The Future Of Concert Music And The L.A. Philharmonic

By Mike Mitchell

SoCal, November 15, 1971

The world of rehearsal studio number three in the Los Angeles Music Center is unique and in every way sheltered from the huge city which surrounds it.

The 100 members of the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra, minus the concert hall formality of black tie and tails, ponder the music they will be performing over the weekend.

The studio is silent as Zubin Mehta, music director and conductor of the Philharmonic, discusses a passage from Charles Ives' first symphony – a dynamic change for the violins, a suggestion to the percussion section. Then, in an instant, there is the full, beautiful sound of 100 instruments in perfect harmony.

The entire atmosphere seems somewhat unreal, though. There is the calm virtuosity of the musicians (most have been studying music seriously since the age of seven or eight) blended with the genius of Mehta, who, at the age of 25, was the youngest man ever to conduct a major philharmonic orchestra.

But as far removed and aloof as the orchestra may seem, it is one of the most progressive in the nation.

In an attempt to attract a younger, more diversified audience, the management has instituted various special programs – children's concerts, marathon concerts, college campus concerts, and perhaps most revolutionary of all, the Frank Zappa-L.A. Philharmonic concert of last year. [1]

Still, only about three percent of L.A.'s population comes to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion each week to hear the philharmonic.

Perhaps the reason why more people aren't interested in concert music is that the organization of the orchestra has become too static, perhaps the education level of the average American is just too low – most likely it is a combination of both.

If the average American hasn't been properly educated in concert music, it must at least be partially the fault of the schools.

“Americans aren't conditioned to like concert music like the Europeans are,” said Mickey Nadel, who has been playing string bass with the L.A. Philharmonic for eight years. “That's not to say that European kids are smarter than American kids, they're just told that they have to like concert music and they do. I'm sure we all have grisly memories of high school music appreciation class and how boring it was.”

The managements special programs, designed to involve more people in concert music, have met with mixed enthusiasm in the orchestra.

“I think that most of the members of the orchestra didn't like doing the Zappa concert,” said Mario Guarneri, a USC music graduate of 1964 who plays trumpet. “You must realize that many of the older members have been trained very rigidly, and the Zappa concert didn't go over well with them.”

“Many members of the orchestra were shocked that Zappa would say what he did on stage,” said Nadel. “I don't think anyone objected to the music that Zappa wanted to do, but they simply were shocked at his act.

“Zappa practiced with us for one whole week without letting us know what he was really in to. He didn't make any trouble and did exactly what Mehta told him to do, but when he got on stage with the rest of his group all hell broke loose.”

Zappa's performance was punctuated with profanity and gyrations. It was certainly a change in concert music. but it didn‘t work out as well as it might have.

“I think everyone knew that Zappa was a talented person, but actually his ‘200 Motels‘ isn‘t much more than a collage, a collection of strung-together Zappa hits. He really doesn't get into any development, but then, I don't think that he pretends to be a concert composer,” Nadel said.

It's hard to judge the value of the Zappa concert, but the fact that it even took place is important.

“Most of us in the orchestra were impressed with Zappa,” said Nadel, “and he was very much impressed with our first cellist and asked him to tour with the Mothers of Invention (Zappa's music group). When Zappa asked some of the members of the orchestra to jam with him on stage after our concert, some of us did.”

Other special programs, if less unusual than the Zappa concert, have proved interesting.

The philharmonic just finished a series of 11 college campus concerts under the direction of Gerhard Samuel, the associate music director of the Music Center. The Saturday afternoon children's concerts usually sell out and have been particularly successful.

“I really think that the management and Mehta are making a sincere effort to go out to the people,” said Guarneri. “I don't know how well they have done it though. Our annual concert for Watts is an example. Actually we only got as close to Watts as Trade Tech. and even then there weren‘t many people in the audience. We did a token piece by a black composer that no one had ever heard of. Why not do something by Duke Ellington or someone else who is really into it’?

“Some of us in the orchestra wanted to play for members of Cesar Chavez' union when there was all of that trouble over the grape strike. Mehta even agreed to conduct, and he did, but I don't think he really understood what was going on. After the performance he turned to the audience and said. ‘Now that we have come to see you, we would like you to come to the Music Center and see us.’

“In addition to that, some of the members of the orchestra were angry that we even billed the performance ‘members of the L.A. Philharmonic.‘ They didn‘t want us to associate with the strikers.”

On the other hand, two years ago when students were striking to oppose Nixon's Vietnam policy, about half of the orchestra signed a letter criticizing the President.

The philharmonics problems with introducing new ideas into the strict system of serious music are the same problems that exist in other areas where a conservative element coexists with a liberal one. The orchestra is a microcosm of American society.

And as in any other part of that society, money plays an important role in the orchestra's operations. Each year the philharmonic runs a huge deficit which must be made up through donations.

The management insists that benefactors do not have any control over the material which the orchestra performs, but of course, if a wealthy benefactor doesn't like what is being done, he or she can simply stop contributing.

The construction of the Music Center was the project of wealthy patrons of the arts. There have been criticisms that instead of constructing one huge. expensive music complex in downtown L.A.. there should have been several concert halls built in many cities of Southern California.

Some people agree with Nadel that a large complex like the Music Center is better than small concert halls in regard to the quality of sound. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to guess what will happen to the concert form in the future. Perhaps people will begin to turn away from rock and pop and begin to get involved with concert music. Perhaps not. “I don't think there is a dying interest in concert music. There are no fewer listeners now than there have been throughout history,” said Nadel. “Perhaps I'm an elitist, but I think that the three percent of the population that we attract is really making it. You go out onto the street comer and do something and try to attract three percent of the total population. Three percent is a lot of people.”

Guarneri disagreed, “There are just too few orchestras in the nation. Not enough people can get to a performance,” he said.

“As a teacher of music I am beginning to reconsider encouraging kids to go into music. It is so hard to make it. If someone really is dedicated and wants to play music, he should be able to make a living at it. You almost have to wait for someone to die before you can get into a philharmonic orchestra.

“In fact, that is just what happened in my case. There were 10 persons at the audition and I got the position. I heard that a couple of months ago there was an opening for a horn player in Toronto and 150 people auditioned for the one spot.”

In the end, though, what happens to concert music will depend upon the supply and demand will certainly win out.

It will be up to the schools and the orchestras across the nation to appeal to the public. But whatever happens, it seems inconceivable that the listening tastes of Americans would degenerate to the point where the masterpieces of Beethoven, Bach and all the giants of music could be forgotten.

1. This concert was in May 15, 1970, in Pauley Pavilion, UCLA, Los Angeles. See 1970 05 15 Los Angeles CA 98.45 Aud (av) ZTLS#392

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