June 8, 2011

Orchestra: Old music in a new age

On Tuesday, May 31, I joined several thousand other music lovers in the Louisville Palace to enjoy local-rockers-turned-international stars My Morning Jacket performing a concert that was being filmed for YouTube, in an event sponsored by American Express. As the contrasting smells of weed and deep corporate investment wafted through the under-air-conditioned Palace, the management of another essential local group — The Louisville Orchestra — withdrew employment offers to orchestra members, leaving the 17th-largest metro area in the United States without an orchestra. (The night was less dramatic for those who stayed in and watched “NCIS” reruns.)

Much of the blame clearly lays with those managers who made an offer that would drastically slash the musicians’ pay, eliminate health insurance benefits, and make many of them part-time. However, blame should also be shared by people like me and others under, let’s say, 60, who really should be spending more time and money on things like the orchestra, the ballet and the museum. I mean, I love music, I love dance, I love art, and I earn a paycheck, so this should be easy, yes?

Yes, but ... something has misfired in our culture, where we feel we should be doing those things just like we should be flossing more often and eating fewer doughnuts. People mostly do what they want to do, not what they’re supposed to do. So, like the mother who hides vegetables to trick her child into eating better, the first place to look is at the orchestra, which maybe has not been doing enough to get my money.

Public radio station WFPK, 91.9, goes to the people with their free summer concert series Waterfront Wednesday, which attracts thousands of attendees, some of whom are as drawn to being outside for free picnicking and people watching as they are to taking in the sounds of music acts of sometimes varying quality. I bet a lot of people would be interested in hearing the orchestra for free in such a lively setting, as opposed to what some perceive as a stuffy old hall. I don’t want to have to wear a suit to go hear music; I’d like to wear something comfortable, maybe have a drink, and be able to relate to orchestra music as a modern, vibrant form without having to look like I’m an English butler. Surely some sponsors can put their corporate cash behind that?

Then there’s the problem of orchestras trying to appeal to “pop” audiences by playing the music of “Star Wars” or Motown. They can’t be all classy and dignified, pouring their hearts into beautiful works that have lasted for centuries one night, then putting a cheeky spin on “The Tears of a Clown” the next — it’s just unnatural. The orchestra should be an enjoyable night out, but with some dignity left over afterward.

I’ve been to the Speed Museum three times in the past year — for their Art After Dark series, which reaches out to a younger audience who wants something more relatable, like booze, films and rock bands — something, anything, different and fresh — to make the institution fun again. Children have Art Sparks, and we need something special, too.

Maybe this recent turmoil will prove to be a blessing disguised as a curse. The orchestra members have recently begun performing under the name Keep Louisville Symphonic. They are planning to play again in July, and it will surely be a great opportunity to see some passionate artists at their most fired-up. They’re not asking for straight-up donations, they’re merely asking to not be screwed over by a manager who receives an annual salary of $115,000 while leading a drive to drastically reduce the pay of musicians who would have to split their time between being world-class players and taking your order at Wendy’s.

Life is all about marketing. Pop singers become famous because a lot of money has been spent promoting them; politicians who spend the most often end up winning elections. Our orchestra probably needs to learn how to market themselves better to people who would value them more if it seemed fun. But first, someone needs to stand up, check in hand, willing to say that investing in the culture of our community is more important than spending millions advertising on “NCIS.”