With its recent filing for protection under the
Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act, the Board of Trustees
of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra has unequivocally
fulfilled the popular dictum that “arts groups
need to be more business-like.” Joining the
ranks of Livent, WorldCom, Enron, and Eaton’s
is a spectacular achievement. And the media, largely
silent about the orchestra’s artistic health,
have shown great interest in this financial crisis.
Larry Fichtner, Chair of the Board of Trustees,
assured those of us tuned-in to the CBC’s
Canadian orchestra showcase, Symphony Hall, that
“forty-five days from now, we will present
a new business plan for the orchestra.” The
program’s host then convened a panel of experts
who discussed various possibilities for the resurrection.
As I listened, it became clear that size does
The CPO’s regular roster of 65-musicians
is the biggest target for cuts and ripe for the
standard business solution of laying off employees
when profits vanish so that the investors will
cheer as the stock price rebounds.
But there’s a snag. We were told the brand-name
composers that the “shareholders” demand
to hear (e.g., Brahms, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, and
Gershwin—sorry, no Canadians made the list),
require a large orchestra. Chopping the strings
in half would balance the books, but not the music.
Right on cue, a CPO performance of Brahms’
D Minor Piano Concerto with Canadian pianist Louis
Lortie as soloist filled the airwaves. Just prior,
our host forewarned that, if decimated, recordings
such as what followed would no longer be available.
I listened with renewed interest.
CPO music director Hans Graf choose an opening
tempo that had the promise of grandeur but soon
slipped into a plodding survey of a score that
is rich with long, sustained lines, subtle, harmonic
excursions, and an inner rhythmic tension that
could only have come from the mind of the romantic
period’s ablest practitioner.
From Lortie’s first entrance it was apparent
that consensus on the pulse had not been reached.
He was forced to lead from the bench, musically
cajoling his colleagues to keep up.
But Lortie’s vision was marred from an over-abundance
of rhythmic affectation—even when the orchestra
rested—particularly in the divine second subject,
which lost its sturdy majesty.
And a note to the first violins: there is no
fiddle section in the world that doesn’t
have some moments of unintentional pain when searching
for the highest notes. However, even though modern
musical economics limits the number of rehearsal
hours, more time must be spent behind the woodshed.
The frequent miss-hits came to be routine rather
than rare. Accuracy of pitch should become a standard—not
a value-added extra.
That performance posed questions: Is this the
kind of artistic expression that should be saved?
Has the choice of music contributed in any large
measure to the current debacle? Do enough people
care to warrant the CPO’s revival?
In today’s concert-life, informed, critical
discourse has become as infrequent as outstanding
performances. Daily, hundreds of musicians in
Canada perform all manner of concerts from solo
recitals to orchestra-and-chorus extravaganzas.
Less and less of these events are professionally
reviewed, discussed or recorded. It’s simple
economics: if the arts organizations don’t
purchase enough advertising for their shows, then
it doesn’t pay for the media to comment on
them. And worse—if the organization does
buy lots of space, then better assign more preview
That wasn’t always the case. I remember
reading two or occasionally three critiques of
the same concert in Ottawa in the early ’70s. Those
differing opinions often spurred me to attend
the next performance and discover for myself what
all the fuss or acclaim was about. It was engaging
and fun. Later, as a performer, knowing that my
work would be put under the microscope, I happily
put in many unpaid hours of study and practice.
Nowadays, the audiences that do turn out (predominantly,
aging WASPs) are being served more entertainment
than nourishment. I recall with fondness a three-week
sojourn in the mid-’80s to the Lucerne Festival.
Every night I heard a concert given by the finest orchestras
and soloists before the public at the time (Karajan came with the Vienna Philharmonic as he
was having a tiff with his Berlin band that year;
Rafael Kubelik gave the defining performance of
Smetana’s My Life). There was never
an empty seat; tickets had to be purchased months
There was magic in the air before any notes were
heard. Seated in the company of hundreds of strangers,
we sensed the chance that something extraordinary
could happen in the music to come. That electricity
intensified as the lights went down and the performers
took stage. Then, we all took a breath and the
music began, its sound emerging out of our collegial,
Lately, with increasing frequency, the first
thing heard at a performance comes via loudspeakers.
We’re told to turn off our cell phones and
watches; that candies are available for those
with pneumonia; and, finally, that the XYZ Corporation
has sponsored this event—some dutifully applaud
this news. At last, the Schubert begins, but “commercial
music” has not been escaped.
OK, that’s enough. Let’s answer the
questions: Yes, the CPO can become a first-rate
orchestra and convincingly bring to life the incredible
array of repertoire that lifts our souls, but
only if everyone on stage commits to raising the
artistic-bar from “good enough” to “better-than-ever-before.” As to the economics of programming: What type
of music draws the most: Pops or Masterworks?
If the former, by all means cull the strings;
if the later, make youth education job one.
People will care and support the orchestra when
it has a positive impact on their lives, when
they know going to Jack Singer Hall means escaping
the crassness of a society obsessed with growth-at-any-cost. And I want to be in their number,
I care enough to offer these thoughts; let the
2004: Update - August 10, 2004, The Globe and
Mail reports the CPO “eked out its best operating
surplus in a decade”—no word about how
it's sounding. JWR