Earlier today, I reached out O-M-W and asked whether the founders would be interested in answering any questions about the project — such as those several of you have so astutely raised here. I just received an enthusiastically positive reply. Thanks, big sister! So: please submit your practical or philosophical questions for Paola Prestini and Kevin Dolan here, I’ll compile them, and send them in on, say, Friday. How does that sound? I guess I could kick it off: how will O-M-W determine what artists get to participate? Before you weigh in, please read this interview with O-M-W founder Kevin Dolan, which answers some of the basic questions.
An important part of ArtsWatch’s mission takes place not on our website, but on our increasingly busy Facebook page, and we urge our readers to check it out periodically, whatever you think of FB (and believe me, I don’t think very highly of it myself). Yesterday, I posted on our FB page a little item about a $15.6 million new music venue opening in Brooklyn soon that I thought might make a potential model for Oregon in general and Portland in particular. The post sparked a flurry of responses that really demand more space than Facebook allows, so I’ve rewritten the post and expanded my response here, and urge all readers to comment (or re-comment, if you posted on FB originally) in comments here, so we can continue this delightful discussion in a more congenial environment that allows links, photos, and more space.
The original tendentious post:
Portland needs a new concert hall, we’ve heard for decades. But rather than asking taxpayers to finance yet another downtown palace devoted to outmoded presentations of endless recyclings of 19th century European warhorses, how about instead investing in Oregon’s creative culture and creating a community around Oregon contemporary classical music with several of these relatively small, affordable conversions around town– on the condition that anyone who uses them must dedicate most of their performing/recording time to works by Oregon composers?
My (enhanced) follow-up:
… offered when a valued commentator hesitated over the requirement that “most” of the space be dedicated to Oregon works:
OK, maybe “most” isn’t quite the right word. Let’s see … how about “all”? A major purpose of such an incubator would be to encourage the creation of new repertoire by Oregonians. There will never be a shortage of opportunities to hear old European music in Portland — two chamber music series, a Eurocentric piano recital series, the symphony, the opera, various choruses dedicated et al. [Addendum: and the Columbia Symphony, the Vancouver Symphony, Beaverton Symphony, Portland Baroque, Portland Chamber Orchestra, Starlight Symphony, Florestan Trio, 100+ classical choirs .... I think music by deceased Europeans, which I cherish myself, will be safe in Portland.] There IS a terrible lack of investment in Oregon music. Why should Oregon taxpayers — and we’re talking about a publicly funded venture here – subsidize more performances / recordings of existing European music? That music already got its subsidies when it was created. If some listeners want to hear more old European music, fine — let them pay for it via tickets on the private market. [Addendum: and let them pay market price — not subsidized by the taxpayers, as it is now. See below.]
I have a lot more faith in Oregon’s creative culture. If the support is there, in the form of subsidized performances and recordings, I’m confident our composers would step forward. Our music schools teem with ambitious young composers — see this week’s Music Today Festival at the UO, featuring several dozen Oregon premieres performed by a half dozen student new music groups. Let’s invest in them. [Addendum: I'd include works commissioned by Oregon ensembles, like Third Angle's and FearNoMusic's admirable composers' projects.] And let’s find out what some of our more ambitious pop songwriters might do if offered the affordable opportunity to write for “classical” forces. Why, they might actually create contemporary classical music that 20-and 30-somethings want to hear.
Moreover, plenty of Oregon music already exists that could be performed there. Check the vast and musically accessible oeuvres of Lou Harrison, Robert Kyr and Tomas Svoboda, for example, or the North Pacific label’s offerings, or the music that gets played once and probably never again at near monthly concerts by Cascadia Composers, the Creative Music Guild and the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble. What, you haven’t heard them? That’s the point.
Expanding the discussion
Remember, we’re talking about the use of public money here: a bond issue, presumably, to finance several such arts incubators in Portland neighborhoods and in other Oregon cities, rather than building a replacement for the admittedly acoustically dreadful Keller and Schnitzer halls. Oregon’s performances of European music are already heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Just to take one example, according to the Oregon Symphony, in 2010-11 the orchestra received $377,616 in government support — not counting an additional $40,000 to send the band to Carnegie Hall that year. How much of that money went to performances of music created by Oregonians? I don’t have the symphony’s 2010-11 schedule handy, and it’s not quickly available on its website, so I can’t recall whether that was the year it played one of the two Oregon pieces I can recall from the past few years– Svoboda’s “Vortex” and a Kyr symphony. But even if it is, that’s only a tiny fraction of the music it played.
Not to single out the OSO; unlike our theaters, most of which often produce plays by today’s playwrights and choreographers, few Oregon classical music institutions program more than a fraction of music by living composers, much less Oregon composers. The Eugene Symphony, commendably, commissioned a Svoboda concerto this year, but next year’s schedule contains exactly two works by living composers, neither of them Oregonians. The same, sad story is true of most other Oregon classical presenters and producers.
Yet the homegrown music is out there, and there’d be a lot more if we’d give it a chance and a boost. For example, one of the 20th century’s finest composers, Lou Harrison, was born in Portland and embodies 20th century West Coast classical music. His innovative, listener-friendly Pacific Rim music is the focus of this year’s Ojai Festival in California, a major Carnegie concert last year, and it gets performances literally every day across the globe. He wrote literally hundreds of works for chorus, chamber ensemble, percussion ensembles, orchestras, dance companies and more. How often have his two operas and four symphonies been performed in Oregon? Not since I’ve been here.
Investing in Oregon
The notion of a publicly subsidized neighborhood network of Oregon classical music incubators merely redresses a long standing and grievous imbalance: tremendous taxpayer support for performances of existing, easily available works by long-dead European composers — but scant public investment in Oregon’s creative postclassical culture. We’re subsidizing the old and backward-looking, and starving the new, and then wondering why young audiences are staying away in droves, in a city that has a young creative culture that’s the envy of the nation. So why not look to our own values for the answer?
Portland is never going to be New York or even Seattle. If we ever get lucky enough to make a substantial public investment in a new venue feasible, we shouldn’t try to keep up with the Joneses in the major metro areas by building another big-arts palace. Oregon will never have the funding base to play in that league. Eugene tried that with the Hult Center 30 years ago, and I’d argue that that money would have been better spent on smaller venues and smarter investments in the city’s arts culture.
And why should we want to be what we’re not? What’s going on here, in our home territory, is far more fascinating and progressive than building a nicer place to hear Brahms for the thousandth time. (And I say this is as someone with a major stake, as I spend a lot of my listening time in the current major venues. New ones would benefit me more than almost anyone else.) A new downtown arts palace for inherently conservative, backward-gazing institutions would be the arts equivalent of the Columbia River Crossing: too big for its environment, way too expensive, and a drain on scarce resources that could be better spent on smaller, smarter alternatives.
Instead, as ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson has been contending for some time, let’s play to our strengths — neighborhoods, startups (the food carts and other indie food incubators), locavores, grassroots entrepreneurialism, smart public investments in public goods, affordable and original culture. Rather than a wet, poor man’s LA, we might instead just aspire to be what my old hometown of Austin is: a vibrant, incubator of original music, only from the (post) classical side — using cellos and chamber orchestras rather than guitars, bass and drums. Instead of investing in yet another dusty museum, let’s nurture creative cultural greenhouses. Imagine, for example, if the old Washington High School, which sat vacant for decades, had instead been converted to something similar to OMW?
We could make our mark by being distinctive as a generator for new music, as the Louisville Orchestra did when instead of trying to be Cleveland or St. Louis and struggling to maintain a Mahler-sized orchestra, it instead embarked on a (sadly discontinued decades ago) commissioning program for a Haydn-sized orchestra that resulted in a body of new American works (by Harrison, Duke Ellington, and many other composers) that made it far more valuable than just another struggling, mid-sized symphony that was never going to be the next New York Phil anyway.
We’ve already got a head start: a fertile infrastructure of musicians (many of them, admittedly, subsidized by institutions like the Oregon Symphony, which pays the bills so that Third Angle and 45th Parallel and others that would likely benefit from such incubators can venture forward), composers, educational institutions, indie organizations like Classical Revolution PDX , Opera Theater Oregon, and Cascadia Composers, a promising and valuable modern music festival, an Oregon new music record label, and open-minded audiences. And if you think those scrappy upstarts (most of which run on volunteer labor) shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath with the august Portland Opera or Oregon Symphony … well, imagine how much more formidable they would be if they got a half million dollars of public money per year — instead of the current recipients who spend it almost entirely on repeatedly reproducing works created centuries ago and a world away.
A wise, Portland-style public investment in neighborhood music and other arts incubators could leverage the resources we’ve cultivated so far and encourage the development and expression of new voices and new visions that reflect 21st century Oregon’s musical vitality. Brooklyn — which has a lot of similarities to Portland and which may be our sister city someday — has given us one potential model for how to do that. What are some others we should consider? We won’t have the money for anything like this soon — but when the time comes, let’s have a vision in place for giving Oregon the kind of institutions that fit our own creative culture.
OK, let’s have those comments! This should be a continuing discussion and an evolving vision, with input from everyone who cares about Oregon classical music. Unfortunately, some of the people who have the biggest stake in this vision are not the readers most likely to see it — folks like me who already participate in the current, narrow classical culture. We need to extend this debate to the potential audiences, the great majority of music lovers who don’t know the great Oregon postclassical music that could exist, but doesn’t yet, because we haven’t supported it. Maybe that’s the next step. We’ll have more to say on these issues on ArtsWatch soon.