Active engagement in the arts

I deplore the passivization of arts engagement that has replaced people doing amateur theater, or painting and making sculpture, or making music together, with listening to and looking at stuff done for them by professionals.  Nothing wrong with the latter, but we have got the balance wrong. Here are two examples of what we need more of :

My wife has been singing with a really good non-audition community chorus this year.  Every week, they get together and rehearse, and then they put on two or three concerts a year for friends, relatives and neighbors.  They don’t quail at the real stuff; so far this year they’ve done the Vivaldi Gloria and the Mozart Requiem.  Next spring, a program of music by New York composers, including the really ethereal Frost/Thompson Choose something like a star, hoo boy.  Debbie comes home from rehearsals and tells me about all she learned about music and singing that evening; sometimes (not enough) we pull out some sheet music and fire up the piano and sing just for ourselves.

If you think about it, there’s not much nicer you can do for your friends and relations than make music for them: sending everyone a CD of a professional chorus doing the same numbers isn’t even close.

Life for an organization like this is sort of like being an elected official, constantly putting the real work aside for endless fundraising. They charge $10 for concert tickets, but the singers also pay dues.  The fundraising doesn’t do a thing for the music, but the singers put up with it so they can sing together and occasionally have soloists and a small orchestra. It’s both inspiring and saddening to realize what a short financial leash enterprises like this have: the big splurge for the CCC this year was a set of risers so the singers can see and be seen over each others’ heads.

Last week we went to the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra’s  last fall concert .  This was a completely professional-level performance, including A flock descends by Toru Takemitsu (they always program at least one contemporary work);  the Prokofiev 3rd piano concerto; and (part of the celebrations of our new organ, which university organist Davitt Moroney still can’t talk about without a really radiant grin) the Saint-Saëns 3rd Symphony. Because our football team is of course the pride of Cal and our finest ambassadorial activity–despite going 1-10 this season and having trouble graduating more than half its players–I will try to give an account of  this concert that properly respects the primacy of the $70m/year intercollegiate sports enterprise in our community.  First, almost the whole squad of about 130 played the whole two-hour program game, with some substitutions of specialists (the Saint-Saëns, for example, requires two pianists in addition to the organ).  The team fields, along with 100 undergrads, 15 grad student and 12 community member (mostly alums)  ringers for some nice town-gown integration.

Friday, they went up against tough opponents who put multiple challenges before them.  The Saint-Saëns is a romantic warhorse that’s demanding in the usual way, especially regarding ensemble teamwork and coordination, and it has to be played all over the field, from ppp to fff and adagio to presto. I don’t listen to the 19th century standards as much as I used to, but it’s fun to meet old friends.  The Prokofiev is an audience favorite (though it does not especially speak to me) and requires the orchestra to run real plays and not just accompany block for the soloist (this time, campus regular Ann Yi).   The Takemitsu strikes me as a whole higher level of challenge, way more music than I could hear in one pass through but completely engaging on first encounter.  The orchestra has to execute outside the standard playbook of conventional harmony and foursquare rhythm, and the game required multiple complicated plays with laterals across the strings line among the different choirs specialist backs and ends, and several balls being carried at once in very complex patterns. Even though the piece is quite lyrical, it gave us really righteous hits of colliding melodies and discords, and harmonies going  right at each other. When I came home I clicked it up on Spotify and was struck  by how much I couldn’t hear (I didn’t have a score, which would have helped) because I wasn’t watching as well as listening.  Football and baseball may be better experienced now on TV, but an orchestra live, spread across your whole visual field with your ears and eyes both steering your attention, is still the real thing.  And it’s still awesome to hear what ‘really loud’ is when it’s generated without a single watt of electronic amplification, especially when a soloist steps out above the whole orchestra and fills the hall. Solos, by the way, are a special challenge for amateur orchestras, and these kids just nailed them, one after the other.

So how good are they?  Well, they certainly rolled over the ‘opposition’ posed by the program. They are not as good as the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra by the standard technical measures. But an evening with them, especially in our wonderful 700-seat hall, knowing any of them could turn up in my classroom next semester, is in many ways a better artistic experience than the same program from the SFO. I think this outfit, all in all, is way better at what it does than any Cal sports team. They also do way more of it during a concert game, have more playing time during a season, and ten to twenty times more of them do it at once.

How do they get so good? Well, to begin with, they spend money like drunken sailors, with a budget of $70,000 per year  (the hundred football players have to scrape by on a piddling eight million).  Even with the astronomical ticket prices ($16, $5 for students) the campus subsidizes them fully $35,000 per year; per player, our athletes have to make do on less than twenty-five times that.  They also practice a lot: two full evenings of rehearsal per week, plus individual practice time (which for string players, at least, really adds up), but the graduation rate is 100% even though less than a third are music majors and very few are expecting careers in music. It is not a trivial matter for a pianist or a string player to keep up and also pass four Berkeley courses. This is obviously amateur participation the musicians commit to because they love to do it, not resumé padding. The orchestra does have a paid staff:   conductor coach David Milnes (who is also a music faculty member, leads our wonderful new music ensemble, of which more next spring, and runs the music for his church),  plus three part-time graduate students keeping track of scores and administration; that’s it. Again for comparison, football and men’s basketball have a coaching and training staff the size of the violin section, not to mention six dedicated academic tutors.  A few of the wind players have athletic scholarships for  playing in the marching band, but the rest are on their own (uniforms (tuxes), instruments, and all).  They also have to get through a really rigorous selection process.

I mentioned fundraising as the nagging constant obbligato, maybe just an endless droning pedal tone, of this kind of enterprise.  The orchestra is going on the road this summer for the first time, to play in Eastern Europe.  The tour will cost about $300K, and the musicians themselves (and their families, to be sure) have pitched in two-thirds of that.  The campus does what it can, which in this case is $4000, and they have to raise the rest. You, gentle reader, get to help while they have a nice matching offer on the table this week.  Do it, and if you’re in the Bay Area, come and hear them play next spring.