It's an ecosystem, Maestro

Riccardo Muti, who last week taught us (and the Met Opera orchestra) about Verdi, this week is teaching us about the value of some American orchestras:

The Riccardo Muti era at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra officially began Thursday at Symphony Center, as the CSO’s 10th music director announced plans for his first season. He did so with a combination of relaxed good humor and expressions of serious concern for the role symphony orchestras, and classical music in general, can play in today’s troubled world….

“Symphony orchestras are the windows of a part of our great Western culture,” he said earlier when asked if he believes U.S. orchestras face extinction amid the serious economic woes of the great recession. “The big orchestras such as Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago cannot close their doors, because if that happens it will be not only a scandal but also a disaster for society.

So small regional orchestras such as Minneapolis or Milwaukee or Atlanta or Nashville or San Francisco can close their doors without it being a “disaster for society”? Thanks for the support, Maestro.

It is sad but true that too many people associated with big orchestras (generally not their musicians) don’t really understand that they are the equivalent of climax vegetation in a complex forest ecosystem. Mature redwood trees are miracles. But they wouldn’t exist without smaller redwood trees, dead redwood trees, and huge numbers of other species.

Orchestras like Chicago are as great as they are because they, too, are embedded in a complex ecosystem – of youth orchestras, private music teachers, music schools, per-service orchestras, regional orchestras, and non-profit organizations of every kind. Take those away and what’s left is the equivalent of a few redwood trees in the middle of a desert. They’ll still be impressive; they just won’t be alive for very long.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

…to quote John Donne. It applies to orchestras too.

On a lighter note, Muti apparently read the other puff piece in the New York Times last week about a fellow conductor:

“In America they use the word ‘vision’ a lot,” the Neapolitan maestro, 68, observed dryly at a press conference, streamed live from Symphony Center over the Internet, in which he commented about the CSO’s 2010-11 schedule. “What is vision? I do not see myself as St. Francis, offering Chicago my beatific visions.”

I wonder just which devout Austrian Catholic conductor who was interviewed at length about his beliefs last week he might be referring to?

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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