Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Philadelphia Story

That was the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1949, with Eugene Ormandy, in Birmingham, rehearsing a spot of Brahms. Blimey. That, people, is one heck of a great orchestra.

Fast forward to yesterday, when the board of the Philadelphia Orchestra yesterday voted for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The Philadelphia Orchestra is one of the finest orchestras in America, hence the world, and its budget for this season, $46m, sounds kind of huge from little old London. So what's gone wrong? The New York Times has the most informative article I've yet seen, explaining it all.

The news comes only a week or two after the strike at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra was (mercifully) resolved, while orchestras are folding in Syracuse and Hawaii, and while the shenanigans in Brazil around a maestro of mythic-sized arrogance should not bear acceptance by any member of the musical community anywhere in the world.

It's further proof (you'd think we'd have enough by now, but it seems not) that purely private funding is no way to ensure the thriving life of a national treasure: philanthropy and endowments are fair-weather friends. There've been management problems in Philadelphia before now, as the NYT piece shows, but we should take all of it as a timely warning and learn never to rely solely on one means of garnering lolly for anything.

But still, allowing an orchestra like Philadelphia to go bust is like letting the National Gallery do likewise. A great orchestra, like a great gallery, is a showcase - a living showcase - for the wonders created by human beings over the centuries. They remind us we're people, that we have brains and that we have souls and they inspire us to become more than our ancestral apes could ever have dreamed. In a gallery, you walk and look. In a concert, you sit and listen. Breughel or Bach, Titian or Tchaikovsky, Monet or Mozart - you decide.

Art belongs to everyone, folks. It knows nothing about our personal circumstances. Just because you don't have any dosh it doesn't mean you are not entitled to experience the best artistry that humankind has to offer - or, if your natural talent allows, the right to acquire the skills to create it yourself. And don't you ever forget it.

So sit and listen to this: the Philadelphia Orchestra in its glory days, an American orchestra under its Hungarian-born conductor Eugene Ormandy, playing English music. Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. And if you can't play it (I'm told some readers outside the UK can't), try the extract of Scheherazade from 1978 below.

UPDATE: Peter Dobrin's Philadelphia-based blog has frequent updates on the situation. UK readers may find it intriguing to look at the comments he receives and note the difference in mindset between some American concert-goers and our own. I'm glad to say I've never once heard anyone in the Royal Festival Hall grumble about young people getting cut-price seats.