On April 28, 2015, as the city burned and amid a curfew that meant the cancelation of evening performances, members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gathered on the street outside the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and performed Handel, Bach, and Beethoven for random passersby. It will probably go down as one of the only edifying things to have happened in public in this country in the last decade: a response to senseless destruction that was ennobling and deeply human.
Two years later members of the BSO find themselves outdoors once again. This time it is not of their own accord. The players have been locked out of their own concert hall because they are refusing to agree to a new contract that will reduce the number of their performances. For the second time in recent years the orchestra recently borrowed from its own endowment to make payroll. The $2.3 million loan that made it possible for them to continue their invaluable work is a fraction of what the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, whose presidential campaign is going to end in a meaningless fourth or fifth-place finish, is able to raise in one quarter of fundraising. The otherwise sensible and moderate Republican governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, is refusing to release $1.6 million in emergency funding approved by the state legislature. What philistines we are.
Baltimore is not the only American city in which a storied orchestra finds itself in a difficult financial position. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra, under whose roof I and thousands of other Michiganders of limited means first heard Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, and Beethoven performed live, gutted their schedule years ago, citing their inability to fund a 52-week program of music. The Philadelphia Orchestra, whose recordings under the batons of Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy will be heard as long as our species lasts, went bankrupt in 2011 and only managed to recover with the help of a $55 million gift. The New York Philharmonic flourishes for class-related reasons — and because celebrities like David Geffen are willing to throw $100 million at building-related problems that other ensembles throughout the country would be only too happy to find themselves staring down.
No one is asking for anything unreasonable here. The lockout that has resulted in the cancelation of the BSO's entire summer schedule cannot be put down to a sense of entitlement on the part of musicians. Nor has it got anything to do with snobbishness. They are willing to tolerate economies. They are willing, too, to accept artistic compromises. In many American cities one is more likely to see an orchestra play along with a screening of Jaws or the original Star Wars trilogy than to hear an evening of selections from the repertoire. In 2012 when musicians in Detroit needed to make up for a shortfall that followed a long and painful strike, they were happy to accept the assistance of Kid Rock, who raised $1 million for them with a benefit concert that featured "Bawitdaba" and "You Never Met a Motherf***** Quite Like Me" among other favorites.
What an indictment of our age. Now more than ever it should be financially feasible to bring the riches of Western art music to as wide an audience as possible. This should apply not only to purely instrumental fare but to opera as well. The world's greatest living conductor, Simone Young, is an Australian mother of two who made her first appearance at the Met when she was five months pregnant. Programs like the BSO's OrchKids, which provides musical training and good meals to poor children, are so valuable that no price tag can or should be attached to their work. In 2019 America has billionaire black entrepreneurs and black senators and black head coaches in the NFL, but we have never heard a first-rate black Siegfried. This is absurd. If we cannot make Wagner and Bruckner and Richard Strauss available to anyone who wishes to hear them, we might as well abandon civilization. Five or ten or twenty million dollars a year for every small and middle-sized city orchestra in the country would be a rounding error in the federal budget.
Few things fill me with more despair than the idea that a single person anywhere in this rich country of ours should be deprived of the glories of classical music performed live. It should be the property of all Americans. We must save our orchestras.