Tuesday, June 14, 2005

In The Valley of the Sun

Music in the Valley of the Sun is unlike some other metro cities where it’s hard to choose which classical concert to attend any one night of the week; where world-class artists and ensembles parade through a Kennedy Center or Avery Fischer Hall and there is excellence found even among amateurs.

It doesn’t take long even for a newcomer to the Valley to realize that classical music is of little consequence to the community. Without intending to insult the many musical organizations here, (Lord only knows how they struggle to merely survive) perhaps it’s because there is little of high quality.

There is the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, a mid-level professional ensemble, which for a city this size with so much money and so many high profile celebs living here, should be among the best. One reason may be that management doesn't pay the musicians enough and in 2002 cut their pay 14%. A deal made a few days ago gives them 4-4-5% increase over a three year contract. That’s still rather less than what they earned in 2001. It acts as though the musicians and the community should be thankful for whatever is thrown their way. Oscar Wilde said, "If that's the way you're going to treat a symphony, you don't deserve to have one."

That has been almost the case, but led by Maryellen Gleason, president and CEO of the Symphony, there are signs of improvement. Their bottom line is black this season and it’s expected to be even better next; management and musicians are not at odds; Michael Christie debuts this season and he’s almost certain to improve the past staid programming-eventually.

But, this season is disappointingly full of the same tired stuff of Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, et al. Notable though, are AdamsViolin Concerto with Leila Josefowicz, and Aaron Jay Kernis’ Musica Celestis for strings. About half the season’s music is “Pops” programs (with Doc Severinson, Marvin Hamlisch), many Messiahs, and there are outreach programs too… well, you get the idea, trying to get the community interested and satisfying their grants obligations.

As the valley’s prestige classical performers, they certainly don’t get any help from the media. In all the several newspapers and TV stations, classical music events are rarely mentioned, and listings don’t include classical music. Showup.com gives the best arts listing in town. New Times completely ignores classical music, and Phoenix magazine lists only the high profile ensembles. Just a few years ago, solid music criticism by Dimitri Drobatschewsky was given space by the Arizona Republic, followed with lesser space by composer Kenneth LaFave, and now to almost none by Richard Nilsen, an arts journalist, et al. But, there is front page coverage for pops groups and entertainers. This from a major newspaper with thirty photographers on its staff! That pretty well defines my point.

The circle is small, but classical music and news in the valley is found in its lone classical radio station KBAQ (kay-bach ugghh!). Current events are announced and they provide a comprehensive listing on their web page. However, their programming is much like the Phoenix Symphony – traditional, safe, sterile - and hokey, like their daily noon Mozart Buffet, where it’s implied Mozart is aired on a platter to be tasted together with a listener’s pastrami on rye (rolling eyes!).

Almost every suburb surrounding Phoenix has its own orchestra and its own struggle: Sun City, Scottsdale, Peoria, Tempe, Chandler, and there are more. Arizona State University offers its music making to the community on campus, and it varies from very good to mediocre. And, it does community service.

The Mesa Symphony Orchestra just lost its conductor, Gordon Johnson, who amicably resigned because he hasn’t been paid. He travels to Mesa from Great Falls, MT, where he is the conductor there and has no doubt piled up a considerable expense tab. Financially strapped Mesa plans to fill in with guests for the next season.

Musica Nova, a string orchestra, led by Warren Cohen, does some adventurous and imaginative programming, but it lacks the experience and polish to bring it off. Perhaps time will mature them if they can survive. Jeffery Siegel has survived, traveling to Scottsdale from NYC for many years doing his popular Keyboard Conversations and flying out on the next day to another of 18 cities this season, performing 61 concerts in all.

Meantime, a breath of hope in the grand opening of the Mesa Arts Center, the largest in Arizona, with four theatres seating 99 to 1600. Their 2005-2006 season appears colorful and appealing with classical music headliners Kurt Masur and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Murray Perahia, and Ravi, among the almost 90 events, though not all musical.

The picture isn’t complete without noting the choral organizations. The quality ranges from a mere good to awful. None will knock your socks off. The professional Phoenix Bach Choir led by Charles Bruffy, enjoys a reputation, aggressive PR, and a strong following. Among the amateur groups (in no particular order) is the Phoenix Symphony Chorus directed by Robert Moody which ably assists the orchestra in those special works, you know – Messiah and Carmina, etc., the Phoenix Boys Choir, led by Georg Stangelberger, Sonoran Desert Chorale conducted by Jeff Harris, Carolyn Eynon’s Arizona Arts Chorale, Masterworks Chorale, Mary Ann Dutton, conductor, and Christopher Samuel’s Valley Chamber Chorale, Cantemus, led by Darrell Rowader, and there are others. Choral music here, as elsewhere, is much more likely to program contemporary scores and much more likely to be liked by listeners. ASU had, until three years ago, one of the best choruses and choral departments in the country but when David Stocker retired as head, it slid swiftly downhill.

To make the story shorter, and a recap, there is a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for any classical music here, and perhaps one of the reasons is there is so little, and so little of quality - a sort of cultural dustbin. To be sure, there are other reasons and maybe I’ll address these later.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Musica Nova has an amateur Strign Orchestra, but also a professional Full Orchestra-the group that can "pull it off" is that group.

Although I do adventurous stuff with the Strings and with my (also amateur)Baroque group,I do this only because I like doing that repertoire with them- amateur groups exist primarily for the benefit of the players, and cannot perform any music at a level that can really have the impact we would like. I maintain these groups to help develop a base of interest and support for the professional group, but their work should in no way be confused with the work of the Musica Nova Orchestra; there is almost no crossover of personnel between the groups.

Come hear the full professional orchestra- that is a totally different experience.


9:34 AM  

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