The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

People are upset when an orchestra closes. If only they went to the concerts.

Piotr Gajewski leads the Maryland-based National Philharmonic, which announced Tuesday that it had run out of money. (Joshua Cogan)
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This week, the National Philharmonic, an ambitious orchestra in Maryland, announced that it had run out of money and would close. As I have been covering the group since I came to Washington in 2008 — its founder and conductor, Piotr Gajewski, was one of the first arts leaders to reach out when I arrived — I naturally wrote about the news. That story has gotten lots of responses from readers — more, in fact, than anything else I’ve written this summer apart from news about the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its ongoing lockout.

People get very agitated about orchestra closures. It signals, to some, the decline of society and all they hold dear. The assumptions come in thick and fast: intrepid and valuable small orchestra crushed by apathy, ignorance and philistine funding bodies that fail to pony up the donations.

You know what kind of news doesn’t interest people? News about orchestras doing well. Or, indeed, reviews of orchestras performing the music that embodies their mission. Thousands of people have already read about the National Philharmonic’s plight on our website. How many have read reviews of the National Philharmonic’s concerts in the past few years? A few hundred. Cumulatively.

Indeed, if one-tenth of the energy people expend on reacting to news such as this was expended on actually going to concerts and donating, orchestras might not be having these problems.

There is, in fact, a gap between what we, as individuals in our society, think we want and what we actually want. Take the outcry in the early 2000s when the New York radio station WNYC announced that it would no longer be a classical station but would switch to news and talk. The music world was promptly up in arms. The station, however, pointed out that every morning, when the news ended at 9:05 a.m. and the music began playing, there was an immediate drop in listeners. And some of the people who were most vocal in their protests, it turned out, weren’t regular listeners.

In short, some of these institutions are things we think are nice to have. We just don’t happen to use them ourselves. And neither, it turns out, do enough others to keep them viable.

I often talk about the way the classical-music world tends to conflate institutions with the art form. When an orchestra closes, it’s seen as an assault on Beethoven and Brahms. By contrast, when a restaurant closes or a car company goes bankrupt, people may bitterly bemoan it, but they don’t see it as a threat to food, nor do they think that cars are endangered. These things are part of the ecosystem: Beloved old stores close, new ones move in, some factories stop making things we’ve grown to rely on, some start cranking out cheap junk. Change isn’t always good, by any means, but it happens. Yet in classical music, there seems to be a belief that every single institution is worthy of preservation, even though the logical extension of this would be a landscape so littered with old institutions, shored up beyond their actual useful life, that there would be no room for anything new.

Oh, wait. That’s kind of what the classical-music world these days actually looks like.

The National Philharmonic was ambitious and intrepid. Gajewski has been a model of that much-hyped concept in our field: the musical entrepreneur. When the new hall at Strathmore was under construction, built as the second home of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, he saw an opportunity to give a local orchestra a more important-sounding name and to establish it as a force in Montgomery County.

The National Philharmonic has always dreamed big and tried to run with the big guns when it comes to repertoire — Wagner’s “Rienzi,” Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” the Brahms Requiem, all supported by its in-house chorus. The group can look back on a proud track record. Yet it has been struggling financially for some time. And there is no clear villain in its downfall: Shrinking audiences, diminished government support, fewer newspaper reviews have all played a part. Some small organizations are able to surmount such obstacles. Others cannot.

I am not suggesting we shouldn’t mourn its demise. Yet it saddens me to see people — Washington Post readers, at least — showing so much more interest in this news than they showed in anything the orchestra did when it was healthy. It’s one more contribution to a narrative that classical music fans often take up about the art they love: No one appreciates us, pearls before swine, the decline of the West.

But that narrative is facile, even lazy. There are a lot of other narratives about classical music that are more positive and that could use your support. In the Washington region, there’s the Fairfax Symphony, which would be a jewel in most midsize cities with its strong music director and range of interesting programs; or the Alexandria Symphony, energized by a new music director; or the New Orchestra of Washington, founded by millennials and now celebrating its fifth enterprising season; or D.C. Strings, a nonprofit devoted to bringing classical music to underserved communities.

How about the production your local shoebox-opera organization has managed to mount on a shoestring? Or the new music ensemble that’s putting together a small concert series in an unexpected space in your neighborhood? These stories are happening, literally, all over the country. Let’s try focusing on the positives that we do have, where our interest can do some good, rather than waiting until another institution shutters to let the field know how very much we profess to care about it.

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