Funfair for the Common Man

Here’s my prescription for a successful symphony orchestra: cheap tickets and a ton of new music. Pipe dream, nothing—I’m merely picking up where the Federal Music Project left off. Part of the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration, the FMP was tasked with finding work for thousands of unemployed musicians around the country and promoting American culture while they were at it. In the end, if they never achieved the notoriety of the art, writing, or (especially) theatre projects, the FMP didn’t do too bad, and in some cases, the results were truly impressive in terms of both artistic value and attendance (in fact, on the latter score, they had the theatre program beat).

The FMP eventually organized 34 full symphony orchestras around the country—two in New York City alone—as well as chamber orchestras, concert bands, dance bands, and quartets, quintets, and sextets of all varieties. (Conlon Nancarrow, fresh back from the Spanish Civil War, conducted a group here in Boston.) You can see the ticket prices for the Illinois Symphony on their poster up there (via the Library of Congress): anywhere from 15 cents (for the rabble) up to 55 cents (if you were feeling particularly luxe). That’s pretty much in line with other FMP-sponsored ensembles—that is, when they weren’t giving it away for free at outdoor venues or school outreach concerts. As for the programming, orchestras adopted an unprecedentedly American slant: for example, over the course of the FMP’s seven-season lifetime (1935-1943), Philadelphia’s WPA Civic Symphony programmed American composers on forty-three percent of their concerts (nearly double the rate of the Phildelphia Orchestra), including a host of premieres from local composers: Samuel Lacier, Arthur Cohn, Harl MacDonald, Otto Mueller, James Francis Cooke—and the fact that none of those names graduated to the household variety is what’s so great about it. These were local musicians playing music by local composers for local audiences, and by all accounts, the audiences ate it up. The Civic Symphony alone averaged over 1,000 people per concert over their brief lifetime. (Facts and figures from this fascinating article by Arthur J. Jarvis; Alex Ross tried to track down some of the FMP composers a while back.)

And, yes, they were doing it while going up against the established Philadelphia Orchestra. The situation was common: the Illinois Symphony, for example, was sharing a town with Frederick Stock’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but carved out its own niche with adventurous programming and newsworthy premieres.

When great Finnish Composer Sibelius’ Fifth and Sixth Symphonies got their first Chicago hearings, it was not the venerable Chicago Symphony but the sprouting Illinois Symphony that played them. The Illini played few symphonic chestnuts, never repeated a composition. By the end of last season they were giving even more “first performances” than Serge Koussevitzky’s pioneering Boston Symphony. Some of their firsts were imported, some domestic. [In March of 1939] they played their hundredth composition by a U. S. composer.

That’s from a Time magazine profile of the Illinois Symphony’s conductor, Izler Solomon. The Illinoisians focused on modern novelties and cleaned up at the box office, actually turning a profit off of those 55-cent tickets. As Time put it, the Symphony “was rated as Chicago’s spiciest highbrow musical institution, and Chicago’s wide-awake concertgoers were afraid to stay away for fear of missing something good.”

Could a program like this exist today? There’s almost certainly enough musicians out there—maybe not as many as in the 1930’s, when even movie theaters continued to have live bands, but most major metropolitan areas already field at least one freelance orchestra in addition to the local civic insitution. (There are two that I can think of that even emulate the Illinois Symphony’s programming philosophy—the American Composers’ Orchestra in New York and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project—but the freelance aspect limits their season to only a few concerts a year.) Brand-new music is a built-in “unique selling proposition,” to use the appropriate jargon, and the focus on local composers could probably expand from a point of local interest to one of local pride if the ensemble built a high enough profile. The ticket price? There’s the rub—live performance has become so cost-intensive that there’s no chance of the equivalent of a 15-cent admission without some serious outside funding, be that private or governmental. Right now, the modus operandi of the NEA and similar state and local funding bodies is to support specific projects undertaken by existing groups, but the FMP experience hints that a better approach might just be to start your own band—it’s a jobs program, an economy-booster, and a community-builder rolled into one. Of thee I sing, baby!

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