I’ve been having some mixed emotions lately, sitting around the house. On the one hand, I finally tracked down a copy of “White Men Can’t Jump” on DVD (“No, no, no, that’s Ghana. You, my friend, are shooting for the Sudan.”). On the other hand, the most prominent classical music news story of the past week has been the looming demise of the Las Vegas Philharmonic, an orchestra that I have no affiliation with, but an orchestra in which I have more than a dozen friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.
The Las Vegas Sun has some stories here and here about the issues facing the orchestra right now. Issues that surprise me exactly 0%. Having grown up in the Neon Jungle, I saw first hand how utterly devoid of musical culture the city is.
I’ve got stories, myself. Like how my mother and countless other professionals played with prominent entertainers and jazz musicians (knowing what I know now, I’d have killed to be there when mom played with and met Sammy Davis Jr.) before they started using canned music. Or how a friend of a friend said he was moving to Vegas to be a jazzer (he was a saxophonist), was struggling to make ends meet, and had plumbing issues. He called the plumber, and he actually recognized him. He asked him what he was doing being a plumber, and was told, “I have a family to support.” That plumber, as it turns out, was Carl Fontana, arguably the greatest jazz trombonist of all fucking time. Jesus, Vegas.
My favorite depressing story, though, comes from high school. I had just discovered Mahler within the year, and as luck would have it, Danielle Gatti and the Royal Philharmonic were performing the 5th Symphony on tour on the UNLV campus. My friend and I both excitedly purchased tickets for over $50. Fast forward two weeks, and we hear news that the hall is only sold to about 30% capacity. They decided to give tickets away to everyone in the music program at my school (I went to a performing arts magnet school). And, as you can imagine, the exact same thing happened the next year when Vladimir Ashkenazy and the DSO Berlin came, bringing Shostakovich 10 with them. But I’ll be damned if my younger sister’s ballet studio’s recital didn’t pack the shit out of that hall. Really, Vegas?
They’ll tell to if you listen that they have priceless works of art. And they do…buried in the Wynn, the Bellagio, the Venetian, and probably some more, they have some stellar art collections. Great. Meanwhile, an orchestra with some absolutely first-rate musicians can’t even make it through a 6-concert season? That orchestra has folded and restarted more times than I have fingers, even if I were the six-fingered man from The Princess Bride. Thank God Phantom of the Fucking Opera sells out all the time. What the fuck, Vegas?
The truth is, Vegas is an anomaly. They have 2 million people in the metro, but they don’t have a professional sports team. Green Bay, Wisconsin has a professional sports team. You know what else they have? A Symphony Orchestra that can do 6 concerts a year. But what they don’t have is an endless army of casinos, restaurants, movie theaters, bowling alleys, and pawn shops.
I still visit Las Vegas when I can. My father still lives there. I like it when I’m there. The town has a palpable energy, and even though I’m not much of a gambler, drinker, or high-end call girl seeker, I dig that energy. I just know that while I’m there I can forget about any of the culture that enriches my life, because it’s nowhere to be found.