We’re really good at music now

The world’s talent pool is rich right now. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about music or water polo or investment banking – the sheer ability of human beings is incredible. Add to that the increasing efficiency of business, what Thomas Friedman would call an increasingly “flat” world, the Baby Boom generation not retiring because they spent too much money during the “good times,” and the hellacious student loan debt being accumulated in pursuit of jobs that are actually worth pursuing that debt for and you have all the ingredients for what we have now: quality labor at Walmart prices.

My wife (we’re not married, but I’m tired of referring to her as my “girlfriend” because a) our relationship is no different than that of a married couple and b) I’m not 15) is a librarian, and in that field there is a glut of qualified individuals who are doing professional-level work for something much closer to student-level pay. I kicked around going to library school for awhile, until I heard about two staff positions filled at the university where she works, one full-time and one part-time, each paying something in the neighborhood of $11.50 an hour, that went to people with something like 12 and 6 years of experience, respectively. I mean Jesus, really?

But that’s the world today, and it’s every bit as true in orchestras. There have never been so many gifted musicians ready to fill positions in an ever-dwindling number of successful orchestras. In my recent review of the UMKC Orchestra’s final concert, I mentioned that it wasn’t THAT long ago that the Rite of Spring was difficult for even the finest professional orchestras to navigate, and now college and community orchestras are capable of giving worthy performances. I was struck by this again when introduced to something called InstantEncore this week that I’m sure has been around for years but I never knew about because I’m an idiot.

InstantEncore has a bunch of shit on it, and I haven’t really explored its depths, but there are a several recordings of conservatory orchestras like Curtis and NEC that I’ve been listening to a bit (as I type this, a recording of Concerto for Orchestra with Robert Spano leading the Curtis group is playing, and it’s bloody terrific). I recognize that the expectations for students at some of the finest musical schools in the world SHOULD be high, but I’m really blown away by just how damn good the playing is. Yesterday I listened to a spectacular performance of Don Juan with the NEC Orchestra, and all I could think was, “this piece is pretty fucking hard, but…” Aside from the recording quality, I honestly don’t think it would have been distinguishable from a professional orchestra like Oregon or Nashville in any real way. I can’t help but wonder what the future holds for the performers, though. 50 years ago, I would have assumed they would have filled the ranks of some of America’s preeminent ensembles. Now, I wonder if most of them will fill the ranks of some of America’s I-mean-if-you-squint-they’re-somewhat-eminent ensembles, not through any lack of musical skill, but from the sheer numbers game that is life in the 21st century.

Here in Kansas City, the Symphony is a top-shelf group that is capable of producing the kinds of performances that you would expect from the best orchestras in the country, which is not what you would expect if you were basing your perception on what they sounded like even 15 years ago. A lot of credit can go to a lot of people, from Michael Stern to the executive staff to the generous, rich, old people that this town has in a greater supply than most probably assume, but no doubt one of the big reasons for the staggering improvement is the trickle-down paradigm that artistic supply and demand now operates in. Selfishly, it’s grand: legitimately world-class performers on your doorstep. But in a cosmic sense, I can’t help but feel like such quality musicians deserve more than our cowtown.

Will they ever get it? Who knows, but if they do it’ll be because they survived a war of attrition against an absurdly large pool of other gifted artists. It’s our gain as listeners and fans of great music, even if it comes with a hidden cost. Cue retarded people complaining about getting paid for “playing” music and going to college and not majoring in something productive like finance or business administration…NOW!



One thought on “We’re really good at music now

  1. Two thoughts occurred upon reading this: I remember when I managed a classical record store back in the 80s that one of the mainstay events of the week was the parade of geezers that would wander through the store every week and grumble about how NOBODY was a good conductor any more. Not like we had with Stokie, Reiner, Szell, Furtwangler, (fill in your own favorite dead warhorse semaphore-ist…) yadayada… I remember thinking at the time that I thought that was a sort of natural nostalgia, but one I hoped never to succumb to myself. I loved lots of performances by those conductors, but I heard lots of subsequent generations building on their legacy. My own observation led me to disagree sharply, that there was a plethora of superb young conductors, and it’s only become more so in the intervening years. But you couldn’t tell those guys that; the sky was falling, even if it wasn’t Your own discussion suggests that this phenomenon has unfolded among orchestras as well, and I think this is all part of the ridiculous “classical music is “in decline/dying/dead” narrative that is so attractive and completely unrooted in reality.

    The second was an anecdote that a friend told me about Fritz Reiner. Reiner was chatting with a younger conducting colleague and he went on at length describing his envy at the younger colleague’s superior technique and much-larger repertoire. Reiner confided that there were only about 60 works that he was really confident conducting. The younger conductor? Erich Kunzel.

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