The Tuba, the Orchestra, and the Business Model

posted in: The Arts, Politics | 0

No offense, Senor Tuba, but you mostly don’t belong in a symphony orchestra. Like your overgrown business compatriot–the contemporary “business model”–your music is too raucous, too lumbering, too prone to go awry in favor of swagger and ump-pa-pa. Good for a military goosestep, or “down home” flashy parade, but not flexible enough for sonorous blends or wild, heroic shouts at the white whale of the world.

      The Twin Cities of Minneapolis/Saint Paul are currently in the unenviable state of having both symphony orchestras “locked out” by managing boards composed largely of the “business model.” I am not privy to these “heads” who are wielding the cleavers, but I’ve learned enough during the recent recession to be suspicious. Let’s recall how the business model brought the world to its knees within recent memory.   

     As I understand the financial mess circa 2008, huge insurance companies were betting against their wealthiest clients. This meant insiders would benefit mightily if clients failed. Picture tall columns of glass and steel filled with computer savants who rigged schemes of gigantic proportions, so out of touch with real-life below that they believed they could tweak the strings of the world with impunity. 

     Compared with such high-flying machinations, cutting a symphony orchestra down to size is small potatoes. But the mentality may very well be the same. Something along the line of a tuba swaggering its big bulk and flashy golden bell, drowning out everything less brassy and exaggerated in its wake.

     In the place of the tuba, substitute large expenditures on building renovations. Both Twin Cities orchestra boards have committed their players/audiences to expensive building renovations. One of them, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, has also kept ticket prices so low as to be offensive (especially now, given the cry of threatening insolvency).

     I’ve seen similar moves in another area where the business model has taken hold: i.e. higher education. How many smallish, liberal arts institutions have been “blessed” with new buildings on campus, while within those buildings, staff and faculty are trimmed so tight that credible functioning is called into question?

     Bricks and mortar versus the people that actually play the music. Big donors getting their names on glass and steel, while, horror of horrors, it’s revealed that nearly 50% of the orchestra’s budget is musicians’ salaries! What else should an orchestra management be spending its money on?

     A lovely young lady of my acquaintance recently commented that she thinks these orchestra boards simply don’t want, in their heart of hearts, to do their jobs. Consequently, in her gentle parlance, they “need to be asked to step down.” 

     I’m for it. It’s time for the swaggering tuba to exit stage left. And let the serious tinkering necessary to preserve both orchestras begin.  



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