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Notes from the Back Row: The increasingly uncertain future of the arts in America

By Charlotte Cerminaro 
web posted September 21, 2020

When browsing the events calendar and looking for live concerts, or perhaps an art exhibit, and all I can find, stamped in large, red letters is one word—Cancelled--the phrase “Artistic Vision” takes on a new meaning. No longer does this phrase fill a musician’s heart with hope. It doesn’t conjure visions (auditory or otherwise) of brilliant conductors, pushing an orchestra to its limits, or a concert hall filled to capacity, every audience member getting their money’s worth. Even the possibility of seeing the Van Gogh exhibit is drained of any sustenance. Concert halls are dark, as are most museums. At a superficial level, the pandemic-induced panic explains some of the problem; but the real issue is much more difficult to pin down. If COVID-19 could be represented by the leaves of a tree—the tree itself representing the entirety of our artistic climate—then the roots of the tree would contain the genesis of the problem, the causative factors and the conditions that fed and encouraged the direction of growth. The combined problems and challenges before and during the pandemic add up to an artistic vision resembling a slowly-dying tree.

This is not a pessimistic view. It is a realistic view. For over two decades, most major orchestras operated with accumulated debt in the millions, or tens of millions. Ticket sales have dwindled and it isn’t uncommon for the house to be half-full for a masterpiece concert. Many smaller orchestras with less endowments folded. The reasons for this are complex. In Norman Lebrecht’s book, Who Killed Classical Music? there are many facts and figures, and some possible causes based on years of research. Changes in leadership, management, lax performance standards and education all seem to play a large part in cultural survival. The musicians themselves are much different now: Their expectations of financial success are weighted more heavily than actual artistic success. The skill and joy of music performance are not considered part of the compensation for the inevitable sacrifices involved in becoming an accomplished musician. The biggest goal, and a major focus of musical training, is winning an orchestral audition. As a result, many orchestras are comprised of players who are skilled auditioners, rather than skilled and devoted artists who can perform. And playing an audition is completely different than playing a concert.

Until about 40 years ago American orchestras, from the NBC Symphony under Toscanini to the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell, were among the greatest ensembles ever. They were not made great by audition players, nor were they known for being completely homogenous, over-controlled, bland and emotionally sterile. Quite the contrary. They had just as much, if not more precision than today’s orchestras but they were very unique. They were artists, first and foremost, and not just technicians. Their job was to make beautiful music; their aim was not perfection, as this goal is ultimately unattainable by any musician. But in making great music they actually came closer to perfection than those who only seek to avoid mistakes. The goal itself contains the motivation, the technical precision, and the unsearchable beauty of an art form that is always in motion—a fluidity of expression and skill that seems to be perpetually within our reach, but just outside our grasp.

Parenthetic--- (It was on a typically warm and sunny day in Southern California when I first met the “father” of Hollywood musicians, an 85-year-old French horn player who has graced the movie music of How the West was Won and the Star Trek motion picture series, and almost everything between. I wanted to play some of this great studio music—it's a fact that most of the best modern-day composers work for the studios. After inviting me into his home, the first thing he asked was, “What kind of instrument do you play?” I showed him my horn and he promptly asked me to “play something.” No problem. The first page of a Strauss Concerto would do. When I finished, he paused uncomfortably, and said, “Clearly you’re a consummate professional--nice tone, great technique--but, do you really want to sound like that?” I looked at him, wondering what musical sin I committed. He quickly explained that, for so many years, hardly anyone really “played music”. It’s more akin to chopping wood, than making art. It always feels, and sounds, lifeless. He was right. During my years playing in professional orchestras, this had been my chief complaint and now I was being called on it—by someone who’d heard it all. I found myself, not for the first time, contemplating the future. Culture and art. Weren’t they part of who we are? Was classical music really dead? I picked up my instrument without thinking, and the words “Not today” repeated in my head. I played again, put my instrument down and we sat in silence for a few minutes. It was broken only by his soft questioning, “Why didn’t you do this the first time?” I shrugged my shoulders. No answer would suffice, really, but we do need to be reminded, I more than most.)

All of these different points are brought into focus when we consider the facts: In the art world, paintings of soup cans and blank canvas demand a higher price than almost anything else. The MMA in New York is completely filled with such works, and most large cities have something comparable. Why is this called “art”? When we think of art, images of Rembrandt’s or Michelangelo’s work probably come to mind. When we speak of the giants among composers, Bach and Beethoven, Mozart and Mahler would come up, not John Cage or Edgar Varese. Experiencing Cage’s 4:33 for the first time, it’s easy to see why. Nevertheless, such things continue to be forced on audiences, everywhere.

This artistic crisis truly covers the full spectrum. What’s more, audiences and consumers are so often compelled to smile, applaud politely and go home with an empty feeling—having never experienced a concert that was purely inspired: The raw power and exquisite restraint, or a breathtaking work of poignant beauty, or even transcended the problems of the world, if only for a short time. In their absence, our cultural atmosphere has lost its unique vibrance, its vitality and, I dare say, its identity. The roots and branches of our tree are drying up and the surrounding landscape isn’t conducive to survival. As artists, we must ultimately emerge from the cocoon. With no concert halls, players themselves used to organize open air chamber music, and brave individuals took their instrument to the town square. No management, no paycheck, though listeners often show their gratitude monetarily and players are rewarded nicely for an evening’s work.

The pandemic has only brought this history to a head, in a revelation of how ruthlessly corporate and management pressures have pushed music into a corridor of conformity whose narrowness has choked off its life force. But nothing evokes wonderment like a rebirth. It can change our outlook and reinforce our appreciation of all the rich humanity that has run before. The indelible history of individuals who were unafraid of risk and kept their vision fixed on the possibilities, gives us the certainty of a better future. Do we really want it? ESR

Charlotte B. Cerminaro is a Juilliard-trained classical musician who, in addition to being a studio and orchestral musician, enjoys writing. © 2020

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