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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 8, No. 3

Why Should we Support the CPO?

by Peter Jancewicz / November 2, 2002

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The Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra has suspended operations. Between accumulated debt and insufficient season ticket sales the orchestra's financial situation has reached a critical stage. In spite of a salary rollback for the musicians and plans for reducing the size of the orchestra, the Board has decided that this move is the only option. Peter Jancewicz addresses the news.

I have followed the recent news stories concerning the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra's financial plight and possible demise with a great deal of alarm. The orchestra's financial health has deteriorated from a wholesome surplus two years ago to the point where its debt load threatens its very existence. I don't know the reasons behind this spectacular financial slide, but I would like to address some issues concerning why I believe that we, as citizens of Calgary, Alberta and Canada (and by extension, our various governments), should not allow our orchestra to face extinction as a result of purely financial issues.

Whether or not one is a fan of classical music, it is beyond argument that our orchestra is a very fine ensemble with an international reputation. On a recent European tour, the CPO played to rave reviews, pleasing the critics, who are not easily impressed. This is indeed high praise when one takes into account the caliber of the "competition": the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam to name but a few. These orchestras are the "Tiger Woods" of the music world. The fact that the City of Calgary is able to attract and, to this point, support such a group of fine musicians speaks well of the city itself.

Musicians in general are, by society's standards, an odd bunch. They devote a great deal of their waking hours, often from the time they are very young, to learning the subtle and difficult art of expressing themselves on a musical instrument. As students and then as professionals, they put themselves on the line every time they play, whether it is in a lesson, an audition, or a performance. They do this with very little expectation of financial remuneration. I read recently in the Herald that the salary range for a CPO musician is from $35k to $55k. Later in the same article, I read about one of the musicians having 23 years experience with the CPO. Without meaning any disrespect to the fields of accounting and law, can one imagine a chartered accountant or a lawyer who would be content with even $55k after 23 years of work? Particularly after putting in the time and enormous effort necessary to qualify as a CA or to pass the bar exam? It follows then that there must be something in what the musicians do that transcends the financial aspect. Nobody in her right mind, according to our society's system of values, would put in such long hours for such a paltry reward. Either musicians are just plain nuts, or there is something more here than meets the eye.

Although I do not know them all personally, I have found that the CPO consists of a group of highly talented, dedicated people who, despite many diverse personalities and philosophies, put aside their differences to work together in performing music. The word "philharmonic", incidentally, means love of harmony. These musicians work together in harmony, not to defeat another team, as in many sports, but simply to share that harmony with the audience. In a symphony performance, there is no conflict, no fistfights, no penalty box, no blood on the ice (although that may possibly happen in rehearsals when the musicians work out interpretive differences of opinion... I don't know!). What the audience experiences, though, is a large group of people working together simply to share something special that they love with the audience.

This is foreign to many other public spectacles. The conflict constantly around us, from the global scale right down to minor traffic incidents can shake our faith in human nature. Symphony concerts are a reassuring reminder that it does not have to be that way, that despite personal differences, people can and do work together for the good of all. This is not a quantifiable, measurable benefit, but I do not think that it is negligible simply because it cannot be counted.

To supplement their income many of the CPO musicians are employed in other jobs, such as teaching or playing chamber music with such well-known Calgary ensembles as Land's End, Aubade, or Rosa Selvatica. This immeasurably enriches other facets of musical life here. Many faculty members of the music department of the University of Calgary and Mount Royal College Conservatory are also members of the CPO. Students, young and old, professional and amateur, all benefit from their experience and dedication, and the non-musical advantages of musical training are already well documented. Areas such as the difficult skill of following instructions, fine motor coordination, abstract thought, spacial reasoning, self-discipline, and a knowledge of one's self all benefit from musical training, and symphony musicians are counted among the best music teachers in the city. It would be a severe blow to Calgary music students as well as the chamber music scene here should our CPO disappear.

In attending a symphony concert, one comes into contact with the artistic work of some of humanity's greatest geniuses. The music of composers such as Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart is of equal stature to the work of the geniuses found in other fields. Interestingly enough, many leading scientists in the past have also been highly skilled amateur musicians. Einstein played the violin. Physicist and Nobel prizewinner Werner Heisenberg, one of the discoverers of quantum mechanics, was a gifted and accomplished pianist. If people with magnificent minds such as these found enough value in music to take the necessary time to learn to play an instrument, there must be more there than is immediately apparent.

Our various levels of government spend an absolute fortune on such necessities as education and health care. Education is touted as an investment in our children's futures, and research serves to confirm this. Health care, of course, is an investment in the physical health of the population. Governments also spend a great deal of money maintaining parks and recreation areas, along with various recreational programs. All of these areas are concerned with developing and maintaining a healthy and productive population. Education tends to address the mind, health care the body. But what about the spirit? People who may be able to solve complex math problems while bench-pressing 100 kilos may be considered healthy within certain narrow definitions of the word, but if their emotional life is stunted and they are inarticulate in expressing what emotions they do have, can they really be considered healthy?

The arts in general are crucial to the well-being of people in a different but complementary way. They are the repository of our collective imagination, a vast library of the possibilities of human expression, and a means by which we can learn to express ourselves. A healthy imagination is a sign of a healthy person and a symphony orchestra can promote that health.

Historically, orchestras have been supported by public funds, as I believe they continue to be in Europe. Many members of European royalty maintained orchestras during the 17th to 19th centuries, including Frederick the Great, who himself composed and played the flute. But this is not only true of Europe. During the T'ang Dynasty that existed in China between AD 618-907, for example, there were no less than fourteen court orchestras, each ranging in size from 500 to 700 performers. By contrast, I believe that the CPO has 65 members. In our time and from a purely materialistic point of view, there is no justification for not supporting the CPO. Like anyone else, musicians have needs such as food, shelter, transportation, and entertainment. A good deal of their salaries remains in Calgary and supports Calgary businesses. Incidentally, a not-inconsiderable amount of their earnings is also recycled into the public coffers in the form of taxes.

To get back for a moment to health care, I recently reclined in my dentist's chair, cheerfully contemplating the welcome news that I had no new cavities. I talked with the hygienist, Linda, while she was cleaning my teeth. Or rather, she talked while I made the usual intelligent, articulate dentist-chair type responses: hoo-hwa...wee..huhn... and so on. It turns out that she is deeply interested in music, coming up with her own melodies, working with other musicians, singing in a choir, has a son in violin lessons, and to top it all off, attends CPO concerts when she can. It seems that music touches many lives of people who are not professional musicians, and I am often surprised at the depth of their commitment and involvement, when one considers the number of other distractions available.

While I would love to see enough "bums on seats" at Jack Singer Hall to help the CPO recover financially--and I sincerely hope that there will be--that may or may not happen in the short term. However, that it is possible for the orchestra to operate in the black has already been demonstrated. To simply dismiss the orchestra or shorten its season because it is not presently turning a profit is to ignore the many other positive consequences of having the good fortune to be home to a world-class orchestra. On one level, I believe that dismissal would be like refusing to invest in Microsoft when it was first formed in the belief that there would never be a market for home computers. The influences that a fine orchestra has on its community are often subtle and not easily quantifiable, but they are many and in the long run are exceedingly powerful. In Calgary, which is the fastest growing major city in Canada and one of the richest per capita, can we afford not to have a symphony orchestra?

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