EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of the Boston Symphony Orchestra who published it in their program book and retain its copyright.
Last April I had the opportunity to perform Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (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 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 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 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.
“[A]nd the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and he became a living soul.” Genesis 2:7
Rhythms, melodies, harmonies speak to us of immaterial things
The modern world is full of false dichotomies. There are divisions between reason and revelation, fact and value, and male and female that require careful definition so that the desired joining of the two is possible. The division between the material and the immaterial, that is, the body and the spirit, is one of these. Genesis 2:7 speaks of forming Adam from the ground, and breathing into him the breath of life, or the spirit. Two things indeed, but curiously, the result of the combination of these two is the living soul. The one thing that seems clear here is that the soul is alive, and that it somehow is the combination of the two elements of matter and spirit.
The manner in which one walks can show the point of intersection between the physical and the spiritual – that is, the interface between the sensation of literal movement in sight and sound and the conclusions drawn about the intangible personality, mood, and emotional state of the walker. When the tempo of the walk is varied, observers draw different conclusions about the walker’s state of mind. What does tempo have to do with intangibles such as intention, friendliness, or confidence?
Plato’s famous lines in the third book of The Republic speak of how the musical modes are linked directly to the various character traits he is either for or against in his ideal City.
‘And which are the harmonies expressive of sorrow? You are musical, and you can tell me.’
‘The harmonies that you mean are the mixed and tenor Lydian…and such like.’
‘These then,’ I said, ‘must be banished…’
These modes are the basis for both melody and linear harmony, and when combined with rhythm made a place for music that was far larger in scope than that we offer today. That scope is nothing short of soul-shaping. In the conclusion to the Preface of his thoughtful book on musical aesthetics, philosopher Roger Scruton sees this scope:
It came as a surprise that so dry a question as “what is a sound?” should lead at last to a philosophy of modern culture. Had I thought more about the Pythagorean cosmology, and the true meaning of harmonia I should perhaps have known beforehand, that the ordering of sound as music is an ordering of the soul.
Plato seems to be recommending nothing short of government-run musical censorship. Our present-day enlightened embrace of all musical expressions is not so much the result of a hard-fought battle for individual freedom as a belief that music has no such powers to shape and affect the soul. If we really believed that music had the effect of training the next generation to be dissolute, irresponsible, and cowardly, we might find ourselves censoring music.
Listening to music is not the same activity as listening to sounds in general. The difference between them is that we listen to sounds in order to know the thing making the sound (the sound of a car or the sound of a baby crying), but we don’t listen to the sound of music to hear an oboe playing, or a guitar strumming. Rather, we listen to hear the sound it is making. We may recognize the sound comes from an oboe, but we want to hear what the oboe is playing. There is the source, but there is meaning in the order of the sounds themselves. The goal, when we listen to music, is to hear what it is saying: the contours of the melody, the harmony, the rhythm speak to us of a musical event. These elements are the medium by which the communications come – these elements are the language of the composer/performer.
Beauty is partly the correspondence between the material and immaterial
When we do hear these elements, we verbalize the experience in terms that are similar to other aspects of life. We describe personality traits, emotions, ideas, moods. Often unconsciously our minds are looking for patterns, symmetries, orders, and expressions that will speak to us of meaning. These physical sounds correspond to these intangible aspects of human experience. If there is a shape or trajectory to the experience of hurt in a broken heart, or the experience of awe before a King, it may be that composers can capture something of it in the various elements of a composition. The beauty of the work is partly the result of this perceived correspondence. There is something fitting, right, correct, or profound in a successful work that is beautiful, but to be able to perceive this correspondence, we need another element.
The imagination exists not so much for the purpose of making things up, but for recognizing correlation, relation between things – seeing connections. It is not by accident that we agree that the rhythm discovered in a brisk walk to the podium reflects confidence, or urgency, while a broken rhythm implies indecision, distraction, anxiety. We have experienced the connection between these things so often that we have learned to become fluent in this language.
Imagination is an organ of perception with which we can make this correlation: it pairs the physicality of a perceived music with human moods, characteristics, states of mind or personality. Just as we have linguistic metaphors, we also have musical metaphors. We describe the aspects of music in non-musical terms all the time: loud sudden outbursts may imply anger; melodies can be described as languorous, angular, smooth, tender, demanding, or questioning. These are by their linguistic nature metaphoric – the sounds themselves have none of these characteristics. Music is by its nature disembodied so if we are to speak of what it expresses, we are forced to use metaphoric language. The imagination grasps these relations. Could it be that our imaginations are not “making things up,” as much as recognizing a truth in correspondence? When we find just the right metaphor, when we hit on the right combination and communicate it precisely, it is part of the experience we call the perception of beauty.
The telos of music
Music is thought to be an entertainment, a diversion, a mood-setter, or a time-filler. But for the ancient and medieval scholars, music was a window through which one could see the created order, as well as a way of training the soul toward integrity.
The beauty of music is one of the sources of Plato’s hierarchy of love in the Symposium and in The Republic:
And therefore, I said, Glaucon, musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful; and also because he who has received this true education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, and becomes noble and good, he will justly blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth, even before he is able to know the reason why; and when reason comes he will recognize and salute the friend with whom his education has made him long familiar…
…Thus much of music, which makes a fair ending; for what should be the end of music if not the love of beauty?
Plato taught that a love of music instilled a love of beauty that spilled over into all areas of life, leading up the hierarchy to love of justice. Roger Scruton has written, “…beauty is not simply a redundant addition to the list of human appetites. It is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people. It is a need arising from our metaphysical condition as free individuals, seeking our place in an objective world.”
If the telos of music is beauty, how then do we teach music? By training our students’ imaginations, starting with how to hear the elements of music. The elements of Adam were matter and spirit, fused together to make a living soul that reflects the Imago Dei. The elements of music are: rhythm, melody, harmony, form, texture, and timbre, fused together to make a composition that can reflect the ideas, experiences, the very humanity of both composer and listener. Knowing what to listen for, we begin a new way of listening for the student. The ability to discern, to distinguish, to perceive the language of music is the beginning of genuine taste about music, and taste is a facet of wisdom. So music is forming our souls; it really does matter what we listen to, and what we offer in our services, just as it matters what our churches look like, and how our liturgies are designed, not only for didactic purposes – to have our theology correct – but to link the harmony of the Trinity with our daily lives.
So where does music come from? Is there more to music than emotional expression or mood setting?
“…I have called by name Bezalel…and I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge…” Exodus 31:2
The Greek Muses
Many of the Greek writers mention the Muses. Homer, Socrates, and others speak of them, but Hesiod is the one who speaks of the specifics that are commonly held. There are nine:
Calliope – eldest, epic poetry
Clio – history
Erato – love poetry
Euterpe – music
Melpomene – singer of tragedy
Polyhymnia – sacred poetry and geometry
Terpsichore – dance
Thalia – comedy and pastoral poetry
Urania – astronomy/astrology
These nine sing their inspirations. The Muses inspired far more than the subject of music only. Their subjects include all of our human artistic and intellectual pursuits, and the inspiration for each was conveyed by way of song. The very word music is taken from Mousike Techne (“the work of the Muses”). Nearly everything that we today refer to as “the arts and sciences” were, in the Greek mind, inspired through song by the Muses, and that inspiration leads Homer to compose The Illiad, leads Thucydides to write The Peloponnesian Wars, leads Sophocles to write Oedipus Rex, and leads Pythagoras to discover musical harmony and the music of the spheres. What comes is an approach which is so inspired, that is, that resonates with the truth to such a degree, that it will feed philosophers, scientists, and artists for millennia: the prerequisite for beauty is harmonia – the fitting, right, and mathematically sound interrelations of disparate objects. These Nine Muses were the keepers of the secret knowledge of harmony, and the significance of this knowledge and its power and influence over all of life are symbolized by the fact that they are the daughters of Zeus himself.
Beauty can be reflected in painting, sculpture, photographs, but there are arts such as plays, films, and music that include another aspect of human experience: time. As soon as you introduce the element of time, one’s perception of the work requires the ability to remember what has already occurred. Memory thus becomes a significant aspect in the immediate apprehension of these arts. To lose your memory is to lose yourself. If you can’t recall your identity, every effort must be made to rectify the situation. Memory is essential to identity. It is also essential to apprehending music, for exactly the same reason.
Music traces a pattern in the mind that lingers after the music moves on. The memory holds that trace, and the composer counts on our capacity to do so in order to describe the pattern fully. Like words in a sentence, we encounter music as moments in linear succession, but musical patterns are made without words; that is, the pattern is not literal but rather more like patterns in architecture or a garden because they too are each apprehended in succession. The Greeks gave one answer for both the questions: Where does music come from, and what part does memory play in its perception? We know that the father of the Muses is Zeus himself, but we seldom hear about their mother: her name was Mnemosyne (“Memory”). So, for real inspiration, great knowledge, for our right creative gifts to be released to do their jobs, to comprehend the nature of tragedy, epic, history, science, dance, even theology, we need the authority of Zeus, but we also need the knowledge of what has gone before – we need memory. This memory is not only of the previous words and notes in the artwork to which we presently attend, but the knowledge of our own history. What have great artists of the past done? How are we inheritors of their wisdom?
How then do we teach music? History. We need to remember. But there is one more thing to consider.
“Finally, brothers, whatever things are true,… honest,…just,… pure,…lovely,…of good report, if there be any virtue, and if there be anything worthy of praise, think on these things.” Philipians 4:8
Our day is as much the product of history as any other day. We are the inheritors of a relatively new field of study called aesthetics. It is a modern word, first coined in the 18th century, and discussed at length by Immanuel Kant and others until eventually the whole line of inquiry was relegated to the subjective world of values, to join her sister faith in that limbo. As a result, in the last 225 years, our culture has assumed that beauty first is only a matter of individual experience, and eventually, a matter of purely personal preference. Once the goal is mislaid, it is impossible to gauge whether a work is growing closer to it, so the loss of a telos requires the loss of a concept of excellence. Innovation and technical ability soon take the place of real imagination, correlation, and beauty.
Thus, the loss of what the ancient Greeks and Christians, as well as the Medieval Christians, thought of as excellence in art in general and music in particular is really a modern loss of confidence. The literal meaning of confidence suggests acting con fide (“with faith”). A lack of faith in God leads eventually to a lack of the ability to produce “simple predication” (as Richard Weaver would say). At first we lose the ability to say, “This is the point of art.” Then we lose the ability to say, “That is beautiful and that is not.” Then “that is art and that is not.” And eventually we find we can only say, “There is nothing more to art than the shock of the new; the expression that forces an audience to respond.” Reinstate faith, and we find ourselves led back to a definition of beauty that finds its source in the perfect character of God, and once He is our standard, “better” and “worse” are meaningful categories again. Beauty is the goal of art – I don’t say “prettiness” is the goal – I say beauty.
Then what is this beauty? How many philosophers have run aground making rules about beauty? What we need are not so much cultural standards by which to retroactively judge the beauty of an object; what we need is a useful foundational principle and definition of the word “objective.”
Objective beauty is simply that which is found in the object rather than in the response of the viewer/listener. Thomas Aquinas held that beauty was defined both by the characteristics of the object and the effect that object has on the viewer/listener. Ultimately, the Christian view of beauty will include both aspects in imitation of higher models, but when one’s day is dominated by the subjective side of the spectrum, as we are today, a reintroduction of the opposite side is welcome. We must reintroduce the study of form. When one describes the contours of the piece of music itself, the way it is composed, the way it is performed, the form it offers for contemplation, the meaning of the words chosen, one is describing the object itself, and the resulting opinion offered based on these things should be called “objective.” Don’t make the mistake of hearing “objective” as a synonym for “truth” as some will assume. The truth is far more illusive, and we have hardly scratched that surface with this approach. But what we have done is regained a category for musical discussion that requires thought. What we need is a definition of objective that leads to a fuller understanding of the work instead of considering a work based solely on whether or not we are moved by it. Teaching objectively about music means that we will address three aspects (at least):
Performance (an evaluation of the virtuosity of the performer)
Composition (an evaluation of the means of musical expression)
Content (an evaluation of the message or statement of the work)
All three of these require study, and that study will not only reveal what there is to know about the piece of music in question, but also will hone the sensibilities of the listener to be increasingly able to discern and explicate music. Over time, exposure to this sort of approach feeds our starved imaginations on excellence, and we find that instead of having to tell students not to listen to music that we might consider bad for them, they find they simply aren’t all that interested in the trivial, the base, the coarse. There would be nothing more encouraging for a music teacher than to hear a singer screaming his one-dimensional song of pain and passion, longing to be taken seriously, only then to see his student yawn and change the station.
A Theological basis for excellence
What then would be a basis for a Christian school intent on teaching excellence? We teach that taste is more than personal preference; it is a facet of wisdom. Taste is the ability to discern between what is good and what is excellent. Discernment comes more by way of regular exposure and experience (as a master trains the wine-taster’s palate or the piano tuner’s ear) than with rules and requirements. What is needed is a master teacher who can not only know music but make connections from music, by the imagination through metaphors, to the realm of human experience, and finally to real theology.
Any work of art requires an element of unity and of diversity combined. The Greeks debated about the one and the many, but great works have both elements. The reason is that the Creation itself reflects both unity and diversity in each of its categories (such as tree, fish, man), and we find we are only satisfied when the two are present. Too much unity? Tedium. Too much diversity? Chaos. Why should it surprise us that both the Creation and our tastes are created by a God who is ultimately both perfect unity and harmonious diversity in His Trinity?
The basis for the work of art-making is found in the doctrine of the Incarnation. We are taking invisible things such as ideas, experiences, feelings, and making them perceivable through the various physical media we use (clay, film, stone, paint, music).
Even the basis for an understanding of why we need musical education is theologically based. Our imaginations are damaged by the Fall as well. Through the study of music (or art in general) we grow in our abilities to see connections between things. In modern thought the damage done to our tastes is ignored by simply relegating the entire category of beauty to the dustbin of subjectivity, but a kind of human maturity can come as the result of taking the claims of beauty seriously. The reality is that we are aesthetically damaged as well as in every other way, and the only way back to fuller humanity is through prayer and a rethinking of the definition of taste for His glory.
Education is more than teaching about subjects; it is the training of the sensibilities to love that which is worth loving, attaching the heart to the good. Music has been taught in the Classical and Medieval worlds as a means of shaping the soul to live the good life. We need to rekindle an appreciation for music in that way, rather than offering either standardless popular music or esoteric academic music. I am convinced that if we were to take the connections to our theology seriously we would find we could reintroduce the general public to the concert hall again, as the music there would be relevant again.
So, how then do we teach music? We do it by way of comparison. Compare the works of our composers in the past and the present, and offer the foundation of criteria to evaluate the object, beginning with the performance, the composition and the content. Then, include the aspect of making music, by piano, orchestral and band instruments, and choral singing. The composition makes use of the form and elements of music, and that, with a sense of what the music is saying, leads the performer to his interpretation. It is what makes music meaningful to all concerned.
IV. Conclusions: a sacramental view of the world
“For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who claim to see shall become blind.” John 9:39
The Naturalism that disallows serious consideration of the supernatural has led to many unforeseen consequences, not the least of which is the loss of the spiritual purpose of material things. When Jesus calls himself the vine and us the branches, he has opened our eyes to an aspect of the Kingdom of God, but in speaking so, he has also given a great honor to vines. Without the supernatural dimension in our thinking, we may still have vines, but on closer inspection, we will find that vines have lost something in the transaction. They are somehow less grand.
In the same way, a sacramental view of music grants a special honor and significance to music – a position that allows us insight into the mind of God and his Creation by way of harmony.
The combination of a sacramental view of the world with a holy imagination can feed the soul with visions of the transcendent through the details of the world. This is beauty – the correspondence of the material object with the transcendent spirit – a resonance of harmony heard through the din of the fallen world. Please note I do not say in spite of the fallen world – although it is that at times – but even by way of the fallen world. This is the power of God: to show His harmony even through the elements of brokenness around us.
A sacramental view of the world suggests a metaphoric relationship between the physical and the spiritual, and this in turn gives rich depth to metaphors of all kinds, including musical ones. It also gives us a purpose for art and music: beauty. Beauty is at least in part the recognition of the correlation of matter and spirit, and we need to teach the next generations to unpack those metaphors – to see sacramentally. This requires the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit, the true Muse the Greeks could only guess about, and the gift God gives us of an imagination.
Beauty has lost its way in the 20th century in that we have lost our connection with the transcendent – that is, you cannot have the experience of seeing through the objects of this world into the next if you no longer believe there is a next. Naturalism, that seemed so optimistic in the 18th century, now appears a dead-end intellectually. Nature apart from her Creator becomes meaningless matter, and sadly, human enterprise can aspire to nothing higher than that same soul-less existence. The modern man (and I include the post-modern man in this) is haunted by his own humanity, seeing the ghosts of meaning, significance, ecstasy, profundity, joy, in the daily grind of his life. When he stops to reflect, he senses the musical rhythm in his breathing, his heartbeat, his walking pace; sometimes there seems to be more to eating meals than sustenance; he catches the notion of harmony in a well-run football play; perhaps a momentary glimpse of unity where he most expects diversity, say in his marriage; or diversity where he most expects unity, say in his twin children; he may even lift his head from anxiety long enough to find a certain joy in the rhythm of sleeping and working, or maybe looking back on a long life, discern even a kind of melody in his days, a certain beauty in the rise and fall of his fortunes, each connected in a line to the others in ways that couldn’t be seen while going through them.
This is what music is for. More than simply a means of distraction from the hard aspects of life – like a sort of emotional drug used to deaden us or entertain us while we rest – music has the ability to outline something of the actual experience of living. It speaks of the human condition because it is, like any metaphor, the use of the physical material of this world to draw attention to that which transcends our present moment. It has the ability to both reflect our experiences and shape the way we see them.
Music education then, has the ability to remind us of the relation of this matter and spirit, shaping our souls to love the beauty of harmony. This is why the ancients educated by way of music and gymnastics. This is why music has always held the position it does in the Quadrivium. Musical education leads to a love of harmony in all things.
How do we teach music? The elements, the history, the comparisons of excellent works, and finally the extension of this harmony – which is the beautiful relation of disparate things – to all aspects of life: to justice, to marriage, to virtuous business relations, to love of those who are different than yourself, to math, science, philosophy, and ultimately to the Triune God Himself. The beauty of harmony tunes our affections to virtue, love, and the mind of God.
Music rightly understood cannot save our souls, but what writer and critic Donald Drew has said about great literature applies to music as well, “after experiencing it, there will be more of a soul there to save.”
Plato. The Republic, Book III.
Scruton, Roger. Aesthetics of Music.
_______. “Beauty and Desecration,” City Journal, Feb. 2009.
In the first part of this series, I acknowledged that there may be something wrong with the pursuit of luxury as exclusionary and materialistic, and that orchestras at least are right to be suspicious of it. But I also suggested that the things we most highly value are often those things that are surplus to our basic needs precisely because they reach beyond niggling reminders of our material world to present us with something that transcends our time and place in it. This class of surplus things we might call meta-luxury because, though they represent luxuries in the sense that they exceed our basic needs, what we value in them lies beyond anything we could define as material luxury. Classical music is only one example of this special category of things, but it is a particularly apt example because music itself is essentially nonmaterial.
Perhaps for this very reason Manfredi Ricca and Rebecca Robins chose a Stradivari violin as the striking cover image for their bookMeta-luxury. Even more telling, of course, than a book’s proverbial cover is what’s inside it. In this case, inside the book classical musicians feature in three of ten conversations with inspirational people throughout the world whose legacies, practices, and achievements embody the values and principles of meta-luxury. Ricca and Robins set out, roughly within the disciplines of business philosophy and branding strategy, to understand the nature of enduring and iconic success – especially in light of the changing attitudes of today’s consumers, who face a marketplace glutted with meaningless luxury and materialism. Their discoveries about meta-luxury describe a deeply rooted culture of excellence, and lead them quite naturally to classical music.
It is absolutely critical for those of us who go about the business of classical music and who strategize its future to understand what exactly it is that makes classical music valuable to those we need to and hope will invest in it. That, in turn, must translate into our unwavering commitment to a positive vision. It is not enough, for example, for us to resolve to move away from an ill-suited association with the vulgar materialism of luxury. We should know specifically what we are moving towards; otherwise our moving is only a wandering. Or else it is not really moving at all, and we only stand around kicking at the box we busily congratulate ourselves for having just got out of. And we must have no illusions or flippancy about the direction we choose. Rejecting the “elitist” luxury of fine wines in the lobby, for instance, in favor of something we may think of as more populist – say, peanut shells on the floor – is not rejecting materialism, but in fact only changing the flavor of it. We must look much deeper than that to understand our strategy. In business we should be guided always by principles that describe the thing that we are about – in our case, with the thing that classical music is. And if our original instinct to reject luxury is correct, that is because classical music is certainly not just one more flavor of materialism.
I suggest that, like Manfredi Ricca and Rebecca Robins, we will discover a natural harmony between the principles and values that describe classical music and those that define meta-luxury. Even more significantly, I propose that we will also find that those principles and values resonate most deeply in our human nature, transcending all the boundaries that so worry us when we contemplate the problem of luxury – boundaries such as age, race, or class.
We might agree that we already have a general consensus about what luxury is. We are much less familiar, however, with the idea of meta-luxury. It is tempting to assume meta-luxury is really just some kind of mega-luxury. So perhaps we should begin by making the distinction plain. In their book, Manfredi Ricca and Rebecca Robins offer us a vivid and practical comparison:
‘Luxury’ is often self-proclaimed status; meta-luxury is always a restless pursuit. ‘Luxury’ is often about showing; meta-luxury is always about knowing. ‘Luxury’ is often about stretch and surface; meta-luxury is always about focus and depth. ‘Luxury’ is sometimes about ostentation; meta-luxury is always about discovery. ‘Luxury’ is often merely about affording; meta-luxury is always first and foremost about understanding.
It becomes clear in this light that meta-luxury is not just more or bigger luxury, but something that exists in a realm beyond it – in the same way that meta-physics exists beyond physics. It moves according to a different set of principles and embodies a very different philosophy.
Ricca and Robins go on to identify Knowledge, Purpose, and Timelessness as the three principles that drive the creation of meta-luxury. It’s important to remember that what drives the creator of meta-luxury is not the thought or idea of meta-luxury, per se, but rather the relentless pursuit of human achievement – and we can understand that achievement as the result of a tireless pursuit of knowledge, purpose, and timelessness. The creator of meta-luxury, too, is reaching for something beyond purely material manifestations.
From the very beginning man has cherished and sought after knowledge. It was the Tree of Knowledge, after all, for which he gave up paradise. Our libraries are full of books, but it is not the paper or the ink, however old, that makes them a treasure. It is the knowledge contained in them – hard won, pressed by time from the toil of human experience – that we consider priceless. And it is the value of that knowledge that makes it sacrilegious to burn a book – any book. We send our children, at whatever cost, to get an education because we know that knowledge is what will make their lives better – and not just in material ways. It is like the rising tide that lifts all boats.
And what is the tradition of classical music if it is not a repository of knowledge? From the instruments, some of which are still carefully crafted according to specifications mysteriously perfected ages ago, to carefully preserved compositions that chart, for instance, the developments in polyphony or the art of the fugue over the course of centuries, to the expertise and musicianship of the instrumentalist who learned under the watchful care of a master and spent untold hours in disciplined practice as now his own students do…to the tradition itself – the continuous and intimate relationship that the music has had with our history, with our dreams, our triumphs, and our tragedies…what is this but a most exquisitely complex repository of knowledge?
We have nothing to do here but to be what we are. The music only survives if the knowledge does. We all know this and always have.
Knowing just that, perhaps, is part of the conviction of purpose that drives the classical musician. But we know our purpose is more than that, too. It is also the purpose of mastering the practice and performance of these instruments and this music, learning to deserve this repertoire and our teachers, becoming a part of the legacy, and taking our place in the living tradition. It’s nothing less than a focus of purpose that compels the musician to spend a lifetime in the practice room when so many easier and more flirtatious diversions are always at hand. Likewise, it’s purpose that makes the devotee overcome life’s myriad little hurdles to find his seat in the hall on a Friday night and to sit, enchanted, through three movements of a concerto he’s never heard before.
Classical music is not a meandering even if there is a fair amount of serendipity involved. It is mostly a striving, with a purpose to be part of this thing that is bigger than you and that extends behind and before you.
And this leads naturally to the subject of timelessness. Music doesn’t necessarily belong to the moment in which it’s born. It is, of course, a product of the particulars of its birth, but it is also something universal. Much of the classical music born in our day will be forgotten and even more of it will never be heard. That is true of all eras, and our canon – like all canons – represents a small selection of the music that is our inheritance. It is the selection of music that has survived the amnesia of ages, the ravages of history, and the fickleness of fashion. And there will be a canon that has survived the ages to come, too.
But what is most astounding is that we can be more familiar now with a Bach cantata than almost anyone living in Bach’s day might have been. Bach wrote his music “for the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” Did his contemporaries consider him irrelevant because he wasn’t writing music to address the problems of his age? Maybe we can imagine that they did. But when we turn our efforts toward the task of making ourselves relevant to a specific time, we risk forfeiting the timeless. It is because Bach recognized and reached toward the universal with his music that he is still relevant today. In fact, he is not only relevant, he is one of the most loved and respected composers of all time.
Classical music is essentially timeless. It lives only in the moment when it is being played and listened to. And when we bring a score to life again, we are playing the very same notes that were played perhaps centuries ago. Each musician brings to the performance something personal – and so does the listener. Like the composer, we participate in the miracle of touching the universal through the particular. And long after we and our world have passed away, the music will continue to live for as long as there are hearts, minds, and hands that learn to play it.
Returning to the earlier, only slightly exaggerated example where we considered replacing fine wine with peanuts as the theme of our concert hall’s repast, we might now consider the strategy in a different light. Before choosing between “luxurious” wine and “populist” peanuts, we might look more closely at the values and principles that guide the creation of a fine wine and compare them specifically with those that go into producing a roasted peanut. And then we might ask ourselves which of the two offerings harmonizes with the principles and values that create, say, a violin, a musician, a symphony, or an orchestra. As Ricca and Robins point out:
[I]t is difficult not to see the paradigm of meta-luxury manifest itself in some of the world’s most respected wine-makers, where the wealth and depth of diverse competences, often passed on from one generation to the next for centuries, blend with an intrinsic conviction about wine being the celebration of the fullness of life in the creation of rare masterpieces, some vintages remaining as benchmarks. Knowledge, purpose, and timelessness.
We could easily substitute the craft of musicianship for that of winemaking – and music for wine – in that excerpt. In fact, I’ll wager that you already did. It practically begs for the comparison.
But read it again. Who can doubt that what they describe is exactly what moves those who really appreciate wine, just as it is exactly what moves those who really love classical music? It was never about status or ostentation for the aficionado of either. Instead, it was always about inspiration, discovery, and dedication. It’s quite possible, of course, to find those who drink fine wine for the show of it, or who attend symphony concerts for the same reason. But they are to be distinguished from those who partake out of genuine love. The future of our orchestras depends on the latter. They are the ones who will return again and again, who will bring their children and their friends, and who will deem us worthy of their philanthropic investments. They are the ones who understand and value us as a unique achievement, because their love for us is born of another, deeper love for the nonmaterial things that we embody: knowledge, purpose, and timelessness.
So, returning once more to our example, if we reject wine as a symbol of snobbery and luxury – or reject it in parts by offering the offensively simple and uninspiring choice of a Sutter Home “red” or a Yellow Tail “white” – in our concert halls, then for the sake of the pettiest interpretation of the choice at hand we will have at once misunderstood wine’s appeal and its real nature, misunderstood classical music’s appeal and its nature, and worst of all undeservedly underrated the universal aspirations and individual motivations of our human nature. We will have reprimanded those who most cherish us for a materialism that is not theirs. And we will have judged those who do not yet love us to be incapable of rising beyond the material appreciation for peanuts or the churlish reaction against ‘luxury.’ We will have certainly abandoned the thing that classical music most essentially is – that doorway that opens for each of us onto the nonmaterial world.
No one in business needs to be told that a mountain of misunderstandings and misconceptions is not a strategy for success. But business-wise, what is success in the paradigm of meta-luxury? It is precisely what orchestras and our great musical institutions already know it to be:
The right term to describe meta-luxury would, in fact, be one that is now abundantly used in other contexts – sustainability. In meta-luxury, business results are meant to sustain – and never to drive – the enterprise’s mission and ethos. Economic success is therefore a requisite and a consequence, but not a primary objective.
None of us chose a career in music because we wanted to be fabulously wealthy. In fact, the miracle is that we went into music despite the fact that we might have preferred to be filthy rich. But there was something more important to us than material gain.
And orchestras, too, exist not to accrue handsome profits, but to sustain themselves. They sustain themselves in order to sustain the art form in perpetuity. Again, we hear the echo of the thing we already are. We might do well to look more closely at this paradigm we so perfectly and naturally fit. And in the next installment of this series, we’ll do just that by examining what Manfredi Ricca and Rebecca Robins describe as the pillars of meta-luxury.
It shouldn’t surprise us that orchestras are distancing themselves from the idea of luxury. We generally and perhaps rightly sense that there is something wrong with it. The most obvious reason is the uncomfortable fact that luxury represents a category that might necessarily exclude us – or indeed anybody. That, of course, does not describe classical music, and the notion that it might solicits serious objections. But the problem of luxury goes even deeper than our egalitarian convictions and has serious ramifications for the symphony orchestra. For this reason, and because classical music’s association with luxury persists nonetheless both in the domain of luxury brands themselves and in the realms of popular culture, the subject deserves careful examination.
We may not, perhaps, recognize many of our efforts to eschew the lap of luxury as simply or overtly so. Instead, we might more immediately understand them as our response to shifting cultural realities and modern sensibilities. But those realities and sensibilities to which we are adjusting can also be understood as a reaction against luxury. For example, long ago luxury boxes gave way to un-luxurious boxes. Away went the sumptuous curtains and furnishings and the affectations that divided the audience with sharp distinctions suggesting class. Boxes began to resemble terraced seating, marked only by their proximity to the stage and the limits of their size. And now we see concert halls being designed without any box seating at all. Our immediate justification may be the predicted trend in ticket sales or innovation in the disciplines of concert hall design. But at the heart of it, what has really changed is our experience of the concert – more specifically, our social experience of it. What has changed is the way that we relate to each other as audience members and more broadly as neighbors who are also equals. Were someone to suggest the re-introduction of luxury boxes and their distinctions of exclusivity, I think we would learn quickly what our real objection to them is.
Or consider the increasingly controversial tradition of musicians’ tailcoats. Decried for being old-fashioned and irrelevant to our modern life, they will likely go the same way as luxury boxes in the end. But what’s important to note is that when they are replaced, it will be with something not simply more “modern” but, crucially, more informal. “Modern” alone will not satisfy the demand for change in this case because the tailcoat is, in fact, still modern. As it happens, white-tie events did not disappear with the dinosaurs. People do still attend formal affairs and they do still prefer to wear tailcoats that look very much like they did hundreds of years ago. The issue isn’t a matter of style, but rather a matter of luxury as a reminder of class-distinction. What we really want is something less evocative of the luxury of white-tie evening dress. If anything, for many of us it is luxury that has become old-fashioned.
But if the egalitarian objection to luxury is the most obvious, it is also – at least so far as the symphony orchestra is concerned – the least important argument against it. In fact, it grows out of the more pervasive and pernicious problem, which is the fact that luxury has come to suggest to us gross and conspicuous materialism. It suggests the pursuit of excess for its own sake, the glorification of gluttony. And the more obvious the display of luxury is, the more we sense that it is empty, ostentation being its sole substance.
Interestingly, the leeching of luxury into the mundane – of Louis Vuitton knock-offs, for instance, hawked on city street corners – and the popular cliché of “affordable luxury” attest to two important truths. The first is that most of us, regardless of our means, aspire to some level of luxury. I’ll come back to this point later. Secondly, for many of us luxury reduces to mere appearances. What matters is the appearance of the Louis Vuitton bag as such, and not any of the less obvious but arguably more important qualities that would distinguish the authentic article from its imitation. And for those of us who take home the fake, it doesn’t even matter that we know it really isn’t what it pretends to be. Our pursuit of luxury becomes largely a game of pretense, display, and excess – and one in which we must first deceive ourselves. That act of delusion chips away the gold veneer from the face of luxury, and we find staring back at us only the contorted visage of wanton avarice. So if we turn away from the idea of luxury in disgust, it’s most rightly because it has come to represent a vulgar and vain material world, littered with things we know to be inauthentic and trivial.
We are right to protest that classical music does not belong in this category. And yet it does represent something surplus to our material needs. Against this fact, of course, music educators are forever forced to battle. But if it is surplus, it is also essentially immaterial. Music does not appear as a physical object in our material world like, say, a handbag or a sports car. That it does not is the great challenge facing its advocates, who cannot therefore simply and empirically measure and sum its value, even for the sake of its defense. At the same time, that it does not appear as a thing in the physical world is the reason we can never conflate its value with its physical appearance. Instead, we value in classical music qualities that are also essentially immaterial – metaphysical qualities, which endure partly because they cannot be corroded like the physical qualities of material things, either by moth and rust or by the mockery of gross ostentation and cheap imitation. Perhaps it is for this reason that music belongs to the special category of immaterial and surplus things for which we will often sacrifice even our material needs. Indeed, many of the things that we value most highly in life are like this. Education, for instance, is like this, and so is friendship. For these things we are usually willing to sacrifice a great deal.
But while some things in this category, like friendship, might be free, other things like education and symphony concerts are generally not. And as is true for any category of things for which we can name a price or for which we are willing to make a sacrifice, we find that some such things are worth a great deal more to us than others. The question is, what makes one thing worth more to us than the next? Why, for instance, do we value this education so decidedly over that one? What distinguishes our best friend from all our other friends? We make these judgments all the time. And rather than it being simply a matter of taste, we often find our reasons in the fact that certain metaphysical qualities mean more to us than others – perhaps even more to us than a thing’s physical qualities. As difficult as these invisible qualities are to measure or quantify, most of us would have no trouble naming them.
This is also true of the immaterial qualities that belong to material things. While it seems that almost all of us aspire to some level of luxury, surely far fewer of us are motivated by abject materialism. In fact, for most of us it is likely the metaphysical and not the physical qualities of a thing that lead us to meet its higher cost in excess of our basic needs. Consider, for example, that you are presented with two apples. One is the conventional kind of apple you’d find in any supermarket: large, red, smooth, and waxed to an attractive shine. The second is not at all like that. It is a smaller apple, not nearly as physically attractive; but it comes from a small farm in central Pennsylvania where a third-generation farmer is taking great pains to conserve both the land by practicing sustainability and the old heritage varieties of apple that our supermarkets have forgotten all about. He doesn’t use pesticides or herbicides, and he loses a good deal of his crop every year because of that choice. For him, though, it is something like a labor of love. Most of us would not hesitate to recognize that the second apple is worth more than the first. And either will satisfy our basic need of hunger. In fact, perhaps the first apple, by virtue of being a little larger, would do so better. Nevertheless, many of us who have the means will select the second apple and duly pay more for it. The extra investment we make is an example of a kind of luxury – one based not on pretense and excess but rather on the value attached to metaphysical qualities.
This kind of luxury we could call “meta-luxury.” And it is the kind of luxury to which the avid skier aspires, for example, when he finally buys an expensive pair of expertly handcrafted skis. It is the kind of luxury that the very wealthy music patron aspires to when she invests in a rare violin that she’ll never even play. It’s the kind of luxury that moves the lover of books to bid on an illuminated, medieval manuscript when it appears at auction. And it describes the aspiration of the new professional who invests more than he can afford in a fine suit of cottage-spun and hand-loomed tweed from the Outer Hebrides islands. This is the kind of luxury that moves those of us who have rejected “luxury.” It is defined by values that transcend shallow materialism.
And it is those values that have already linked classical music with the idea of luxury. As much as we try to escape the connection, it is always and already there. Many of the world’s oldest and most respected luxury brands continue to associate themselves with classical music even while we try desperately to distance ourselves from their world. We see their advertisements printed in our concert programs. They sponsor our festivals. We hear our music in their marketing videos and in their showrooms. And we know it cannot be because classical music, which is entirely immaterial, lends them material grandeur. It’s quite the opposite. They are, in fact, the ones who supply the material grandeur themselves. No, it lends them metaphysical – or spiritual if you will – grandeur. What we sense in classical music is a set of transcendent, immaterial values, and these brands want us to know that these values are what they, too, embody.
What probably should surprise us is that these luxury brands – representing some of the longest-lived and most successful businesses in the world – firmly grounded in all of their worldly and material concerns, know what we pretend not to. And that is not merely that human nature aspires to something far more than the ordinary and to something surplus to our material needs, but even more importantly that our highest aspiration, whatever our means, is the one that seeks something essentially immaterial. This common impulse is neatly summed up in Oprah’s famous words, “Live your best life.” While to some that may conjure pink Lamborghinis, I hardly have to mention here that that’s not her point. And her point has not been lost on her many millions of subscribers.
Classical music, by its very nature, already represents some of our most treasured transcendent values – it is already like that second apple. Those of us who have experienced it and know it also know that it is already part of our “best life.” And as it is with so many of life’s most meaningful luxuries, the orchestra is also, by its nature, a costly proposition. So we must ask not how it can become cheaper or more common, but rather what are those values that make it worth its cost? The values that people are willing to sacrifice for are precisely what the orchestra should never sacrifice. Those, instead, are the values that should define it.
In the essays that will follow in this series, we’ll examine the principles of meta-luxury as outlined in the thoughtful book Meta-luxury: Brands and the Culture of Excellence, written by Manfredi Ricca and Rebecca Robins. We think this work is vitally important for orchestras and other institutions of classical music, and we encourage you to buy or borrow a copy and read it for yourselves.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an edited transcription of the address delivered by Richard Bogomolny at our inaugural The Future of the Symphony Conference in September 2014. View the video of this presentation in its entirety.
I just want to begin by saying what an honor it is to appear on this program with such highly credentialed speakers, and I don’t take this lightly. I’ve been asked to talk about how the Cleveland Orchestra operates, focusing more on the practical side. But along the way I have to tell you those things we believe in and those things we don’t.
My own personal history is that I grew up in the supermarket industry, and I retired from that business. I wouldn’t mention that except for Andy’s comments yesterday concerning potential problems when you bring too much business discipline into an arts organization and what the potential is for that, both good and bad. I’m glad I had the business experience to apply to it, but historically, when you become the president or chairman of this organization, you never lose sight of the fact that the art is the most important thing. Music is number one. We’d like to say that the musicians are number two and everything else is number three.
I grew up during the George Szell era. This was the era during which the orchestra became known far and wide for artistic excellence. There were two elements of pride for the community in those days. They were the Cleveland Orchestra and the Cleveland Browns – that’s where my head was when I was growing up. My mother studied at the Damrosch School in New York, which later became Juilliard, and my brother and I each studied music and grew up loving classical music. He played the clarinet and French horn and now plays classical guitar, and I the violin and viola. We both studied with prominent members of the Cleveland Orchestra and attended the national music camp at Interlochen for two summers. It was at Interlochen that I realized I was never going to be good enough to play at the level where I would like to play.
Here is a kind of disclaimer: while I think the kinds of things that impact orchestras today are fairly common among the orchestras, the solutions, in my view, have to be local. What works in Cleveland may or may not work elsewhere, and there are reasons for that. So I’m not here to say what things other orchestras ought to be doing simply because we’re doing them – it’s not that at all. And we make as many mistakes as the next organization does. Cleveland itself is a major part of what and who we are. But I think we have four issues in common.
It’s fairly obvious that financial resources – or the lack thereof – are a major issue in the industry. The development of audiences – their age, their size, and their demographics – is another thing. That leads to the third problem, which is lack of true diversity on the stage, in the boardroom, and in the building. The fourth thing is that none of us suffers from a lack of qualified musicians. The world is continuing to produce more and better musicians than the major orchestras of the world can possibly support. Unfortunately, on the issue of diversity and inclusion, because of years and years of trying and failing, I don’t think that I have much that is useful to provide for you other than a long study of things that didn’t work. So I’m going to talk about history a little bit.
The orchestra was founded in 1918 by Adella Prentiss Hughes. She had two things in mind, both of which have remained central to our existence ever since. Firstly, she wanted Cleveland to have a great orchestra and to avoid the need of always having to import touring orchestras for classical music. And secondly, she hoped the orchestra’s musicians would form a cadre to teach in the Cleveland public school systems. And for most of this time, this has been true.
In 2018 we will celebrate our one hundredth anniversary. We are planning a celebration not of the orchestra but of our community, which has supported us for all of these years. In addition to the Orchestra, we run the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, and the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Chorus. We involve in these organizations as many people from northeastern Ohio, and some from even further away, as we can.
Severance Hall was opened in 1930. At the time it was called America’s most beautiful concert hall and I believe that it was. In 1956 or so, George Szell completely revamped and improved the acoustics by changing the concert stage and removing heavy carpeting and drapes, but in the process he buried the six-thousand-piece organ in the ceiling, making it impossible to play. This was at the beginning of the era of high fidelity, and Szell believed that we would be able to play the organ and broadcast it through very large speakers that were installed in the back wall, but that never happened.
Later, we revamped the whole Severance Hall again. We renovated it, we added to it, and we brought the organ down to the concert hall level, where it now stretches around three sides of the stage and is very playable. The hall seats two thousand people, all with an unobstructed view. And the acoustics are really quite good. I think the acoustics are one of the reasons for what is referred to as the ‘Cleveland Orchestra Sound.’ It’s a stage where the musicians hear each other better than anywhere else they’ve ever played.
In 1968 we opened our summer hall at the Blossom Music Center. It sits on 200 acres in the middle of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It was completely renovated in 2002, and the serious work of providing better accessibility, not just for the handicapped but also for the aging population, is being completed in phases over the next couple of years. The pavilion seats 5,700 and another 13,500 can sit on the lawn, all with good visibility. The stage is at the bottom of a natural bowl, with seating and access from the hillside. Touring soloists and guest conductors tell us that it’s the most beautiful and best acoustical outdoor classical venue in the world.
Franz Welser-Möst has been our music director since 2002. He is under contract through 2015 and we’re in the midst of negotiations to extend that now. He just recently resigned as the music director of the Vienna State Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic. I think he had the second longest tenure of anyone there, but when he took the job he said, “I’m not going to complete my term; nobody does.” And he didn’t.
The Cleveland Factor
I want to talk about the Cleveland marketplace. In 1955, we had one million residents residing inside of the city’s legal boundaries. Today we have 390,000. The city went from a manufacturing powerhouse for cars, steel, and oil refinement to a service economy where the largest current employer is the Cleveland Clinic. We were long ago a top-tier economy, and we became a second-tier economy in the 1970s and ’80s. By the recession of 2007–8, we’d become a third-tier economy. Last week the US Census Bureau released new numbers that give Cleveland the distinction of being the second poorest city in America. Detroit beat us out for the distinction of being the poorest.
But surprisingly, for all these years, the Cleveland Orchestra has been supported by our community as a top-tier orchestra with all the associated costs that go with it. We’re the smallest city in the world to have such an orchestra, and it would be easy to conclude that the people leaving Cleveland moved into the suburbs, but the numbers don’t really back that up. It means that our funding base has deteriorated and that support for all of our area nonprofits has fallen to fewer and fewer sources. Many of the area’s Fortune 500 companies have moved elsewhere or have merged – several major banks among them. In 2007, after a very large campaign, the city created a pool funded by a tax of thirty cents per pack of cigarettes for the use of the performing arts organizations in the area.
There’s one other factor besides the economics to be considered, and that’s the historical generosity of the community. In the words of Fiddler on the Roof, I’m speaking about Tradition. In Cleveland, the tradition of philanthropy has origins in the early 1900s with Andrew Carnegie, the Rockefellers, the Severances, and others. It has continued to this day, measured by what the Cleveland Orchestra raises, what United Way, Jewish Federation, Catholic Charities, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and a mass of others have raised annually. I believe that the United Way was originally the Community Chest and it was founded in Cleveland. And the Cleveland Foundation, which was the first community foundation in America, is currently the second wealthiest behind New York City. That’s all going on while people are leaving the area and the economy turns from heavy-duty manufacturing to mostly service and medicine.
But one of the things of interest is the fact that the Cleveland Orchestra had the highest market penetration for both ticket sales and per capita donations in the industry. No other orchestra has developed even half of what we have achieved in their marketplaces. Yet balancing the budget has always been a struggle. And here is why: the nature of the industry. My predecessor as president of the orchestra, Ward Smith, defined a nonprofit as the symphony orchestra. Why? Because the revenue earned from ticket sales and sponsorships never covered, even in the best of times, more than 47 or 48 percent of what it cost to operate. In recent times, that number has been closer to 40 percent than to 50. Covering the other 53 to 60 percent of the annual operating budget depends totally on fundraising – whether you called it endowment, annual bridge, special, or by any other name or combination of names.
On the business side of the symphony orchestra, I believe this is all one really needs to know in setting priorities. Next to governments, for which most boards easily possess the talent – whether they have the will is another story – fundraising is where it’s at in terms of financial success or failure. Every one of our trustees has a fundraising plan to which he has agreed and assists in solicitations for the annual fund drive.
There are some broad principles. It’s often suggested that if the board does the job of fundraising the musicians will be able to keep up with their compatriots in other cities in terms of pay, benefits, and retirement. Conversely, any lack of resources to pay for these increases is generally the board’s fault. And I believe that this argument may in fact be true in certain instances, but it certainly isn’t in every instance and it’s way too simplistic – it’s just not true in many cases, and in others it’s true only by degrees.
I created the chart in Figure 1 not with the purpose to compare orchestras, but to talk about marketplaces. There is new data released by the US Department of Commerce that measures what it really costs to live – not what the CPI is, but what it really costs to live – in each of the areas marked in the left-hand column. The ranking is the regional price parity score from highest to lowest. One hundred is the average, so for anything listed as above one hundred you can assume the cost of living is higher than zero. Those listed as the bottom three, all less than one hundred, are the more impoverished cities. You can say that it costs less to operate there. In the last column you’ll see the actual percentage difference between the scores of Cleveland and the other cities. Cleveland is listed at the bottom as zero; New York is 37 percent more costly, based on this federal study, than Cleveland; and Baltimore comes in somewhere in the middle at 22.6 percent more costly than Cleveland. There’s one other thing that you can deduce from this information. For a dollar spent in Cleveland, you’d have to spend $1.37 in New York to buy the same market basket; $1.19 in Chicago to buy the same thing; and, surprisingly for me, $1.22 in Baltimore. The purpose of the chart is just to show you generally the economics of the twelve major orchestras that I listed there.
What that means is that Cleveland was the eighth-highest paying orchestra in terms of actual dollars, but its musicians had more purchasing power than all the others because of the marketplace in Cleveland. As I said, one dollar spent in Cleveland would buy $1.37-worth of products in New York City. Based on purchasing power – which none of the union players wants to hear about and so, to that extent, what I’m talking about is highly sensitive – the Cleveland Orchestra musicians clearly are able to afford the nicest standard of living compared to the musicians in all the other cities we’ve looked at. And that is, unfortunately, because Cleveland is one of the poorest areas.
But we also adhere to a legal principle: to agree to pay more money than what the figures tell you will be available – as many orchestras have tried to do over the years – is a breach of our fiduciary responsibility to the organization and to the community. And that’s how a lot of orchestras have got themselves into deep trouble, betting on the if-come, which in fact rarely does come.
Musicians like to look at how they stack up against their peers in terms of base pay as a pure number. I think this is certainly a psychological issue; it’s a feel-good issue. They want to be paid as well as Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, and New York, and the reason for that is the fact that they can, in many cases, logically say that they play as well. I would argue that these other things show much more than the relative base pay. But none of these arguments are the real reason for showing you these numbers. That, I will discuss in a couple of minutes. I just want you to keep in mind the background of these numbers.
What We Believe In
This is based on both personal and institutional experience. Let’s begin with Excellence. We believe that everything we do – every plan we form, every expenditure that we make – must be tested against what that action will do for or against the standard of musical excellence that we have followed for decades. In times of financial difficulty, only those activities not related to what we call being a world-class orchestra may be cut without consent of the board.
The other thing we believe in is the fact that it’s very hard to play an instrument at the level of the members of our orchestra, how very good the musicians have to be in order to get in in the first place, and how hard they must work in order to stay at that level and to uphold our artistic traditions. While growing up, many of these musicians were thought of as child prodigies in their own communities. It’s been my objective over the years to make sure that the trustees understand and believe that our musicians are special and that they, collectively, are the reason we’re in business.
We also believe that classical music is not dead, nor will the ability to hear any amount of music free on the Internet bury us. Our unwavering belief is that the live concert experience, with the audience being emotionally involved and connected to music, is enduring. You can ask our musicians and you’ll find that none of them buy into the proposition that classical music is dead. In fact, they’ve been asked that question by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which for the last few weeks has been doing vignettes on each of the members of the orchestra, and one of the questions they ask is about the death of classical music.
Last summer we set attendance records at the Blossom Music Center for most attendees, highest average attendance per concert, highest number of age 25-and-under attendees, and the highest revenue – even with ages 18-and-under being admitted free with an adult ticket buyer. And we achieved this in two fewer concerts than we had the year before. Some of this is programming – and some is weather and that’s accidental – but it’s nonetheless true that what we’re doing is not dying.
We believe that we are the most efficiently run of the major orchestras, based on statistical comparisons of operating size and budget – currently around $50 million – and considering the fact that we operate both Severance Hall and the Blossom Music Center. Very few orchestras own and run their own venues. The trustees understand that, operating as tightly as we do, it is no longer possible to save the orchestra from a financial crisis by significantly cutting overhead. That’s already been done and we don’t permit mission creep in this area. We recognize that investments, by definition, must often be made in advance of actually achieving desired results. We also understand that some initiatives will fail or be far less than hoped for.
We believe that it’s neither possible nor desirable to save money by trying to balance the budget on the backs of the musicians. In a crisis caused by events outside our control, we do expect them to participate in sharing the sacrifice, and they have done so in the form of freezes, slower increases, and extra services – within the whole organization, including the music director, the executive director, and the senior staff. It’s very interesting that when Franz Welser-Möst took the podium to be our music director in 2002, we were getting right into the first recession of the decade, and he volunteered 10 percent of his total compensation before he had even conducted his first concert.
We do believe that musicians and staff need to be fairly paid, recognizing and taking into consideration their highly developed talents and level of skill. Here is the reason for the chart introduced earlier showing the relative economies of the twelve orchestras. I know that what I say next is controversial, but I believe it to be true nonetheless. We believe that our employees’ pay and benefits need to be negotiated based on the situation in the Greater Cleveland marketplace, not on what’s going on in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. Why? Because there is a fundraising reality. As I told you earlier, we’re always having to raise between 50 and 60 percent of our operating budget one way or another, and it’s Cleveland where we raise our money. It’s Cleveland where we do business, where we sell tickets; and it’s not possible to separate these functions from the Cleveland marketplace. The economies of other cities are not relevant to our ability to cover expenses in Cleveland. We cannot raise funds based on population numbers or the strengths of Boston or New York’s economies. And, as you can see, we have no ability to influence the buying power in these other areas. It’s often been proposed that we won’t be able to hire and keep the musicians unless we pay competitively, based on what the other major orchestras pay. For many decades we followed this path. This may or may not become a problem in the future, but as of now it isn’t and it hasn’t been. It’s currently a specious argument. It looks okay on the surface but fails in real life.
We believe that the number of musicians in orchestras must be set by the music director, not by economic issues – even though each open position can easily save more than $150,000 annually. In the early years we might have talked about this kind of thing, but I believe today’s board would not even hold a discussion on the subject. We understand that, even though we’re likely to have 250 musicians from around the world wanting to audition for a single open position, reducing the actual numbers of musicians in the orchestra, forgetting what the impact might be on sound balances, is a very slippery slope towards disaster. During contract negotiations, if there were a showdown on an impasse, we and the musicians all know that we could easily hire a whole new orchestra and replace the musicians with other talented musicians, but it would never again be the Cleveland Orchestra, where we have a tradition of hiring the best players who audition. And those players are then taken under the wings not only of the music director but also of the current members of the orchestra, who help teach them the style in which the orchestra plays Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, or Brahms. This remains a part of the George Szell tradition, and it’s been self-perpetuating. It’s kind of amazing to watch.
The orchestra does not like to go on stage unprepared – for either educational concerts or regular concerts. The musicians expect to work hard during rehearsals. They are skeptical if they don’t. They do not appreciate guest conductors who are so impressed or so overwhelmed that they coast in rehearsals. They complain to management not for being overworked but for not having enough rehearsal time. On tours, if you’ll walk the halls of the hotels as I’ve done many times, you’ll hear them practicing in their rooms instead of sightseeing. This is an experience that I’ve had many times, not just once or twice.
Every orchestra I know describes itself in terms of excellence – a term that is almost completely subjective and quite un-measurable. What is clear to me is that most orchestras in the top ten or fifteen largest American cities are very, very good. Why? Because their musicians are highly trained, highly skilled, highly dedicated, and substantial members of their local communities. They care about their job, their artistry, and their audiences. The orchestras themselves have usually good to great artistic leadership. Any one of these orchestras is capable of giving great concerts.
However, to my chagrin and the chagrin of others, playing great music and wonderful concerts ceased years ago to ensure the success of major orchestras. While that should be enough, the fact is that it isn’t and it hasn’t been for a while. This has certainly been the case in Cleveland. If it were enough, there would be no need for conferences like this one, the Philadelphia Orchestra would not have gone into bankruptcy, and the Detroit and Minnesota orchestras would not have had financial troubles. All of them play very well. On the flip side, though, I’m convinced that not playing great concerts of great music will ultimately ensure failure.
During both the recessions of 2001 and 2007–9, many of the things that hurt were predictable, even if out of our control. The endowment and pension funds got blasted by the market decline, creating unfunded liabilities in the pension fund that would require large cash payments over years to fix. Even if the market were to bounce back hugely, money in the endowment would never be able to ride the market back up because all of us were using principle to fund the operations. The donor base at all levels of wealth dried up because people were scared and their advisers were telling them to perhaps pay off their existing pledges, but certainly not to get any more heavily involved.
If you were like us, something else happened that I’ve never heard mentioned anywhere else in the industry. Each orchestra went into survival mode with key members of staff and board leadership involved day and night in trying to save the institution rather than in building the artistic side of the business, which is where our organizational leadership ought to be spending its time. In my view, there is only one way to avoid that trap, and that is to build a large enough endowment – roughly six times the annual budget – which can help an organization ride through inevitable business cycles. We’ve been trying to do this, with our goal to be there by our centennial in 2018. As of now, we’re not on track to do it but we may end up close.
This experience told us, though, that we really had to change. The change would likely have to be transformative rather than incremental. We had to look at things differently in order to do things differently. The Committee on the Future of the Cleveland Orchestra was formed and met for a solid year. It was made up of trustees, senior staff, and non-trustees who were important in the community, including elected officials and business leaders. They looked at every line of the financial statement and thought through every idea, crazy or not. It was during this time that we considered downsizing.
Because of the extreme hits to the market value of both the endowment and the pension plan and the resulting implications, we seriously looked at downsizing from a world-class orchestra to a truly regional orchestra. This was precipitated by potential large future operating losses based on loss of attendance and donors. Even though we already had the smallest operating budget of the other big ten orchestras except for Washington, we found that we could save millions of dollars annually by eliminating those costs which were directly attributed to being what we called “world-class” – that was union contract and benefits, touring, publicity, and so on. But there wasn’t one person in that room willing to propose such a step.
Since fundraising was crucial to any plan, we went out and spoke to our major donors, corporations, and foundations – particularly to our most generous individual donors, myself included. We asked them directly if we could count on their continued financial support for the downsizing plan to become a regional orchestra. The results were unanimous: nobody would give us the same amount or anything close to it for a lesser orchestra. Most wouldn’t contribute anything at all. We were built on excellence and that’s what we needed to be. Even when faced with the choice of going out of business versus survival by downsizing, the results were clear.
The turn-around plan was a five-year plan. Most of us had been operating traditionally with five-year plans and we were caught in that trap in those days. We looked at strategic imperatives, the excellence of the brand, and this might have been hubris but we believed, based on what others were telling us and what we saw ourselves, that we had established a kind of brand recognition that, if marketed correctly, could help us to develop residencies. The term “The Cleveland,” as we were known in Europe and Asia, often results in the need to answer the question, What is a Cleveland? But the last time we were in Japan, for example, the emperor and empress came to one of our concerts – something that no one at the hall could remember ever happening before. This evoked a huge response, with the audience standing and applauding loudly with much pride.
Well, the obvious part of the turnaround plan was that we cut nonessential overhead and reassigned work. We cut non-musicians’ labor with one-time reductions of five percent; music directors took another ten percent cut; the senior staff, including the executive director, actually voted themselves a ten percent reduction. The not-so-obvious idea was that of having to pursue excellence and innovation.
The goal was to remove six to eight weeks of total overhead from the Cleveland operating statement. This was based on the underlying reality that the economy of northeastern Ohio was too weak to support us as they had done in the past. We would have to look elsewhere in order to solve our financial problems. The target was to replace the lost ticket sales in Cleveland with ticket sales and donated funds from residencies outside the area. We would either strike out in a new direction with high risk or wait until the problem of our market ran us out of business. Even so, such a plan would take years to develop. We would no longer tour in a situation where Cleveland donors had to pay for the cost of the tours. We had to create a plan where, if we toured, the tours had to pay for themselves. Otherwise, we couldn’t afford to go. We defined residencies as a creative way to enhance the program of playing great concerts.
Miami would be our first opportunity because they were nearing the completion of both the new concert hall and the opera house and because of friends in their marketplace willing to help us. Miami’s hall was scheduled to open in 2006–7. We began negotiations and flew important individuals from Miami to Cleveland on multiple occasions so they could see what we were doing in our own marketplace, hear concerts and operas, and see initiatives in education at all levels. We reached an agreement to have the Cleveland Orchestra be the Orchestra in Residence at the Knight Concert Hall when it opened. The plan worked and the residency commenced in 2007. We started spending two weeks each season in Miami, then three weeks, and currently we’re spending four weeks in Miami, beginning in January and concluding in March of each year.
The activities in which the orchestra and musicians participate there are constantly evolving and expanding. Residencies require the building of strong relationships with existing organizations in the community – with schools and universities, cultural and education groups. First we were going to play two concerts each week at the Knight Concert Hall. The music and guest artists target the broad population of ethnic groups residing in Miami. The repertoire is often different from what is performed in Cleveland. We do side-by-side rehearsals and training sessions for musicians wanting to play in orchestras. We do that with the New World Symphony and with the Frost School of Music orchestra at the University of Miami. Our musicians and Franz Welser-Möst lead master classes and conducting sessions. We do chamber music, concerts and coaching, children’s concerts, family concerts, Musical Rainbows, and everything else we know to expand the geography beyond the Adrienne Arsht Center and the Knight Concert Hall. In some cases, in order to raise funds not covered by earned income from the sale of tickets, we set up and operate fundraising departments in residency areas. In Miami we set up the Musical Arts Association of Miami to fundraise. Every year Franz Welser-Möst opens the season down there, and we now have Giancarlo Guerrero as our principal guest conductor. He’s also the conductor of the Nashville Symphony.
Setting up residency is a huge investment in time and money, which are in particularly short supply during a recession. Currently we’ve established residencies in Miami, at the Musikverein in Vienna, the Salzburg Festival, the Lucerne Festival, the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, and the Lincoln Center Festival. Some of these we do in alternate years. We expect that a major new residency in Europe is likely to be announced shortly. We have established a brand. The marketplace sees that we know how to operate with flexibility during these residencies, to give value for the money and for the people we attract. We’ve not yet solved the problem, which is serious, of having our musicians away from home during residencies. In the case of Miami, it’s a four-week period, and it’s a difficult situation for all concerned. I’m not sure we’ll be able to solve it in the near term, but we’re all working on it.
One of our imperatives is what we call ‘Communicate and Align.’ Its intent is to have musicians, trustees, staff, and audiences engage with each other in new ways with no agenda other than getting to know each other on a different level. The musicians show up and socialize after ‘Fridays@Seven’ concerts, during which we host world music presentation parties. On another occasion, the Development department and the Fundraising committee of the board hosted a thank you lunch for members of the orchestra, most of whom came from rehearsal and stayed for two hours. We now have members of the orchestra on certain board committees, like the Total Concert Experience task force, the Fundraising committee, the Facilities committee, and the Technology task force. They have become valuable, contributing members. One string bass player, Henry Peyrebrunne, asked for and received a year’s sabbatical from Franz to work in our Development department and learn what fundraising is all about. He has recently completed that year and has joined the staff part time while going back to playing in the orchestra full time. There are many examples of dinners and after-concert events, open rehearsals, and such where we try to get the four constituencies together.
Just before the recession of 2007–8 hit, which closely followed the one in early 2000, we solicited a grant of $20 million from the Maltz Family Foundation to fund audience-building initiatives. After the recession hit, they honored the gift but spread it out over several years. With these funds we created the Center for Future Audiences. It had several goals, made all the more necessary by the second economic crash in the decade. We needed to rebuild our audiences and also to admit that lost subscription sales would be hard or impossible to rebuild. We would be fighting a universal, nationwide downward trend in subscription sales. We needed to concentrate on individual concert ticket sales and marketing. We needed to identify once and for all the existing impediments to concert-going and to set about removing them – things like the presumed dress code and concert etiquette. Does it really matter and to whom? There were winter and summer transportation issues. We targeted ticket packages that included busing from the various neighborhoods for our older population, particularly in winter, and out to Blossom, which is geographically halfway between Cleveland and Akron.
We needed to look at supply and demand, also. In terms of the numbers of concerts being presented and the demand for tickets created by current audiences, there were huge differences in the way we were operating now and the way we operated in the nineties, when the number of concerts was expanded because demand was high and good seats were simply unavailable. After 2001, we believed it was important to reduce the number or concerts and the corresponding number of available tickets. Really, the strategy was to set up a shortage of tickets, if possible, and increase the demand.
The chart in Figure 2 shows the number of subscription tickets – it’s the top green line that becomes dotted and trends downward – and it crosses the blue line, which represents individual ticket sales. Much of the overall ticket sales figures are the same. But what’s happening is that, with the demise of subscription purchases, many people are buying fewer concerts and so it takes more people to buy the same number of seats. That’s pretty obvious. What’s really happening is that we’re selling more tickets to more households today than in any other time in our history, but they’re buying fewer tickets because they’re not subscribing to multiple concerts.
We did a considerable amount of research on the question of ticket prices, which had gone up industry-wide at a rate twice that of inflation. There was a price-value reorientation that we thought was different, and we looked at the strategy by audience segments: 25 and under, 25 to 40, 40 to 60, and above 60. We found little or no resistance to the cost of box seats or the dress circle seats, always in big demand, with few seats available. We did find price concerns for most of the other audience groups.
We had tried many programs in the past to bring in younger audiences, particularly college students, but with little luck, even though Severance Hall sat in the middle of the Case Western Reserve University campus. The Maltz Family and the new grant were tied to this effort at every step of the way. First, we created a multimarket ticketing plan, dedicated to building the youngest audience in America by 2018, our centennial year. We tested an under-18-free flagship program at Blossom, and a year later we brought the under-18-free program to Severance Hall. With each free ticket there needed to be an adult ticket purchased. We created a student advantage pricing program for college students and a fan card program where $50 buys the student unlimited concerts, based only on the availability of tickets. We introduced the ‘Fridays@Seven’ concept, in which the orchestra plays probably two-thirds of its regular program of Thursday and Saturday that week, but with no intermission. Afterward there is a world music festival with food and a party in the Grand Foyer. And it was hugely successful! Last year we created the Total Concert Experience task force and populated it with people from all over the community to give us a fresh look at how to do things better.
The 25-and-under program has been hugely successful. All of the programs I mentioned earlier have helped, but the student program attracted 110,000 students since its inception – 40,000 during last winter’s season alone, which means that last season 20 percent of the Severance Hall audience was made up of people age 25 and under. Saturday night has become date night again, and we had twenty-three sellouts on Saturday nights during the season.
The backbone of success has been our focus on social media and the Web. In raw numbers, we went from attracting 13,000 hits in 2012 to over 100,000 last year. Most importantly, we focused on engagement, which is the number of people who actually participate once they get to the social media interface, and we found that ours is an industry-high at 17 percent.
We know we haven’t reached our full potential, but we also know the results have been very positive. In Cleveland, this means pursuing innovation with staged or semi-staged operas. Last season we created a fully staged production of The Cunning Little Vixen by Jánaček. We do ballet partnerships with the Joffrey and Miami ballet. We do a couple of concerts each year using the original music to movie scores for ‘Fridays@Seven’ programs, and we have adjusted the way we concertize around the world, only going where we cover our costs. And, as I said, where we have residencies, we don’t just drop in and play concerts; we do master classes, we do chamber music coaching; we spend a very intensive period of time – a week to two weeks at a clip – making very intensive use of the musicians.
We have residencies at home, where we go into particular neighborhoods and for a week play concerts in venues there – it could be a barber shop, a small café, or a supermarket. We play concerts in those, and at the end of the week it all culminates in a full Cleveland Orchestra concert at one of the big venues in that area, maybe a church or a school auditorium. Three or four months before the residency week begins, we go into the school system and we have over forty visits to each of the schools by our musicians. There they do what they do best in terms of trying to turn on the students to the kind of music that we play. For some of the younger students, this may mean showing them how to play the instrument, letting them touch it or hold it, and playing it for them. Attention span is relatively low, so we’re in half-hour segments there. But for older students, usually we plan an hour with a theme. And in the themes we select, we try to relate the music to the classes they’re being taught. Music becomes a way to teach those classes.
We do that because we learned over time that the first place a school system goes to get rid of budget costs is to the music program. And that’s because it’s usually a distinct program – they know how many teachers they have, they know how many dollars are budgeted, they know what getting rid of it all saves. We’ve taken a different tack, which is that when we go into the schools we try to teach the curriculum using music as examples. And we’ve had a great deal of success with that, but, as you can imagine, it’s very intensive. There are some orchestral musicians who have been doing this now for close to fifteen years and are really good at it. There are some musicians who don’t do it, but we’ve never had a shortage of musicians to go in and work this way in the schools.
To diverge, we played an orchestra concert under Franz at, I think, Saint John High School in Cleveland – an inner-city school. There was no music in the school at all. The principal tried to get the audience to order – we were all in the gymnasium – and he could not do it. I said to our orchestra’s president at the time, who was sitting next to me, “This isn’t going to go well.” We were scheduled to perform Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and that was the whole program. But the school’s principal couldn’t get the students to quiet down.
The minute Franz took the podium, without turning to his audience and without saying a word to them, he just started to play. He played the beginning, cut us off, and then started to speak. You could hear a pin drop for the rest of the hour. These kids – most of them were black and all from the inner city – came up afterward wanting different things: they wanted to talk, wanted autographs, wanted to know how certain things worked or didn’t. It took us three hours to get back on our buses to Severance Hall. I had thought, “We’ve got an uneducated audience and this isn’t going to go well.” But the reverse was true. They were fascinated by the music, by the rhythms. There was no hint of disinterest or boredom. It was amazing to watch.
Communicate and Align
Well, I could talk for hours on this subject, but the only other thing I will say has to do with board leadership. It’s my view that boards matter. It’s my view that board leadership is necessary for both artistic and financial success. These things need to be board-driven. And to my view, failures and successes, by whatever definition you use, ultimately fall to the trustees. It’s our collective responsibility to fix things and to see that things work.
In the nonprofit world, I think everybody will agree that decisions have to be made more by consensus than in the corporate world, where the CEO can just make a decision and edict that it happen. You can’t really do that with volunteers because the volunteers can leave at any time. And for the most part they didn’t bargain for problems. They don’t like to find themselves in the newspapers – they don’t want the institution involved in publicity they consider inappropriate. And if and when they do, they can walk.
You have to engage the board in a way that it’s willing to make the decisions, and the only way that works is by constant involvement. We have a rule at Cleveland that we never vote on a major issue the first time it’s presented. By the time it’s presented the first time, it will have worked its way through several committees, depending on the subject matter. The only exception is if something has a time limit imposed from outside the orchestra so that we have to vote on it at a particular meeting. But they get a chance to make the tough decisions, and for the most part we’re able to give them the decisions to work on when it’s still timely.
So things have worked for us in that way. It’s not that we don’t have the same kind of problems you find elsewhere. We are as bound to the community and its financial structure as any institution could be. It’s why I like to make the point that says that when you arrive at a contract, whether it’s for labor or for buying lights or music stands, it’s the market in Cleveland that matters and it’s there that we have to convince our musicians that they are better than fairly paid. But they have to consider the purchasing power of the community when they make that decision.