Smoke and Mirrors: Mr. Smith Returns to Washington

Smoke and Mirrors: Mr. Smith Returns to Washington

Botstein conducts Gore
Leon Botstein conducts Al Gore
Photo courtesy of the American Symphony Orchestra

Not Always Sure of the Score

Conductor Roger Nierenberg presents it best in his Music Paradigm, which in the course of an hour transforms the symphony orchestra into a model of corporate communication. In Nierenberg’s example, members of the first violin team report to the string division, which in turn reports to the chief executive on the podium. The metaphor has its limitations — most orchestras really do have chief executives who have nothing to do with musical matters — but as working model it’s more accurate than the “Dictatorship Paradigm” that ruled for more than a century. It also effectively places the conductor on his podium and as the focal point of attention.

Using the musical podium for political purposes is nothing new. This country’s history embraces both the sublime (like George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra‘s groundbreaking tours of the Soviet Union) and the ridiculous (like Leonard Bernstein‘s infamous soiree for the Black Panthers). But these days you have to look long and hard to find a grand political statement.

Part of that is the nature of the business now. As Tip O’Neill once said, “All politics is local,” and as artist publicist Mary Lou Falcone states, “Any conductor of real stature is global.” Up until the ’60s, a conductor was a stationary figure, even in the case of Szell or Bernstein active members of their community. “Today, even when a conductor is identified with a certain location, they have to be ubiquitous to be taken seriously,” says Falcone, who represents conductors Dennis Russell Davies and Daniel Barenboim.

“It’s not surprising that so few conductors speak out,” says Leon Botstein, conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra. “Very few know enough about their communities to do anything about them. It’s simply not possible for all the European imports, and I’m not even sure it’s possible for many Americans. You need to have a legitimate standing in your field as well as a visible position in the community. It may be possible for Gerry Schwarz in Seattle, for example. But there’s no one in that position nationally.”

There is, of course, Leonard Slatkin, the American-born music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. Even back in his days with the St. Louis Symphony, Slatkin managed to balance an international career with local causes like the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, which he founded in 1969. That carried over into Washington, where he made up for the DC Youth Orchestra‘s funding cuts by orchestrating a consortium of his own, continuing music education for 130 students who would have been dropped by the program. In Washington, local is national.

But this month, Slatkin also becomes chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra–a prestigious position, to be sure, and the first American to hold the post. And certainly Slatkin will maintain his trademark commitment to American music, most likely with no strain on his Washington music-making. But every day he serves as musical ambassador to London is one day less of lobbying for classical music at home.

How much political clout can a conductor muster in the non-musical world?

Like anything else, it depends on the individual person and interpersonal skills. “There are conductors who are great at engaging an audience, and those who shouldn’t even be allowed to speak before concerts,” says Washington Post cultural critic Tim Page.

Does music have an inherent claim to the public agenda? “Despite the claims that classical music is dying, every city seems to have an orchestra,” says Botstein. “There are music departments in every university from San Diego to Portland, Maine. Music can be a very powerful instrument in raising community consciousness, and it is part of a network of institutions across the country.”

In his view, conductors have the same right to the political forum as authors or scientists. “Anyone who is prominent in the public arena has an obligation to speak out on issues they care about,” says Botstein, who also has the benefit of academic podium as the President of Bard College. “Just because we disagree with Richard Wagner‘s politics doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have engaged in the process. We have to resist the American urge to leave politics to the lawyers and professional politicians.”

Botstein knows whereof he speaks, having conducted Al Gore in a performance of Copland‘s Lincoln Portrait as a Democratic fundraiser and unambiguously supports his candidacy (“Gore is an intellectual presence,” he says, “while Clinton is a smart man with no definable allegiance.”). Jonathan Sheffer, who conducted the EOS Orchestra at the Clinton White House at a dinner honoring the winners of the National Medal of Arts and Humanities, has since become a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton‘s campaign for the U.S. Senate.

Perhaps the most telling combination of music and politics in the past decade, though, came in Rachel Worby, the former first lady of West Virginia and music director of the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra, who found both the benefits and perils of mixing the two. Under Worby, who took the post in 1986, the Symphony’s budget tripled and the concert season rose from 14 events to 33. Being married to Governor Gaston Caperton, she became a lightning rod for public opinion, but beyond the podium, Worby was able to harness her double celebrity in rallying support for personal causes like breast cancer and literacy.

What are the benefits of keeping music in the public eye? Survival, for one. When the dust settles over the issue of public funding for the arts, the music still has to be there for new audiences to find for themselves. “This is an art form that appeals to people whose lives have reached a point of complexity,” says Botstein. “As people get older, they get more contemplative and seek music that deals with real issues in non-linguistic terms. There’s no wonder that the average age of classical music listeners begins at 50, and will continue to begin at 50.”

For the record, Al Gore is 52.

From Smoke and Mirrors: Mr. Smith Returns to Washington
by Ken Smith
© 2000 NewMusicBox

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