Knowing the Score

Taking the pulse of Alberta’s symphony orchestras.

By George Fenwick

“My wiggling bum was the first thing that my lovely wife claims she ever noticed about me, so I fear it shall remain,” William Eddins wrote last fall in a letter to the Edmonton Journal. The music director of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra was responding to a complaint that he “wiggles his bum” while conducting. He went on to say, “Music moves me, all of me.”

One month earlier, the music director of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, Brazilian Roberto Minczuk, said he had recently enjoyed his first hockey game. As he flicked his baton, he noted the Flames were “not the only ones in town who are high sticking.”

What has become of Alberta’s orchestras? Happily, they are playing with passion and expertise, generating excitement and intrigue inside and outside of their concert halls, while showing an awareness that they must evolve to remain relevant and solvent in the 21st century.

The CPO and ESO are only part of the story. In 20 short years the Red Deer Symphony Orchestra has evolved from a community orchestra into a professional organization, and the Lethbridge Symphony Orchestra is taking the first steps on a similar journey. In 1999, the RDSO offered its audience a unique experience, welcoming Stockwell Day (then Alberta treasurer) as a guest musician at a 1999 concert; rumours of an imminent LSO appearance by Dave Hancock have proven false. Both orchestras certainly enjoy solid support from their cities, as do many community orchestras throughout the province.

Do Symphony orchestras  have a place in Albertan society? In our wired, multi-channel universe, some say orchestral music is anachronistic. Others, however, view the dichotomy between frenetic modern life and traditional orchestral concerts as a positive thing. Michael Wall, director of artistic operations for the CPO, feels that listening to orchestral music is almost a form of meditation. “People are looking for peace and calm in their lives… what I like about symphonies is that you can listen to the concert, be still, and not be interrupted.” Minczuk feels that orchestral music can be “entertainment that also nourishes the soul. What we’re looking for in society is something… [that] gives you a sense of wholeness. You have 90 people on the stage performing together, and the result is something beautiful and inspiring… this is the highest aspiration of the human soul here on earth.”

Flicking his baton, Minczuk noted that the Flames were “not the only ones in town who are high sticking.”

Our souls are nourished by live performances and, to a certain degree, by recordings. During the CPO work stoppage of 2002, a Calgary newspaper columnist suggested that the orchestra’s financial problems could be summarized easily: “classical CDs are cheap.” Several angry letters to the editor later, he revised his position, but he had raised an interesting question. Why would someone go to hear their local orchestra play Brahms’s First Symphony when they could listen to a recording by the Berlin Philharmonic at home? his orchestra “plays in schools a lot… (the children) see the cello, for instance, and they say, ‘Wow, I want to play that.’” Many fine music teachers would not live and work in Alberta if they did not have orchestral positions; during the CPO bankruptcy of 2002, several musicians left for seemingly more solid jobs elsewhere. Orchestral musicians are deeply involved in their cities’ musical lives, performing for opera and ballet companies, forming small musical ensembles, doing TV and radio work, and playing concerts for charity.

Orchestras are expensive to run. Some taxpayers complain that they should not be publicly subsidized. Are these tax dollars poorly spent, or do orchestras have a positive economic effect in their

First, one is the “real thing” and the other a digital imitation. Viewing a print of the Lawren Harris painting North Shore, Lake Superior may be interesting, but to experience the luminescence of the original is arresting.

Similarly, feeling your body vibrate to the deep, throbbing timpani that introduces Brahms’s First is very different from hearing a representation of that sound. This is especially true when the acoustics of a hall are superb, as they are in Edmonton’s Winspear Centre and Calgary’s Jack Singer Hall.

Eddins makes the case for the latter. “Look, wouldn’t you rather see a vibrant downtown, a city where people enjoy being, where there are things to do? If that’s there, it will tell you a lot about the quality of life.”

According to data obtained by Calgary Arts Development, every dollar spent on the arts can be multiplied by 1.28 to gauge the effect on the local economy. A recent study by Econometric Research of Edmonton showed that there is a 1:12 ratio of return on arts investment in the province by the Alberta

Secondly, while a performance captured on CD or MP3 may be magnificent, live music is charged with excitement and possibility. In March the CPO gave an incendiary performance of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony. During the allegro, Minczuk challenged the orchestra, setting a break- neck pace, and the players responded by playing furiously and brilliantly. In June, Eddins lovingly coaxed the ESO into revealing the jazzy mystery, passion and chaos at the heart of La création du monde by Darius Milhaud.What made these experiences truly memorable was being present, listening to exceptional performances as they unfolded.

Orchestras influence their communities outside of the concert hall as well. Most orchestral players share their experience and expertise by giving lessons. Claude Lapalme, music director of the Red Deer Symphony Orchestra, says that

Foundation for the Arts. The mellifluous sounds produced by your local orchestra are those of an engine powering the local economy.

Those engines misfire from time to time—keeping professional orchestras running is a precarious business. Both the ESO and CPO recently faced overwhelming economic crises that resulted in work stoppages. John Lowry, associate concertmaster of the CPO, notes, “It’s more surprising if an orchestra is not in massive trouble than if it is.”

According to Michael Wall, orchestral funding was relatively stable from the 1950s to the early 1980s. During that time, approximately a third of all revenue would come from public money, a third from earned revenue, and a third from private donations. The CPO’s earned revenue continues to hover just below 40 per cent of total revenue, demonstrating continued support from the public. The bad news is that government support has now dipped below 20 per cent. It is surprising that it continues to decline, given that it has been proven that the dollars governments invest in the arts multiply to an extent that would make rabbits blush.

There has also been an expenditure crisis throughout the orchestral world. In his book Who Killed Classical Music, Norman Lebrecht says that from 1971 to 1992 orchestral expenditures in the US rose eightfold, nearly three times the cost of living. The salaries of the orchestral musicians merely kept up with the pace of inflation, so the “ball-breaking item on the budgets of American orchestras was the fees of conductors and soloists,” as inflated by greedy agents. The effect was just as harsh north of the 49th parallel.

By the end of the century these pressures had finally caught up with the CPO and ESO; both organizations were running substantial deficits, and something had to give. In Edmonton, the musicians went out on strike for six weeks in 2002. The CPO players were locked out for a month in the fall of 2001, and after the organization declared bankruptcy the following year, four months of concerts were cancelled. A plan for renewal was crafted, in which musicians and staff demonstrated extraordinary loyalty by agreeing to take a 20 per cent cut in pay.

Fast-forward a few years, and the financial situation for both organizations is vastly improved. Salaries for CPO musicians and staff are approaching 2002 levels, and ticket sales are 13 per cent higher than they were during 03/04. Most promising of all, since the lockout the orchestra’s endowment fund has increased from less than $1-million to $20-million, making it the second-largest orchestral endowment in Canada.

According to Elaine Calder, ESO managing director from 2001 to mid-2007, the main challenge facing her organization after the strike was to “restore internal confidence… then we could start to rebuild the community’s confidence.” She also kept a tight rein on the society’s finances. “This is a Darwinian province. Only the strong survive, and the strong do not have deficits.”

The Red Deer Symphony is “a much different animal now,” says director Claude Lapalme. Now that audiences are familiar with standard repertoire, Lapalme feels he can present material “that’s a little more out there.”

Once both organizations had restabilized, they began the search for new music directors. An orchestra without a music director is like a hockey team without a coach, lacking cohesion and strategy. Two energetic, talented individuals were selected to share their artistic visions with Albertans: in 2005 William Eddins arrived in Edmonton, while Roberto Minczuk came to Calgary the following year.

Eddins is a free-spirited, ebullient man quick to express his musical tastes. He is fascinated by music of the early 20th century, and includes Gershwin in his top five list of composers (rounded out by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Stravinsky). He dislikes large-scale late romantic works by the likes of Mahler and Bruckner, and declines to conduct their music. He is currently investigating the possibility of collaborating with Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull on a new composition, citing Tull’s 1972 album Thick as a Brick as one of the “great tone poems of the second half of the 20th century.”

Minczuk presents a more reserved character on and off the podium. He describes his musical tastes as “eclectic,” but has demonstrated a fondness for romantic masterpieces; for his first concert as music director, he presented Mahler’s epic Fifth Symphony. Minczuk’s musical sensibilities are not trapped in the 19th century, however. In May he led a performance of American composer John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls, which was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in response to 9/11. Minczuk may well be speaking for all of his Albertan colleagues when he says, “An orchestra cannot be a museum of the great masterpieces of the past. It also has to present works of relevance of our generation, of living composers.”

This includes music by Albertans. In 2005, as part of the National Arts Centre’s Alberta Scene festival in Ottawa, the ESO performed works by five of Alberta’s leading composers: Allan Bell, John Estacio, Malcolm Forsyth, Allan Gilliland, and Jeffrey McCune. Although, sadly, both orchestras have discontinued their successful composer-in-residence programs, they continue to commission music by local composers.

Claude Lapalme took something of a chance on the Red Deer Symphony in 1990. When he moved to Alberta, the orchestra was only three years old, and the players were a mix of local amateurs, a few music instructors from Red Deer College, and a constantly changing group of imported musicians. While there was no lack of energy or enthusiasm, the organization’s budget was tiny, and there was room for improvement in all areas. “It’s a much different animal now,” Lapalme says. “Everything is more exciting when you get bigger… the audience has grown, and more and more people are interested in what we do.”

The CBC broadcast two RDSO concerts last year, a sure stamp of quality. Now that Red Deer audiences have become familiar with standard repertoire, Lapalme feels he can present more new music alongside the classics. “It’s a bit of a balancing act, but every now and again I (program something) that’s a little out there”—including some of his own arrangements and music by other Canadian composers.

Glenn Klassen took the reins of the Lethbridge Symphony Orchestra four years ago. “The orchestra is at a crossroads right now,” he says, “moving away from volunteers to the next level, where we’re starting to pay more of the players… it’s a very natural progression.” He thinks that two initiatives will speed up the change. The first is intense fundraising in both the public and private sectors, and the second is the construction of a concert hall suited to a full orchestra. It is extremely useful to have a resident music director during a literal and figurative building process. “In terms of audience development, and in terms of building programs in the city, (the LSO Board) feel it is essential to have the MD here, and to be a real vital part of the team. And I think it’s working.”

In 2007 it is not enough for orchestras to perform the classics and wait for audiences to break down the doors of their concert halls. They must reach out to the community by performing pops concerts, making educational initiatives and playing in alternative venues. All four orchestras play for thousands of children every year through their educational concert series and school outreach programs. Due to lack of funding, music programs in Alberta’s schools have withered, and our orchestras are providing an invaluable service by exposing children to music that they might never hear otherwise. Through its Beethoven in the Badlands, Mozart on the Mountain and Jeans & Classics concerts, the CPO builds valuable support and interest in the community at large. Every Labour Day weekend, the ESO presents its Symphony under the Sky festival, and is continuing the tradition of concerts featuring popular musicians that goes back to the groundbreaking 1972 collaboration with British rockers Procol Harum. The recording of that show, Procol Harum Live in Concert with the ESO, is currently the only album featuring a Canadian orchestra that has sold over a million copies—but if William Eddins manages to get Jethro Tull and the ESO together, there may be a second.

The CPO and ESO have emerged relatively unscathed from their recent near-death experiences. In fact, the crises may have strengthened them. The RDSO and LSO are growing by leaps and bounds, and are bringing orchestral sounds to more Albertans than ever before.

If all four groups continue to respond to society’s ever- changing needs, all the while keeping the symphonic tradition alive in Alberta, we can expect high sticking, bum wiggling and glorious music for decades to come.

George Fenwick is a freelance writer and composer (and some-time arts administrator and librarian) living in Calgary.



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