Monday, June 13, 2011

Pematurely interred orchestras in oversized mausoleums

Word has come that another American orchestra is closing shop, this time in Bellevue, Washington.

Oh, wait... it's not exactly shutting down: "It is the board’s hope that when Tateuchi Center (PACE) is completed, the orchestra may again play on the Eastside in a venue that will support us, both acoustically and in seating capacity."

Yep, "the orchestra", not "an orchestra" but "the orchestra". The intention is clearly to revive the same orchestra, absolved, of course, of any old contractual obligations.

And yep, at the same time they're putting the orchestra down or into mothballs, a new concert hall is being built to seat some 2000 people. An orchestra whose management couldn't sustain it in a 400-seat hall is now supposed to make it with a 2000 seat hall.

There is an absolute mania for large halls in the US and while they may be useful for large public assemblies where talk or travelogues or Amway recruitment evenings are the main focus or for (amplified) music from more popular genres, I think that this has been a seriously mistaken way of testing a dubious hypothesis that (a) halls of this scale are appropriate if not necessary for orchestral music and (b) halls of this scale are required to sustain large musical organizations economically.

As to the first point, a survey of the best concert halls and opera houses in Europe will quickly show that, except for a very few representative buildings, anything above 2000 seats is rare, with the acoustically best halls considerably smaller and 2000 an upper limit for even rather large cities (examples: the Großer Musikvereinssaal in Vienna seats 1744, the Concertgebouw is just around that upper limit.) Most of the "classical" repertoire has always been played in much smaller venues, and the earlier and more contemporary repertoire has been most often played in even smaller halls. I don't doubt that the Burghers of Bellevue take pride and have mighty aspirations for their metropolis and I have even less doubt that there are architects and engineers delighted to build a prestige object of such scale. But is architectural prestige really a trump for musical utility? Unless the hall is, acoustically, truly spectacular most of the repertoire playable by an orchestra is really going to suffer as it gets lost in a cavern of such size.

As to the second point, it is perfectly obvious that the orchestra had been able to sustain itself in a 400-seat hall for more than 40 years, but there is no evidence at all that it will have the draw, when resurrected, to sustain itself in a 2000-seater. Moreover, the possible image of that hall filled to 20% capacity for orchestral concerts is hardly going to be the stuff to create enthusiasm for orchestral music. I know that the professional thanatophiles out there on the lecture and consulting circuit will be perfectly happy with a new and underpopulated 2000-seat mausoleum for classical music, but that strikes me as a totally perverse use of limited resources and an embarrassing substitute for the orchestra's management and board actually doing the heavy lifting of enough fund raising and expansion of the audience base to get over the present hump.

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