A Case for Quality

The following essay is an expanded version I wrote for the Boston Symphony program book of a blog post I wrote last spring while on a European tour with the BSO. For a more darkly  entertaining perspective on the world of classical music, please consider “Devil’s Trill: The Audio Book.” Here’s an audio sample. See the end of this essay for details!

screen-shot-2017-01-23-at-8-05-09-amAndris Nelsons and the BSO at the Musikverein in Vienna, May 9, 2016 (Marco Borggreve)

A Case for Quality
by Gerald Elias
Prompted by his experience on the BSO’s eight-city European tour last spring, former Boston
Symphony violinist Gerald Elias reflects on the enduring strengths of symphony concerts.

Last April I had the opportunity to perform Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with the BSO at
Symphony Hall and on its spring European tour. The ninety-minute symphony is a challenge both for the musicians and audience. Its relentless intensity and extended tonality keep it always outside the edge of our aural comfort zone, especially compared to the facile lyricism of a Tchaikovsky or Dvorák. When the Symphony Hall performance ended and the musicians stood up to take our bows, I looked out into the audience. There usually is enough light in the hall to see the faces of concertgoers applauding, at least near
the stage. Their expressions are a good gauge of how much they enjoyed the concert.
What I saw was more than gratifying. Not only was it clear the performance had been
deeply appreciated, I was pleasantly surprised to see a fairly evenly balanced demographic
division of people in their twenties and thirties, forties and fifties, and sixties
and seventies. And it wasn’t just a fluke. It turned out to be the case time and time
again—in Vienna, in Leipzig, in Dresden, in Luxembourg—as well as at Symphony
Hall. I suppose I was surprised because there has been a drumbeat of naysayers who
prophesy the doom of symphony orchestras, telling us in somber tones that only rich,
old folks go to concerts these days. I’m sorry, but that’s not how I’ve seen things. Is
there a greater preponderance of older people attending symphony concerts than rock
concerts? No doubt. But no one seems to worry about Justin Bieber’s future simply
because his audience is severely limited to teeny-boppers. And to the notion that symphonies have priced themselves out of the entertainment market: going to a symphony concert is no more expensive than the average ticket for a Red Sox game, and a lot less than a box seat. So if you can afford to sit in the bleachers and polish off a Fenway frank and a Samuel Adams, you can afford the Boston Symphony.
A prevailing narrative, promulgated, amazingly enough, by some symphony orchestras’
own administrations (though fortunately not the BSO’s), runs like this: (A) Symphony
orchestras are in dire trouble. (B) The traditional symphonic format—the repertoire,
the two-hour concert, the white-tie-and-tails, the formidable concert hall—is no longer
relevant to contemporary society. (C) For the concert experience to be meaningful, and
therefore in order for orchestras to survive, it has to connect with a more diverse local
community and compete more actively in the entertainment arena. The proposed solution: Orchestras need to jettison the “standard” repertoire and create new formats in
less formal, more personalized settings that will attract a more contemporary crowd.
In other words, symphony orchestras should cool it with the symphonies. Otherwise,
we might as well pack our bags and go home.
I admit I’m exaggerating the argument, but not by much. Nevertheless, I find this narrative not only to be frightening, considering that the source of it is often the organization itself, but also flawed. First, I don’t see that orchestras are on the verge of extinction. On the contrary. People who make this argument are myopically fixated on only the top tier of professional symphony orchestras, and even in this regard it’s somewhat of a fiction.
There is no doubt that, as is the case with most nonprofits, raising money is a nonstop
challenge. When economic times are tough, orchestras struggle. (Yes, there are some
orchestras that continue to struggle regardless of the economy, and some have tragically

screen-shot-2017-01-23-at-8-06-43-am
Andris Nelsons and the BSO performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig, May 5, 2016 (Gert Mothes)

shut their doors, but in general when times get better, orchestras rebound.) In other
words, they’re like any other business. We don’t write off the retail industry when Sears
hits the skids. Why would we do that with orchestras? And don’t forget that during
the supposed “golden age” of American symphony orchestras in the 1930s and ’40s,
when radio stations like NBC supported their own magnificent in-house orchestras
and even movie theaters had their own live musicians, there were comparatively few
orchestras that provided anything close to a year-round concert schedule and full-time
employment for the musicians, let alone health care and retirement benefits.
Going beyond fully professional orchestras, when you look how deeply embedded
the culture of symphonic music is in American society, including hundreds of semiprofessional, community, youth, college, festival, and school orchestras, a strong case can be made that symphony orchestras have never been healthier. The same week
that I played the Mahler with the Boston Symphony at Symphony Hall, I performed as a
soloist with the Long Island Youth Orchestra, which was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary!
The same week I played the Mahler at Tanglewood, I coached the string section
of the all-amateur Stockbridge Sinfonia for their well-attended annual concert. Going
beyond our own shores, the explosion of symphonic music in Asia and South America
over the past half-century has been nothing short of mind-boggling. Even if classical
music in the U.S. and Europe were suddenly to cease tomorrow, the future of orchestral
music would still shine brightly around the world.
And you know what music everyone’s playing? Mozart and Beethoven, Mahler and
Strauss, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy and Ravel. You know why? It’s
simple. They composed great music. Musicians love to play it and audiences love to
hear it. So far, no one has tired of gawking at the Mona Lisa or the statue of David. Why
should listening to Beethoven’s Fifth be any different? Should symphony orchestras

screen-shot-2017-01-23-at-8-09-02-am
Performing Mahler’s Ninth at the Philharmonie Luxembourg, May 12, 2016 (Sebastien Grebille)

program more music of contemporary, ethnically diverse composers? Absolutely! If it’s
worthy music, by all means. But it’s ass backwards if the motivation is out of fear that
otherwise symphony orchestras will die.
But what about the format? The presentation? What about those stuffy concert halls
where you have to sit quietly for two hours and not use your cell phones? Isn’t there
a better way to connect with the community? Outreach and education activities are
great, especially considering the dwindling funding of public school music education. The
more the better. But how can such activities “save the symphony” if at the same time
the raison d’être—playing symphonies—is devalued by the very organizations trying to
“save” it? What would the purpose be of such efforts? If a group of symphony musicians
playing Piazzolla tangos in a pub floats their boat, that’s great. That would be a lot of
fun. Go for it! Getting to know the musicians up close and personal is a wonderful way
for the public to connect. And maybe it would eventually attract some people to go to a real
symphony concert. (Personally, when I’m at a pub, I’d rather watch a ball game while I’m
drinking my Rolling Rock than listen to string quartets. But, hey, that’s just me.)
But here’s the problem. Outreach has its limits. It’s a challenge to play Tchaikovsky’s
Fifth Symphony in a bar. I’m not sure how you’d squeeze all those brass players in there.
Maybe behind the pool tables. At some point it comes back to concert halls. Symphony
orchestras have no choice but to play symphonies in concert halls. And you know
what? Some people think it’s very special to go to a concert hall. In fact, a lot of people
feel that way. It gives them a sense of being part of something unique and special.
Maybe that’s why they’ve kept coming for three hundred years. We are fortunate that
the Boston Symphony was founded upon that principle and has steadfastly maintained
it to this day.
In this day and age when we’re surrounded by external stimuli 24/7, when our world
view is reduced to a two-by-four-inch cell phone screen, when our computerized existence frames us into thinking and feeling and responding in nanoseconds, the appeal
of two hours in the comfort of an impressively expansive and comfortable concert
hall, listening to an engaging Rossini overture, a sublime Mozart piano concerto, and
a heartwarming Brahms symphony may actually be something that people are more
inclined to enjoy more now than ever before. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of
the death of the symphony orchestra have been greatly exaggerated.

Gerald Elias, formerly a BSO violinist and associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony,
continues to perform with the BSO at Tanglewood and on tour. Currently music director of Vivaldi by Candlelight in Salt Lake City, he is also author of the award-winning Daniel Jacobus mystery series set in the dark corners of the classical music world.

For a darkly  entertaining perspective on the world of classical music, please consider “Devil’s Trill: The Audio Book.” Here’s an audio sample.

Screen Shot 2017-01-23 at 8.23.15 AM.png

Devil’s Trill, a Mystery in Sonata-Allegro form—with music performed by the author–is now available for pre-order! You can buy it for yourself, give it as a gift, and even get it for FREE* through this link: http://tinyurl.com/jehpm8u 
Devil’s Trill is the ­first-ever audiobook to integrate musical passages that provide clues to solving the mysteries. Author­ Gerald Elias, a renowned concert violinist, performs the music himself.
World renowned violinist, Cho Liang Lin, says: ‘Reading Devil’s Trill was a nonstop page-turning pleasure. Now that the words are imbued with the author’s beautiful violin playing, this audio version will surely mesmerize.
Produced by Alison Larkin Presents
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10 thoughts on “A Case for Quality

  1. judyinboston

    Great post Gerry! Must have been a fantastic experience. My husband and I still love to go to a symphony hall and listen to the music. It is, indeed, a unique experience and one that I shall always treasure. We have discovered that if we sit in the cheap seats, there are many more young people than in the high priced seats, although the cheap seats aren’t very cheap these days. Many years ago, when I was a freshman in college, I got a student rate season ticket to the Houston Symphony. Leopold Stokowski was the conductor. I heard Ravel for the first time ever. For most of my grade school years I had lived in small towns in Northeastern Colorado, and every year the Denver Symphony came out for several concerts. And I took piano lessons. So important to introduce kids to this music at an early age. Sometimes a piece will come on Sirius when we are in the car, I I’ll think, “I used to play that on the piano.”
    Really enjoyed your wonderful essay.

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  2. frances dearman

    Dear Jerry:

    Re-reading this essay in a post election/inauguration mood, I’m feeling a resonance of the whole “fake news” thing– Goebbell’s big lie, repeated and repeated until it overwhelms critical truth and historic perpsective.

    Truth: people love good music. Truth: demagogues tell lies, especially to incite fear, like “the sky is falling”.

    Evidence Based Truths: Like the US economy being near to full capacity, despite globalization. And the entire Ricardian theory of free trade advantage to all–the win-win solution. And two billion dollars worth of trade crossing the Canada-US border every day.

    Is it so hard to fact check hard actual true news? I guess one has to care….. and fear moves votes more than love. cf Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. Zero sum anger and nostalgia seem to be trumping (sorry) actual fact and critical analysis. Post truth…. Sigh…….

    Recalling your book with Lima Peru in it, and framing it in market terms: I am coming to believe that returning more music to schools might do more to fight drugs than doing useless things more assiduously– I believe it is the existential void that creates the market that drives the drug wars. Our own vacuity fuels the true carnage, funds the demand driven market, incites the carnage that afflicts the people of Mexico and Central and South America more than we privileged ones in el Norte.

    A lie goes round the world while truth is putting her boots on.

    Given that my first degree was a BA in Economics, I find myself fearful for the next four years. I find some solace in that the US Constitution was designed explicitly to rein in an arbitrary executive.

    So I sing. I sing with my church choir. And I sing with the County Classic Chorale of Essex County, Ontario.

    And I am about to send money to National Public Radio of Detroit, just across the river, where Eliza ran to freedom, in Essex County. Here in Ontario, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a historic site (near Dresden), not just a story, and the rule of law, so far, prevails.

    Did you know, Jerry, that when Paul Robeson’s passport was returned to him, and he could travel once again, his first concert was in Toronto Ontario….

    Happy Black History Month.

    See Canada Post for this year’s stamp, honouring Matthieu Da Costa, free black African adventurer, interpreter to voyages of exploration, possibly the first black man to set foot on North American soil, or Canadian soil, functional to interpret in Dutch, French, Portuguese, also his own African languages, also in the Basque pidgin that was intelligible to Mi’kmaq and Montagnais First Nation. It’s a great stamp…..

    Thank you for what you do to keep America sane, Jerry.

    Be well.

    These times do not define us, not entirely.

    Fran, in Leamington this year

    Interim Minister the Rev. Fran Dearman serving the Unitarian Universalist Church of Olinda, Essex County Ontario I read e-mail at random intervals; if your message is time sensitive, please telephone: home study land line: 519.398.8436 (home study and voice mail) dire emergency cell phone: 1.778.835.8616 (cell, no voice mail) ________________________________________

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  3. rlbaldwin2

    Excellent thoughts, Jerry. Precisely what our music students should be taught, even as we prepare for “the future.” We cannot throw out the baby with the bath water (let alone the Brahms with the tuxedos).

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  4. mrcuttime

    Hi Gerry, this is really great writing. As one who enjoyed a 22-year tenure in the Detroit Symphony (after subbing a year in BSO), I am in total sympathy with this widely-held perspective. However, I’ve learned that there are always other viewpoints, and that many can and DO disagree with us. It might do well for the industry in the long term to find the balance of services that PRESERVE the perfected tradition and services that ADAPT classical to form a bridge for the curious people who are not likely to jump into Symphony Hall without guidance.

    The saying goes, when you are a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The music we play is wonderful, unique, dramatic, cathartic, and classical in the sense of aesthetic architecture. For us, it may seem fine if no new people ever came to our concerts. If the Viennese have mixed-aged audiences, then surely Boston will eventually. But we must also admit what classical music SEEMS like to those we would like and NEED to eventually come to concerts: long, boring, anachronistic & foreign (to name a few). The questions become; Well what about them? Don’t they deserve to know what they’re missing? Don’t we need 2% of the wider public to attend? Don’t we need the vocal blessing of HALF of the wider public to keep receiving public funding? It may not seem so from the inside, but how often do we step outside our arts bubbles to inquire or just listen? Your Symphony 101 program still speaks to the choir.

    It will take more than Piazzolla to waken outsiders to the practical benefits of the symphony. As fun as that is for new audience, it doesn’t model develop like Tchaik or Dvorak. I began playing actual symphonic movements in restaurants, bars and clubs in 2010 as part of the worldwide Classical Revolution movement. (There’s a fledgling chapter called Classical Revolution New England on Facebook.) Anticipating that classical and symphonic music would eventually need to work here, if only to balance the “churchlike” tradition that maximizes the potential impact of the music, since 1994 I had begun transcribing lively, famous works for two ensembles of 4-8 musicians. Peter and the Wolf, symphonic dances and mvmts of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler, Still, Ellington and many more. I even began composing romantic works that blend in the folk music of OUR time (rock, blues, funk, gospel, Latin, bluegrass, hip-hop) to show what a universal expressive tool classical music can be; to show musicians and composers how to Americanize classical music for people expecting to see themselves reflected. We even add light drums in the fortes and let audience join in on eggshakers and other toy percussion.

    So it IS possible to create effective BRIDGES across the huge gap: they cannot be perfect, but need to be adaptable by placing the new audience at the CENTER of the music. As musicians, we need to TRANSLATE the why and the how of classical music. Those with the decades of experience can probably find the best words, such as analogies, for instrumental music. Take heart that you can leave it to the next generations to do this extra sacrifice. But on the other hand, you might become proactive and blend those great writing (and speaking?) skills with humor and fun, to turn outsiders into marginal insiders. We CAN have it both ways.

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    1. eliaspattn Post author

      One reason I write is I like to get readers to think and respond–whether they agree or disagree is really secondary. What you’ve written here is terrific, and I’m all for everything you propose. (In fact, I’ve done a lot of that–e.g. transcriptions from orchestral repertoire–as a soloist and in my string quartet). I’d like to post your comment as a blog in itself and also share it on Facebook. Can you give me your name, or am I stuck with Mr. Cut Time?

      Like

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