Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Out of the League

Matthew Guerrieri considers the possibility of running major orchestras like Major League Baseball. With all respect to Matthew and his estimable canine companion, that's a really bad idea.

American sports leagues, and Major League Baseball -- with its congressional charter (i.e. a legal monopoly) -- in particular, are designed to value institutions, in this case, privately-owned franchises, over the game itself. Once a major league franchise is granted, it stays a major league team for eternity, with minimal incentive for individual team owners to ensure that their teams consistently perform well.

But this is one area in which the Europeans have a better business and sports model. Teams in a given league do not have secure positions in their leagues, they are continously under pressure to perform well -- the top teams in a league have the possibility to rise to next league up while the poorest performing teams in a league are each year sent down to the next-lower league.

Thus, in Europe, it is possible for a famous, but underperforming team, like Borussia Dortmund, to be threatened (as it is at the moment) with a drop into the second league, while less well-known but talented teams can move up into the big show. If we were to transpose this into American orchestral terms, underperforming orchestras, like the Boston of the late Ozawa era or the present NYPhil, would have had the pressure of second league status (and second league funding) as a major incentive to play better, while less-well recognized but better playing orchestras (like the two major teams in California) would have had clear public recognition of their major league status, which may well have figured into funding and salary issues.


Matthew said...

Too true. One of the things I was thinking about was the money situation for smaller orchestras—even in the waning years of the Ozawa era, the BSO was still the 600-pound gorilla of regional fundraising, leaving every other orchestra in New England basically scrambling for their leftovers. So in America, the big orchestras are pretty much the equivalent of Major League Basesball, except that they're doing far less to ensure that the smaller organizations that feed their success, both in terms of personnel and outreach, are going to remain viable in the long run.

The "majors" in America actually have seen some turnover—I think most people would consider LA and maybe San Francisco in that column, whereas they might not have made the cut 30 years ago. I love the idea of permeable orchestra leagues, if only there were solid criteria. (Maybe we should turn the Proms into an orchestral F.A. Cup....)

I probably should have made it clear in the post: I'm a lifelong Cubs fan, so any reference I make to MLB is laced with pain and skepticism.

Daniel Wolf said...

Matthew --

You're dead on about the BSO and the region.

The BBC Proms certainly have an intramural competition quality among the regional orchestras, and I believe that there's a consensus that this has been good for the quality and variety of music played. But that's an institution quite unlike anything in the US (or Germany, for that matter, where it is considered impolite to compare the orchestras, although -- like bloggers comparing Google or technorati hits -- it's something done by everyone anyways.)

The best possibilities in the US would be (a) to turn the touring season in NYC into a ranked tournament, or (b) for public TV or radio to run a series, with each of the orchestras recorded in their home hall under the same minimal connections: a pair of mics, no mixing, no ringers.