, the demise he so angrily and eloquently laid out, ultimately can be laid at our own feet. For example, as independent musicians, angry with corporations for their thievery and one-sided contracts, we ultimately began giving our music away in trade for email sign-ups, Facebook likes and the promise to attend one of our future live shows. The same live show no doubt, that was already free or severely undervalued. The worth of a song, a performance or any art, especially art based on intellectual property, seems not a victim of murder as much as it does suicide.
Taxpayers decide what governments spend on programs in the end and somewhere along the way, our priorities changed for the worse. Considering our embarrassing cutback in the arts in grade school and high school, and that the current generation is growing up with the 99 cent song or the free download as an expectation, I am not optimistic about those tax priorities changing any time soon. It’s like watching a slow-motion accident on endless loop.
This is a topic worthy of another blog, or maybe one thousand more blogs. It is definitely worthy of more thought and soul-searching than the reactive soap-boxing I have mustered here. That said I have come to one conclusion about art and culture priorities in this country and around the world. It’s the same conclusion I have always come to when confronted with all other social or economic ills. When we say, “they are doing this and they are refusing to do that,” we somehow have forgotten that we are the “they.” We are the “they.”
I just wonder what “they” are going to do about it now.
Mark Elliott – Runaway Home
It’ the Music That Makes Us Smile