Thursday, May 19, 2011

Now playing: the Whatsit Philharmonic

Classical music’s scandal du jour, as reported by Daniel J. Wakin in The New York Times, is that several European orchestras booked for tours of small and mid-sized towns in the U.S. seem to be ad hoc ensembles that have impressive-sounding names but apparently no history or presence in their homelands:

I’m having trouble getting too worked up about this. Yes, audiences are being sold questionable goods; but when in the history of performing for paying customers were audiences not sold questionable goods? Especially audiences outside major music centers?

The provincials are being conned, we are led to infer. But are they, really?

Let’s say you live in Pembroke, NC, one of the locales cited in Wakin’s article. This town of 2,500 or so residents is home to one of the campuses of the University of North Carolina system. UNC Pembroke presents touring-artists series; two orchestras, Russia’s Chamber Orchestra Kremlin and Poland’s Opole Philharmonic, were on this season’s schedule. They are not household names, but they weren’t cobbled together for these tours.

I doubt that name recognition figured much in decisions to buy tickets for their concerts. If you wanted to hear classical music played by a live orchestra in Pembroke, these were your two opportunities. (Your next-best options would be to drive 70-odd miles to hear the Charlotte Symphony or 60-odd miles to hear North Carolina Symphony concerts in Wilmington.)

I’m guessing that Pembroke residents with an interest in classical music knew they weren’t being offered the Concertgebouw or Berlin Philharmonic, but nonetheless thought they got their money’s worth: The priciest tickets for the Opole Philharmonic were $30; Chamber Orchestra Kremlin played for free.

The two ensembles’ Pembroke programs are not listed on the college’s online schedule, but I expect they stuck to works in which their musicians are conversant and well-practiced. The musicians may not have played at peak level – few do on tour, and, as Wakin notes, orchestras on the small-town circuit tend to have especially grueling travel schedules. I’m reasonably confident, though, that the audiences heard professional-grade performances.

One more point: Record collectors, presumably among the hardest-core of highbrows, have been buying and treasuring performances by pickup bands (remember Leopold Stokowski and “His Symphony Orchestra,” or the Columbia and RCA Victor symphony orchestras led by the likes of Bruno Walter, George Szell and Fritz Reiner?) and pseudonymous ensembles (“Vienna State Opera Orchestra,” “New York Stadium Symphony,” “Robin Hood Dell Symphony”) for generations.

Dubious labeling did not necessarily yield poor performances, and often gave record collectors a bargain. The same is true, I’ll bet, for small-town concert audiences hearing obscure orchestras from abroad.