The Ravinia Festival: A talk with Zarin Mehta

5. The Expansion of the Orchestra Season

FRANK J. OTERI: There certainly is a smaller audience now, though, than there was in the past for standard repertoire concerts.

ZARIN MEHTA: Yeah, but that also… The difference in 1962 was, the audience, I think, for classical music has always been more than a little gray. What was happily heart-warming in those days, was there was a young generation like yourself coming up to take their place. And what started to concern me in the ’80′s and the ’90′s now is that that young generation is not coming up in the same numbers. Okay? Secondly, the numbers have changed. The numbers we need have changed, in other words. In 1960 or ’62, how many orchestras had year-round employment? Have we thought about that?

FRANK J. OTERI: There are actually more orchestras now.

ZARIN MEHTA: Not only more orchestras, but those orchestras that even existed as major orchestras in 1962 have year-round employment; therefore, they’re playing more concerts. The Chicago Symphony used to play twice a week. They now play 4 times a week downtown.

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s wonderful. And selling out.

ZARIN MEHTA: Yeah, great. We’re selling out, because the audience is growing in the ’70′s and the ’80′s. But as the Chicago Symphony succeeds in the city with making money and with culture and everything else, and with the ability of being an extraordinary orchestra, they’re able to attract the Barenboims and the Abbados and the Soltis to conduct, at the same time, the orchestras in the rest of the country say, hey, our musicians need full-time employment, too. So what happened? Minneapolis went to 52 weeks, and St. Louis went to 52 weeks and Dallas went to 52 weeks. But they didn’t attract the big names for obvious reasons. They weren’t as big cities as Chicago. And their audiences started to come down. That’s where the problems arise, is that you don’t have the public to fill that. We need to suddenly double the number of seats available for classical music. It’s not that we’ve gone down. Maybe we’re selling more than we did in 1962 or 1968. We’re offering a lot more product.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right. So maybe the choice is to have a shorter season.

ZARIN MEHTA: But you can’t because then what do you do with your musicians? I think the musicians deserve full-time employment. You get paid 52 weeks of the year, I hope.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right. [laughs]

ZARIN MEHTA: I do. Why should a wonderful musician who’s playing in the orchestra get paid for 40 weeks? I mean, when you think about it, that’s how Ravinia started. I don’t know if you know that. In 1935, Frederick Stock went to a group of his supporters and said, “The Chicago Symphony musicians are only paid for 28 weeks” or something like that. Imagine that. When you listen to the recordings from that time, they were pretty damn good, right? You only get paid for 28 weeks.

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow. What were they doing the rest of the year, one wonders?

ZARIN MEHTA: Teaching, playing in the movie pits, God knows, okay? Maybe working as plumbers, for all you know. So what happened was they started Ravinia as a result of that. We didn’t engage the Chicago Symphony. We engaged the individual musicians for 8 weeks and called them the Chicago Symphony, because we engaged those musicians. The Chicago Symphony Association had nothing to do with Ravinia. That’s why it’s been a completely separate organization.

FRANK J. OTERI: Interesting.

ZARIN MEHTA: We didn’t start engaging them directly with the Association until about 1968 or 1970, I think.

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow. But you were billing it as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

ZARIN MEHTA: Yeah, I mean, you know, with approval and so on. So what happened? What did the change? I think the change that took place was very simply that as the world became smaller, we go back to the idea of the global village because of the communication situation, this is absolutely true, we got into the lack of culture. First of all, we got influenced more and more by the media. The media was not the newspapers anymore, it wasn’t the radio anymore, it was first television, and now…

FRANK J. OTERI: The Internet.