Friday, June 24, 2005

New York Times Cultural Myopia!

In a story where facts seem to have been have been at least partially selected to fit Procrustean conclusions, the New York Times examines the decline in symphony orchestra attendance, making special reference to summer concerts and outdoor summer concerts in particular. And an excellent case is made with shocking statistics such as that the esteemed Chicago Symphony can only draw an average of 2,300 listeners to their beautiful Ravinia summer home.

What is not mentioned, though, is that 2,300 listeners can be found just waiting in line for the restrooms at the Hollywood Bowl when the LA Philharmonic plays. Nor is the record setting attendance at the new Disney Hall mentioned, though, that, of course, is a bit of an unique situation. But is does seem odd that in examining outdoor, summer, symphony concerts - that the LA Phil and the Hollywood Bowl - the single largest summer venue of its kind - would not even be mentioned.


Bob said...

Hi Brady. Good seeing you at the congress of neighborhoods today. With all due respect to local L.A. boosters, Ravinia is a superior venue for several reasons. At various times I have seen Metropolitan Opera stars doing concert versions (Elektra, for one) and superb performances from the orchestra. You can get seats close-up under the pavilion for a reasonable amount. The only problem I ever had was a performance which was continually interrupted by the sounds of (I think) ciccada's, or something related. There is also the train that sometimes goes by. The Hollywood Bowl, by comparison, is like watching a performance from the opposite side of the Grand Canyon, and the sound wasn't always good. I may try the newly reworked Bowl to hear if it is any better. The spectrum of conductors at Ravinia is clearly superior too.

I think the Music Center Opera is underappreciated. Kent Nagano and the orchestra did a terrific job on Der Rosenkavelier, and the lead soprano was also terrif. Perhaps, in honor of your style, I should have said the lead soprano was also terrif!!!!!!!!

Brady Westwater said...

Bob, you just made my point!!! Ravinia is an incredible, intimate, wonderful place to hear classical music - and yet it still fails to even coming close to filling its modest number of seats.

That's why I questioned the New York Times essaying about the declining audiences for classical music - particularly in summer, outdoor settings - and then ignoring how popular it is in LA, in a venue that is not near as sympathetic to classical music as is Ravinia.

As for the Music Center Opera Company, I don't think it is (any longer) under appreciated, locally or internationally. And, hopefully - we can get someone of Nagano's stature when he leaves us. Lastly, after all I read and heard about Der Rosenkavelier, I only wish I could have afforded to see it. But such is life in the on-profit world.

Loren said...

Great column and excellent point, Brady. Especially when the rest of the country says Los Angeles is a cultural wasteland. I'd like to see more adventurous and innovative musical programming at the Bowl, but you can't say that attending symphony music isn't popular here.

Bob Gelfand said...

This is getting to be an interesting discussion. There is a strong core of support for the L.A. Philharmonic here that goes way back. Since at least as far back as the 1970s, the phil has played to packed houses, has featured outstanding conductors, and has played as well as any fine orchestra (with the Chicago Symphony and a very few others perhaps having a modest edge in overall greatness). We have enjoyed the work of George Solti, Zuban Mehta, Carlo Maria Giulini, Esa peka Salonen, and guest conductors ranging from Levine to Sir Simon Brattle.

There are a couple of things missing though. One is the sad reality that the Music Center is geographically undesirable, being placed at the top of a steep hill in what is otherwise a cultural desert, by which I mean there is the distinct lack of fun, affordable eating places nearby, windows to shop, pedestrian traffic, and so forth. Compare that to Chicago, where you can step out of the Art Institute and look across the street to Symphony Hall, and down the block to dozens of restaurants of all price ranges, shops, and great architecture.

The other problem is much worse in a way. For all of its existence until very recently, the philharmonic had a selection of tickets that allowed most income classes to attend. When I was a grad student, my season ticket package for orchestra level came to $2.83 per ticket. Until recently, it was possible to get a balcony ticket to the phil for $11 or so. With the move to the Disney Hall, that all went out the window. The cheapest ticket was $35 the last I looked, which means that it would cost my wife and I a minimum of $70 plus parking to hear perhaps 85 minutes of music. The additional problem is that those $35 tickets go early, and after that it becomes prohibitive. So for me, bye bye to the phil as even a semi-regular concert goer. I have been to the Disney Hall exactly once, and even then, I had to buy a ticket from someone who had an extra. The phil has made itself into an elite social rite rather than a true cultural attribute.

I was willing to pay the $25 or $30 for a ticket to Der Rosenkavalier, but a kindly person had several extras and I got one for free. I thank her publicly for that, even though she will never read this posting. By the way, the performance was almost a complete sellout, (sounds like our airport commission, eh?) with only a few $135 tickets at the box office.

Compare the phil to the Vienna State Opera, for example, and you will begin to understand the cultural differences between our societies. There, they hold a certain number of standing room tickets until 5 pm the night of the performance. The cost for a balcony ticket is 2 Euros, which is $2.40 at the current exchange rate. You can actually sit down in the standing room area if you want, and the standers (if there is such a word) have developed an informal culture for reserving their favorite places: they go up to the standing area before the performance and tie a scarf to the railing. I saw La Boheme one night with a $10 box seat, and L'Eliser d'amore (not sure of spelling) the next night in the $2 standing room. And the Vienna State Opera is at least as good as the Los Angeles Music Center Opera (just thought I'd toss that line in as cultural troll-bait).

Anyway, because I notice the difficulties our city has with developing and presenting cultural attributes, I founded the Cultural Affairs Committee of my Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council over three years ago. We continue to exist, but find ourselves occupied mainly with trying to deal with the Department of Cultural Affairs here in L.A. That is another story.

There is another issue entirely, which is the existence of a strong scientific culture here in southern California. That is another subject, but I simply quote Nobel winner I.I. Rabi who remarked (back in the '60s) that we are a scientific culture in the 20th century. I will leave it at that, except to assert that the greatest intellectual advances of the past half century are in and of the biological sciences.

Brady: I would like to have a continuing discussion of L.A. culture, and suggest perhaps that we carry it on blog to blog more or less. I have been experimenting with setting up my own (which already links to yours) and invite the interaction.

Loren said...

This IS getting to be an interesting discussion. I'm logging off right now because Nightline is supposed to be dealing with recent Supreme Court issues -- including the recent decision re eminent domain, a topic worthy of discussion (why isn't everyone in this country starting a revolution?) with material on Chavez Ravine and Ry Cooder. But I will post comments later -- and love the idea of exploring L.A. culture more, and hope the interaction of the two blogs is feasible. Bob -- how do we find your blog? -- it sounds great?

Anonymous said...

Mark Swed of the LA Times did an article last year (?) about the differences between concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and the Chicago Symphony's summer home at Ravinia and Boston Symphony's adjunct home at Tanglewood. He said more traditional classical, or less pop-oriented-type, music is played at the venues in the Midwest and East, while the Bowl features a larger mix of so-called middle-brow, crowd-pleasing selections.

I read a few days ago that the number of seats sold for LA Philharmonic concerts in its last year at the Chandler was as low as 60 percent. Regardless of the sound quality and size of the Pavilion, which seats only about 600 more people than several of the concert-only halls in America, that's an alarmingly low number, and I hope it doesn't suggest Disney Concert Hall's current sales figures won't eventually be a case of here today, gone tomorrow.