JWR Articles: Commentary - Calgary Philharmonic (Conductor: Hans Graf) - September 15, 2002 id="543337086">

Calgary Philharmonic

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More business than art

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 matter.

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 than review.

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 ahead.

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, quiet reverence.

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 discourse begin.

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

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Conductor - Hans Graf
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