Great Orchestra, but Where Were the People?

    What a weekend. The Columbus Symphony raised the musical roof Saturday evening with one of the greatest warhorses in classical music, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Then, on Sunday night, the Atlanta Seventeen blew everyone away with Count Basie-Buddy Rich-type big band jazz charts. 

  First, the Columbus Symphony season opener.

Columbus Symphony Orchestra

Courtesy: Columbus Symphony Orchestra

  As we sat on the front row of the balcony soaking in Beethoven emotion, I decided that the front row is not a good place to be in the balcony. You have to lean foward in order to see over the rail. We moved up to the second row after the intermission where the view was better. There was no problem moving almost anywhere you wanted in the balcony because there were plenty of empty seats.  

  What a shame. We have a first-rate orchestra, thanks to conductor George del Gobo, and all of the fine musicians, many of whom come from out of town. It was doing Beethoven justice – really outstanding performances.

Columbus Symphony Orchestra)

George Del Gobo, Musical Director, Columbus Symphony Orchestra (Courtesy: Columbus Symphony Orchestra)

  But where were the people?  Looking down from the balcony, I could see that the orchestra level had a lot of empty seats, too. But, that’s not as bad as it sounds. As the CSO’s Executive Director J.J. Musgrove said, “There are about 150 empty seats [on the orchestra level] , but that doesn’t represent a loss because they belong to season ticket holders.” He suggested that when season ticket holders can’t come, it would be a good idea to give the tickets to someone else so that they will be exposed to the symphony and maybe decide to buy a ticket in the future.

  Actually the symphony is doing right well in this economic downturn. Musgrove said the orchestra went against the national trend and had a budget surplus for the last two years. It was only $1,500, but that’s better than losing money. Also, the orchestra is not truncating its season the way a lot of big orchestras are doing right now, some cutting their season in half.

  No symphony orchestra can make it on ticket sales alone. Only 19 percent of the CSO’s budget comes from that. The rest comes from contributions by individuals and foundations. There is a small but generous corps of contributors for the Columbus orchestra.

  I asked Musgrove if symphonic music is losing its audience. He said, “We’ve been debating that one for a few hundred years.”  He did admit that keeping people coming depends greatly on their being exposed to the music when they are children, and he is concerned that elementary school music programs are the first to go any time there is a school budget crunch.  Also, a big factor is if they have ever played an instrument. He said studies have shown that about 70 percent of symphony concert audiences have played an instrument at some time in their lives.  I’m part of the 70  percent. Percussion was my game.

  You know, what he said makes me reflect back to my childhood. I don’t think I really heard any symphonic music until I was in the 4th grade at Wynnton  School. Up until then I was only exposed to popular music, vocalists like Bing Crosby, Wee Bonnie Baker, and Kate Smith, and big bands like Sammy Kaye, Glenn Miller and Kay Kyser. 

 My fourth grade teacher brought her own small record player to class and played some symphonic records for us from time to time. I was sitting on the other side of the room when she explained that she couldn’t turn up the volume any more because it might disturb other classes. She asked, “Is there anyone who can’t hear this well? If so, and you really want to hear it better, I’ll let you move closer to the record player.” I held up my hand.  I guess I didn’t look very cultural because she seemed really surprised that I wanted to hear that long-haired music better, but, she seemed pleased that I did and let me move closer. I wasn’t doing that for show. I really liked it and wanted to hear it better.  

  I never got over really liking it, and the first time I heard a live symphony performance I was really hooked.  I was in the Jordan Vocational High School Band at the time. Our band director Bob Barr said, “The whole band has been invited to attend the Three Arts League concert by the Pittsburg Symphony.” When questioned about who paid for the tickets, he said, “Some rich lady. She doesn’t want everyone to know who she is.”  My guess is that it was the late Virginia Illges, a primary backer of the League. She was instrumental in starting the Columbus Symphony and asked Barr to be its first conductor. Whoever it was, she also paid for the Columbus High Band to go. What a great gift. We were sitting right on the front two rows and when that grand orchestra cranked up, it was magical.    

  It does pay to provide musical education, because appreciating great music gives one pleasure all through life, especially when you can hear it live and played by a good orchestra.  Speaking of live and by a good orchestra, tomorrow  I’ll tell you about the wonderful evening of music provided by the Columbus Jazz Society on Sunday night. Stay tuned.

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