THE REPORT OF THE National Symphony's special Task Force is an exhaustive consideration of the present place of the National Symphony in this city and the country. It gives equal attention to the orchestra's artistic attainments and needs, its public services and its financial situation. It proposes increasing the size of the orchestra from its present 96 to 106 in the coming two seasons; it suggests that the orchestra's music director should spend as much time working with the musicians as possible, and it asks the federal government to up its ante to the NSO from a current $460,000 to $1.3 million.
The report, released last week, was prepared by a special committee of 19 - 16 board members, two players from the orchestra, and its managing director, Oleg Lobanov - who met every Monday morning for four months last spring.Participants in those sessions have described them as "no hold" meetings in which anyone on the committee, each member of which had an equal voice and vote, could raise any question. The report shows that artistic quality was never regarded as less than paramount, nor solutions proposed, even to the gravest financial challenges, at the cost of the highest goals in quality.
It urges that music director Mstislav Rostropovich spend as much time as possible working with the orchestra; that only guest conductors of the highest caliber be engaged; and that such guests be brought in for more than a single week at a time.
The first of these points is central to any real improvement in the National Symphony. As the report says frankly and correctly, "The National Symphony is surely a fine orchestra, sometimes an excellent one, but with a performance level that still tends to be uneven." (That remark could be made justly of all but three or four of the world's orchestras. The unevenness depends entirely on the conductor of the moment.) Antal Dorati is rightly credited with improving the orchestra "to the point where world-class status is a reasonable expectation" - whatever "world-class status" means.
The world's greatest orchestras have become so, without exception, when great conductors have spent large amounts of time working with them. Boston-Koussevitzky, Philadelphia-Stokowski-Ormandy, Chicago-Stock-Reiner-Solti and today's Berlin-Karajan partnerships more than demonstrate this. For many years those orchestras had few guest conductors, though to be sure their seasons were not as demanding in length and number sof concerts played as are today's.
The guest conductor who comes in for a week, plays "his" current pieces, and leaves does the orchestra little good. Even a Leinsdorf or a Fruhbeck cannot raise an orchestra's permanent level of playing with a single injection of top-grade direction. Thus the stipulation that guests should stay longer than one week is a vital one.
The increase in the size of the orchestra is essential not in order to have more players to make more noise, but in order to make the National Symphony the physical equivalent of the world's outstanding ensembles so its tone may improve. One way tone improves is by having 12 violas and 12 cellos, so each player can maintain something in reserve rather than "playing out" all the time. Surely a ninth double bass must also be a part of the increase in size.
But even the finest players cannot sound as silken as those in the Philadelphia, Chicago or Los Angeles orchestras if they must play on inferior instruments. For some years, these and other orchestras have had various plans whereby players were assisted financially so they could acquire better instruments. It is good to see a specific proposal for this in the Task Force report.
One of the report's recommendations recalls Vienna. It suggests "the possibility of a musicians' pool to serve many of our city's musical needs." In part this means that Washington often needs a first-class orchestra to play for the opera and ballet companies here, for concerts that occur while the National Symphony is playing its own programs, and for simultaneous concerts that could well be played with divided orchestras. Not long ago the Vienna Philharmonic was enlarged to 150 players for these very purposes.
At for touring - more irony. The Task Force report indicates that the orchestra will tour western Europe in 1979, visiting London, Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Munich, Brussels and Amsterdam, among other cities. This is not surprising. The orchestra should - indeed, must - our. The irony is that Dorati had a similar tour lined up for the summer of 1976, only to have the board of directors pull the rug out from under him. At that time, though the board stoutly denied it, it had already been agreed that a Rostropovich tour in 1979 would command higher fees abroad and arouse more public response.
Ah well, Dorati filed that experience away with a number of others that were dumped on him by a board that often seemed to forget he was the man who made the National Symphony what it is today.
The report leaves several important matters unresolved: The pressing matter of an assisant or associate conductor, for instance, will not wait long. True, Rostropovich should have the governing voice in selecting this person. But the idea of having "an apprentice conductor who will be available to conduct many of the youth, park and family concerts and to serve in a general backup capcity" simply perpetuates a bad situation described in the report.
The report makes a large matter of the need for vital, pertinent, wide-reaching programs for youth. Since there is, for all practical purposes, no music education in Washington's public schools, this area becomes more important than ever. An "apprentice" conductor is not the answer. For many years, Frederick Stock, the orchestra's regular conductor, also conducted its children's concerts. Michael Tilson Thomas runs the Youth Concerts of the New York Philharmonic with a magician's touch. The National Symphony must have a first-rate conductor to spur interest among young audiences in this kind of music.
The Task Force committee would be happier if other orchestras played less frequently in Washington. (They would probably prefer it if they did not play here at all.) The survey shows that "Washington has more symphony concerts than any other city in the United States or Canada." It's true. They come from Ottawa and Quebec, Berlin and London, Vienna and Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, Moscow, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, New York, St. Louis, Houston, Los Angeles and most of the other cities of this country that have major orchestras. And so they should, for the Kennedy Center is a national center intended from its inception to reflect the nation's artistic life.
As for competition from these visiting orchestras, the comment that was appropriate 25 years ago, when some NSO board members objected to visitors from Boston and Philadelphia, is still appropriate: When the National Symphony deserves full houses, it will have them.
The report contans wonderfully lucid observations. For example, "The orchestra should not be obliged to perform the works it has commissioned if they do not meet an appropriate quality level as judged by the Music Director." Had that fine precept been observed, we would have been spared two ghastly evenings last season when Roy Harris's Symphony No. 14 and Joan Orrego-Salas's "The Days of God" were inflicted on fast-dwindling audiences. (The Harris, by the way, was not an NSO commission, merely a free offering from its composer. The gift horse should have been squarely faced and downed.)
The report's financial sections are as critical for the survival of the orchestra as its artistic observations, though they need less comment here. The orchestra must increase its performance income from the present $2.3 million to $4 million by 1980-81. The decision to limit increases in ticket prices to a cost-of-living scale seems as necessary as a limitation on any rise in Annual Giving goals, which are to be kept at 10 per cent - there are, after all, limits. Therefore it seems essential that the orchestra's request to the federal government for an increase in support from a cheap current figure of $460,000 to $1.3 million be met.
The National Symphony has a good record of serving its city. Its artistic level has risen - in the past six years, startlingly. This report sees clearly the possibilities and the problems immediately ahead.