Sound Of Symphonies

More concerts to hear, more ears are listening

Kaspars Dzeguze December 26 1977

Sound Of Symphonies

More concerts to hear, more ears are listening

Kaspars Dzeguze December 26 1977

Sound Of Symphonies


More concerts to hear, more ears are listening

Kaspars Dzeguze

Halfway up the sombre black tower that houses the Manhattan headquarters of the CBS broadcasting empire are located the offices of Columbia Records, classical division, where a discreet sign on the wall dourly acknowledges the explosion in live concert attendance across the continent. “If God had wanted us to go to concerts,” it sniffs, “He would have given us tickets.”

The whimsy of that industry joke doesn’t quite conceal a hint of bewilderment. A little over a decade ago, the record manufacturers had it made. Live music was dead, and the recordings of internationally famous conductors and soloists were about to turn every living room into a concert hall of unparalleled comfort and musical excellence.

Small wonder the record makers are confused. Musicians and critics alike splutter superlatives but finally fail to explain the vigorous, almost carnal musical life of North America. A total of 85 Canadian symphony and youth orchestras are selling out halls, attracting more than two claimants for each seat in some symphonic series, and, with more than three million concertgoers in 1975, keeping a wide lead over theatres, opera, dance, museums and galleries as the most popular art form in the country.

The years since the Canadian Centen-

nial have become the turnaround decade for the arts and for symphonies in particular. Until 1967, it seemed as if symphonies might indeed be buried under an avalanche of shiny, black vinyl—frozen in plastic for all time like musical mastodons who couldn’t step to the beat of the times. A symphony might survive here or there, as a showpiece of a metropolitan centre like New York or Toronto preserved under glass, like a national treasure, and kept alive by government subsidies. Or they might be supported privately, the way Boston’s Back Bay society supports its Symphony as a reminder of what music was like when the Best Families ruled each wave of the conductor’s baton.

Why then, given the Deity’s notorious parsimoniousness with symphony tickets, is the silence of the universe broken as often by concerts as by records? Classical music hourly assails the ear; from FM radio stations; from the “1812 overture” cannonades hurled across lobbies and through elevators by Muzak; from tape machines backpacked into the heart of the wilderness. Why do people still seek out concert halls with such vigor, in such numbers that the Vancouver Symphony has managed to build the largest subscription audience— 38,214—of any symphony in the world; that the Atlantic Symphony is filling 97%

of its seats; while the Toronto Symphony sells more subscriptions than the Toronto Maple Leafs?

John Kraglund has been the music critic for The Globe and Mail in Toronto for 25 years. He recalls that, during the late Fifties, he could put in a five-day week only if he reviewed a considerable number of school and student recitals along with his professional concerts. Now, he grumbles, “working seven days a week, I can cover about one third of the professional performances in the city, because all types of music have grown so.”

Toronto supports a pool of musicians who earned $29 million last year—an amount exceeded only by the Los Angeles and New York locals. Of these more than 8,000 musicians, about 300 make their living strictly from classical music, while many others combine session work for commercials and recordings with parttime classical engagements. The stretch along Lake Ontario to either side of Toronto, known as the Golden Horseshoe, could be called Symphony Street, for between Oshawa and St. Catharines—a stretch of some 100 miles—there are no

fewer than 16 professional, community and youth orchestras.

And even though symphonies are sprouting “under one another’s arm-pit,” in the observation of Jamie Portman, the national arts critic for Southam Newspapers, they’re not starving for audiences. One of the newest arrivals, the Mississauga Symphony, is sandwiched between the Toronto, Hamilton, Oakville and Etobicoke orchestras, but it’s playing to 99% capacity houses.

According to Hugh Davidson, head of music for the Canada Council and thus godfather to the country’s orchestras, the audiences have been encouraged—if not actually built—by the spread of quality classical recordings. Davidson—who wears the startled look of a concertgoer roused from his reverie by the Surprise in Haydn’s symphony—feels “gramophone records have created the perception of symphonic music as something necessary to the well-being of the country.”

So while Beethoven reigns supreme as the most-recorded composer in history, he also guarantees sold-out houses when an orchestra performs these same works in a concert series. Clearly, records have taken a lot of the mystery out of classical music and brought in audiences that would otherwise be leery of concerts.

So the audiences come, if for no other reason than because symphonies, as an entertainment value, can’t be matched by any other kind of live performance. The Edmonton Symphony is presenting a dozen concerts in a series that features such renowned artists as cellist Leonard Rose and pianists Garrick Ohlsson and Van Cliburn, for as little as $51. The Toronto Symphony reserves 100 “rush seats” for each concert

and sells them for a mere two dollars— about half the price of a movie on the nearby Yonge Street strip. It’s no longer unusual to find TS tickets being offered by scalpers at the door, especially for such popular works as Beethoven’s Ninth or the trendy Fourth by Mahler. Such jetsetting conductors as Herbert von Karajan, Zubin Mehta and Seiji Ozawa can sell out performances as readily as a Rostropovich or Ashkenazy. A superstar conductor spends more time in the air than on the podium—a condition that fits Kazuyoshi Akiyama, the 36-yearold conductor of the Vancouver Symphony. Akiyama’s family lives in Vancouver, but he’s there less than half the year; the rest of his time is claimed by conducting duties that bind him to the American Symphony, the orchestras of Tokyo and Osaka and the New Japan Philharmonic. During rare peaceful moments at home, Akiyama prefers the pace of the model electric trains in his basement layout.

“Of course Toronto’s got the prize,” concedes the music critic for The Montreal Star, Eric McLean. He’s referring to Andrew Davis, 33, who could be called the Bionic Conductor for the energetic way he all but flings himself over the edge of the podium in his enthusiasm for another go at his chosen instrument, the orchestra.

“Some of my friends in England thought I was crazy to come here when I had two nice offers in England.” Davis is particularly jovial because he’s just heard that Harrod’s, the famous London department store, has ordered the two-record set, the complete works of Alexander Borodin, which is the first wax fruit of his collaboration with the TS. “This kind of situation is marvelous for me, because it’s only over a long period of time that you can tell whether you’re getting across to an orchestra,” he says. Permanence is a luxury—and

a fleeting one, since he can spend only 16 weeks a year performing in Toronto—in a career made famous by guest appearances, with some of the world’s top orchestras. He’s conducted five of them in the past 18 months, including a series of three concerts this fall with the New York Philharmonic, and has been asked back. But the return engagements have to be worked around the TS’s tour of Japan and China, a series of nine performances in Tokyo, Peking, Shanghai and Canton. The orchestra leaves January 21, accompanied by guest artists Maureen Forrester and Louis Lortie,17-year-old Montreal piano virtuoso.

Since the technical level of the TS is “very, very high,” Davis says, he’s been able to devote his time to the more esoteric demands of symphonic music, “like raising the general level of ensemble playing. It’s a question of the conductor creating such a strong compulsion that there’s only one way the musicians can play the piece. At that instant, everyone has to have the feeling that this is inevitable and right.”

But even among musicians, all musical discussion stops short of the business at hand—the music—because words can’t prompt what notes won’t say. Davis grins and admits his instructions to the orchestra may be on the homey side. “I once told them, ‘This sounds like a suet pudding; I want a soufflé.’ It’s very silly, but when we did it again, it was perfect.”

Musicians have been interpreting signals, mime and metaphor for nearly a century in Canada. Calgary had a rudimentary ensemble back in 1885, the same year the precursor to the Hamilton Philharmonic was founded. But few of these musical offshoots of the European symphony tradition took root. As recently as 1944, musicians described Ottawa as “the graveyard of symphony orchestras.”

They were a seasonal phenomenon at best, budding in the fall and flowering during the long winter months, only to wither as the snows and audiences melted away in April. In Montreal, orchestra musicians,

displaced from their regular theatre jobs by the talkies, played in the parks and passed around a hat. Even during the Forties in Toronto, recalls violinist Hillel Diamond, there were large audiences turning out for Pops Concerts in Varsity Stadium. By the time the rent, conductor and guest artist had been paid, there wasn’t always enough left to give the players their fivedollar fee.

Things have improved since then: the Montreal Symphony players have settled for a base pay of $372 per week, though they’re out on strike over other issues and Montreal is spending its second Christmas without the benefit of seasonal music from its symphony. Meanwhile, members of the Toronto Symphony accepted a three-year contract which will give them $430 a week by 1980.

The explosion of symphonic music is national in scope. The Canada Council gave Canadian symphonies $3.6 million last year, or an average of about 22% of their budget for the three major orchestras. This is a far cry from the 88% support the Swiss government gives the Zurich Symphony, or the 85% that Herbert von Karajan’s supple Berlin Philharmonic receives. It’s also comfortably removed from the token 3% to 6% the U.S. government gave even its best at one time. The degree of support European orchestras receive makes them all but oblivious of their audiences which are incidental in their hell-bent dash for critical glory. The audience is reacting in many places by staying home. Canadian orchestras are acutely aware of their community and directly dependent upon it for support. That’s why British Columbia supports 14 orchestras, including the Okanagan Symphony, whose musicians are so scattered along the valley that they drive an estimated total of 50,000 miles each year, just to rehearse.

In Saskatoon, community support for

what critics are calling the most exciting orchestra in the Prairies is so strong that its 2,000-seat house is pretty well filled for each pair of performances—no mean achievement, since the orchestra draws on a population of less than 150,000.

What is happening, in the opinion of the Canada Council’s Hugh Davidson, is that more and more musicians are coming out from the “craft underground” into the footlights. Amateurs bored with sawing their way through Eine Kleine Nachtmusik for the tenth time in two years pluck up courage and raise the money to hire professional first-desk players. A professional core can then be augmented by amateurs, as the Edmonton symphony was up to 1971, or professionals, as the Hamilton Philharmonic is today. The result is an orchestra that’s reasonably free of government influence, and the gilded—but often meddling—hand of wealthy benefactors. Such an orchestra is truly the conductor’s instrument—a fact recognized by conductors the world over. That’s why 400 applicants from around the world jumped to fill the vacancy when Klaro Mizerit, the founding maestro of the Atlantic Symphony, announced his retirement.

The ASO musicians voted overwhelmingly for Victor Yampolsky, the 34year-old former assistant conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic. Yampolsky, a Jewish emigré who left the USSR in 1973, has already completed two laps this season of the ASO’S “home”—a 21-city circuit through the Maritimes — packinghouses and earning plaudits wherever he goes. The ASO is the first orchestra Yampolsky can call his own, and he’s excited by the prospect of developing his own style and leaving it as his legacy to the orchestra. It’s

nice to conduct the Cleveland Symphony, he says, “but it’s nothing to the thrill of building your own. It’s like the difference between cooking a meal and eating somebody else’s dessert.”

But if the orchestras are free to succeed in the direction they choose, they’re free to fail as well, if their choice doesn’t find an audience. That’s why marketing has become part of symphony life every bit as much as it’s part of making soap flakes. For those who don’t know how to blow bubbles, the Canada Council imports Danny Newman from Chicago, where he serves the Lyric Opera doing what he knows best—building subscription audiences.

Newman, whom The New York Times calls “the Billy Graham of subscription theatre,” specializes in a hard, direct-mail campaign which saturates potential concert, theatre or opera goers with brochures that have been decried for their garishness but never equaled in effectiveness. Many of Newman’s clients double or quadruple their subscriptions, but none has soared like the Vancouver Symphony, from 3,500 to 38,000 in eight years. In a 15-hour marathon session in his room at the Vancouver’s Georgia Hotel, Newman last year produced this homage to his brainchild: “Kazuyoshi Akiyama,” the brochure screams, “He’s Charismatic, Dynamic, World-Admired—and he’s Ours!”

Even so, Michael Allerton, manager of the vso, feels frustrated by the fact that while his orchestra has worked very hard indeed—it earns a whopping 51 % of its income, or twice that of some orchestras— the Canada Council has dropped its support from a onetime high of 26% to a mere 15%. And so the orchestra with the largest subscription rolls in the world racked up a deficit last year, for the first time in years.

The only place where community support falls short of the average is in Quebec,

where the population supports four orchestras: one in Sherbrooke, one in Quebec City and two in Montreal—the McGill Chamber Orchestra and the Montreal Symphony. By contrast, Ontario, with a roughly equivalent population, has 31 orchestras and at least one more is on the way.

Since the election of the Parti Québécois, English-speaking orchestra administrators have been concerned lest music in Quebec become a political issue. James De Preist, the American conductor of the Quebec Symphony, which this season celebrates its 75th anniversary, denies there is any pressure on him. “If it ever gets to the point that I can’t pick the best candidate to fill a vacancy, I’ll leave,” he says. It’s doubtful that Quebec would let him go. De Preist has won over the city with his musicianship and the enormous enthusiasm he’s shown for his task. He began to learn French immediately and fearlessly appeared on live radio phone-in shows— even addressed his audiences from the podium—before he knew an aigu from a grave.

De Preist is truly a mountain of a man, as wide as a sumo wrestler and half again as tall; he walks with a slow, deliberate gait, his feet guided by the iron braces he’s worn ever since he contracted polio in Bangkok, “jamming” at the Palace with the King of Thailand. “Type casting by the State Department,” he explains. “They assumed that since I’m black, my only interest is jazz.”

De Preist knows there are enough pressures on conductors and performers without making them greater because of wayward nationalism, especially the selfdeprecating sort that Canadians believe they’ve invented but which apparently flourishes equally in the United States.

“America has an inferiority complex when it comes to music: you’ve got to be European—by birth, training or success— to be any good. If you have an accent, better still.” De Preist saw that his mentor, Leonard Bernstein, was the only nativeborn American conducting a major American orchestra, so he realized there would be no getting around the “European rule.” Guided by the fatalism he acquired along with polio, De Preist decided to put everything on one spin of the wheel, counting on a single stunning success in Europe to open doors that had remained closed in New York for years.

With his wife, Betty—the physiotherapist who got him back on his feet— De Preist spent a full year in enforced idleness in Holland, awaiting his debut with the Rotterdam Philharmonic. The raves were unanimous and loud, and the results immediate. With European success behind him. De Preist’s dreams unfolded with fairy-tale precision and lightning speed. He was given a Martha Baird Rockefeller grant; he conducted with Itzhak Perlman, Andre Watts and other renowned artists; and he guest-conducted the famous sym-

phony of his home town, Philadelphia. Later, he would accept an appointment as associate conductor of the National Symphony, “despite warnings that being the associate conductor of anything is the first step on the road to oblivion.” He had to do it, if only to relish working in Constitution Hall where his aunt, the venerable Marian Anderson, had been barred from appearing years before.

So De Preist has made his peace with nationalism—the Canadian, not Québécois, variety—and the requirement that all orchestras supported by the Canada Council play one Canadian composition in 10, and hire a Canadian as every fifth guest artist. De Preist himself prefers concerts “where I know an old friend like Brahms is going to talk to me,” but he has plunged with characteristic enthusiasm into the thicket of contemporary music, including that thorniest of all patches, Murray Schafer’s. “When we performed his Untitled Piece For Orchestra, I first explained to the audience that the piece wasn’t long, and that they couldn’t form an opinion from hearing it once. Then I told them I’d play it twice.”

Double-exposure of contemporary works is becoming a concert convention. Andrew Davis does it in Toronto. Mario Bernardi has done the same in Ottawa, though feelings run high about the amount of Canadian programming he does for the National Arts Centre Orchestra. “Technically, I don’t have to abide by the Canada Council rules, since we’re funded directly by the Secretary of State,” explains Ber-

nardi. "But we're in effect the federal or-

chestra, so I feel a certain obligation,” he says, waving his hand over the score that lies spread before him, laid out as if to dramatize his championing of the Canadian cause. “It’s a harp concerto by Oskar Morawetz; I’ve practically decided to do it,” he says, looking up shyly and blinking his eyes which look so soft and sensitive that they would rain gentle tears at the first unkind word.

The look is deceiving, or Ottawa’s reaction to Canadian music must otherwise keep Bernardi perpetually drenched. One woman wrote the NAC asking why they couldn’t do everybody a favor and put all the sopranos and all the contemporary works on the same program, so decent people could stay home that night. A performance of Robert Aitken’s Spirals was made memorable by a torrent of boos and hisses, followed by letters—“How dare Mario Bernardi”—the likes of which he’d never seen.

Bernardi handpicked the 44 musicians for the classical-size orchestra. But he had to find them first, since all the existing orchestras made him pledge that he wouldn’t raid them. The average age of the players was 26, so Bernardi has almost literally raised the orchestra. Musically, he has raised it to the point that the dazzling American mezzo, Frederica von Stade, insisted on using the orchestra to record Strauss’ Salome.

Recordings that will spread their fame are beyond reach of most conductors, to say nothing of their orchestras’ finances. For although

recording contract with Columbia gave the TS the opportunity to record Borodin a year ago and several works by Leos Janacek this November, the two-dollars per second recording cost is so outrageous that all orchestras except the Big Five (Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia) must contribute to the cost. The TS could not have recorded without the funds raised by its Women’s Committee.

The next best thing is a CBC contract for performances that occasionally result in a small-scale pressing. “We spend over one million dollars a year on symphony musicians,” says Bob Sunter, head of radio music for the English-language division. And he hopes to expand, so long as orchestras remember “the CBC is interested in programming, not philanthropy.”

Clearly, records and live concerts were meant to exist in a symbiotic relationship. “They present so much of the human soul,” says Andrew Davis, “which is why music in particular and the arts in general are so popular. People want to find something, and many find it in music. Maybe it’s a reaction against materialism, or something brought about by the demise of organized religion. Music sparks off intellectual delights as well as emotional. How it does that is a mystery; that’s what makes music so interesting to me.”

An observation by Hugh Davidson of the Canada Council brings the future of the symphony—if not its recording twin— into focus. “The fact is that music can not be reproduced. It simply can’t be done, even with stereo recordings. Concerts will thrive because people like the noise an orchestra makes; they like the sound. That’s what it’s about, finally— that sound.