Thursday, May 17, 2007

The State of the Orchestra

How does one tell a symphony orchestra has made significant progress and improvements?

The world of the orchestra in the US is tenuous and mixed at best. Some orchestras are soaring with new music directors and appreciative audiences. Some, including some big names, languish and are stagnant. Others have failed.

Some measure success in ticket sales, financial health and endowments. Some look at ability to perform engaging programs. Maybe a new music director and musicians breathe life in the organization. Some point to the sound of the orchestra.

Kansas City is one that is making progress. There are lots of signs:

1) Last I heard ticket sales are up, season ticket holders are plentiful, and concerts are sold out or at least very full. I was out of town this weekend, but according to the review in the Star, approx 1,400 were in the audience for the Tchaikovsky 6th and Bernstein Chichester Psalms on Saturday. Not bad for a 1,500 seat theatre. It seems the orchestra is in good financial health as well. We do not seem to be in danger of falling off the edge this week in this business is always a world away.

2) Kansas City Symphony programming has been excellent. Although some sneer and snipe at the "scratchy modern crap", it is true as the radio program says "all music was once new". We have heard everything from early Mozart, Rameau, Haydn and Handel up to Chen Yi and Ellen Taafe Zwillich. The level of soloists attracted has been impressive: Leon Fleisher, Yfrim Bronfman, Roberto Diaz, Michelle De Young, Yo Yo Ma, Joseph Kalichstein, Emmanuel Pahud and soon Joshua Bell and Marc-Andre Hamelin. It used to be Symphonies like KC relied on engaging the winner of the Miss Jones' School of Violin recital champion as soloist. Kansas City can attract the caliber of soloists as the big boys do.

3) Leadership is essential. It appears to me that Michael Stern has lit a fire under the orchestra. The enthusiasm is palpable, the playing improved. Stern has attracted new players, adding to an already strong team. The winds and strings are excellent and the somewhat untamed brass is on the mend. Stern is also visible and personable; a natural in front of an audience. He is also well known nationally and internationally, adding to the orchestra’s respect and position.

4) The Symphony made a new commercial recording, the first in a long time. Available world wide on the Naxos label, the Gordon Chin “Double Concerto” and “Formosa Seasons” was well received. Hopefully more are on the horizon.

But above all, our musical letter carrier Paul was most enthusiastic about the state of our Orchestra. “Somebody is doing something right”, he mused, “I can actually hear the violas now”.

That is quite an achievement!

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