If They Build Them, Someone Will Come, Right?

Last Thursday afternoon, I was wined and dined at The Modern, the new very upscale restaurant next door to the recently renovated Museum of Modern Art. For a Kafka-esque moment or two I thought I’d changed careers and was now a successful investment banker or a lawyer, but soon I saw some familiar classical music industry types in the crowd (freelance critics, PR handlers, reps from sister service organizations, etc.).

Why the incredible largesse, especially at a time when so many major music critics have been proclaiming the death of classical music? Turns out, they’re building a brand new concert hall in Orange County, California. Already more than 70 percent complete, the new 2,000-seat Renée & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, ostensibly the new home for Carl St. Clair and the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, will open on September 15, 2006, with even more fanfare than a really fancy New York City lunch: the world premiere of a newly commissioned song-cycle by William Bolcom sung by Placido Domingo. The following night there’ll be the world premiere of another commission, this one from Philip Glass.

Wait a second, I thought that symphony orchestras were folding up right and left and there was never going to be another major opera recording and on and on. Turns out that philanthropist Henry T. Segerstrom, whose donations of land and funds have made both this and the Pacific Symphony’s previous concert hall—Segerstrom Hall—possible, realizes that culture is not only more alive now than ever but is one of the best ways to market a community. A remark he made on the Public Television station KCET pretty much explains where he’s coming from:

“I have informed my friends in Los Angeles that I think, now that we have four great halls in Southern California, it’s time for us to start marketing our joint assets world-wide in cultural tourism much as New York does. Mayor Bloomberg of New York said that cultural tourism was the second largest industry in New York after finance and Southern California can reap the benefits of this as well as share our facilities with the world.”

He’s right of course, even though culture rarely makes the headlines. He’s also not alone. Turns out that Nashville is building a comparable new concert hall (1,900 seats) for its symphony orchestra too and it is scheduled to open its doors in September 2006 as well. They even have a series of live webcams of the construction site!

The new Schermerhorn Symphony Center, named in honor of the orchestra’s recently deceased music director, seems much more a community project than the crusade of an enlightened funder. The city of Nashville donated the land and the entire construction was funded by tax-exempt revenue bonds.

So far, the Nashville Symphony hasn’t announced any top shelf commissions for the opening next year. Let’s hope they do. This year’s season opener was Leonard Nimoy narrating a performance of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. A premiere of a new American work would be much more exciting than that!

5 thoughts on “If They Build Them, Someone Will Come, Right?

  1. danielgilliam

    Now, be fair…
    A quick scan of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s season shows around five living composers and a performance of Le Sacre. That’s more than my hometown orchestra (Louisville) can boast :(

    Reply
  2. Chris Becker

    Re: “Mayor Bloomberg of New York said that cultural tourism was the second largest industry in New York after finance…”

    Someone should ask him then why there’s so little if any affordable housing in this city for its artistic community.

    Matthew Shipp addresses this in this month’s interview…we should remember that a lot of wonderful music bubbles up from the street and not the academy…but people need shelter and food.

    Don’t mean to be a grouch – just wanted to throw this on the blog…

    Reply
  3. Frank J. Oteri

    Daniel:

    Point taken.

    So I should point out that I’m a big fan of the Nashville Symphony and was bowled over by both their musicianship and their bravery when they made their Carnegie Hall debut a few years back and included not one, but two contemporary American works: a world premiere of a new Mark O’Connor composition and the Ives Second Symphony. Yeah, I know, 1902 isn’t exactly new, but you brought up Le Sacre du Printemps (1913) and Ives unfortunately remains an “avant-garde outsider” in the minds of most folks involved in orchestral programming.

    The reason I brought up my eagerness to know what they were planning for the opening of Schermerhorn Hall relates to my excitement over what they played in NYC as much as my disappointment at how they chose to open this season, even though I’m part Trekkie and love what King Crimson once did with the Mars movement of The Planets. Neptune, in and of itself, is pretty cool too; its seemingly directionless wordless chorus almost hints at some of my favorite recent postminimalism. Alas…

    I’ve been playing telephone tag with the folks in Nashville so hopefully I will have an answer about their season opener which I will post here as soon as I do!

    FJO

    P.S.: And while I can’t vouch for recent seasons, the committment to new music on the part of the Louisville Symphony, as most readers here already know, is virtually without precedent in the annals of American music history.

    Reply
  4. Frank J. Oteri

    Just got off the phone with Alan D. Valentine, the President and CEO of the Nashville Symphony… Turns out that no one could give me an answer about their next season yesterday, because everyone was in New York for their press luncheon.

    I’ve now gotten even more excited about them than I was about Segerstrom. For the opening of the new Schermerhorn Hall, Leonard Slatkin will conduct an all-20th century program featuring the world premiere of a triple Concerto for Banjo, Bass and Tabla co-composed by Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer, and Zakir Hussain featuring themselves as soloists. The rest of the program—Shostakovich, William Schmann, and two movements of Mahler’s 2nd (yes, he’s a 20th century composer and could even be grandfathered in as an American since he was the conductor of the New York Philharmonic)—is also not your typical “Opening Night” fare.

    But it’s the rest of the season that really made my mouth and ears water. Every concert will feature a contemporary American work, but with a twist. It’s more than a token commission or a nod to American repertoire with Fanfare for a Common Man or Barber’s Adagio tacked onto an all-Brahms or Beethoven program.

    According to Valentine: “More important than commissioning lots of new work, we felt we could do better by giving second performance of works by American composers, works that have not been played again since their premieres, and works that deserve to be heard again.” These include Joan Tower’s Strike Zone, Michael Daugherty’s Piano Concerto, a work by Gabriela Lena Frank, and the second performance of the new Philip Glass work receiving its premiere by the Pacific Symphony. Turns out that Nashville co-commissioned it, which no one bothered to mention at last week’s lunch, alas…

    Reply
  5. danielgilliam

    Frank, indeed a very good sign to hear of Gabriela Lena Frank, Daugherty, et al on the NSO season. Remarkable by any standard for our part of the country (KY, IN, and TN).

    Regarding the Louisville Orchestra’s past. The only reason they were such a “champion” of new music is because they were given a boat-load of money to commission…it wasn’t out of the kindness of their hearts. Nonetheless, they did it, and we are all the better for it. Of course, you are only as strong as your last concert (or season). The current Artistic Director (a transition figure while they hunt for a new conductor) does not like new music (I have been told he “hates” new music). This is my beef with LO, and I make it known openly to my friends on the board and staff. More and more I realize the American Orchestra is nothing more than a glorified rotary club. There are exceptions…

    As Nashville has proven, it IS possible to program new works and draw crowds…you may even get to build a new concert hall!

    Reply

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