Mulling Salonen’s Resignation — Take Three: Harvey Lichtenstein and BAM

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Harvey LIchtenstein (1929-2017)

Here are a couple of responses to my latest blog, mulling Esa-Pekka Salonen’s resignation as music director of the San Francisco Symphony:

–From a major European artists’ manager of long experience: “Over a period of decades, I have witnessed a progressive decline in the quality of leadership in the music business. Cultural institutions today prefer to attribute failure to excessive costs — not lack of purpose.”

–From Karen Hopkins, Harvey Lichtenstein’s indispensable aide-de-camp during the glory days of BAM: “Alas, there was but one Harvey.  The key was not only his unlimited love for artists, it was his courage — something in short supply at this moment.”

A few days ago I told a Harvey Lichteinstein story about artistic vision — how in half an hour he resolved to take the entire Mariinski opera company to BAM for four performances. Here’s another Harvey story: one day the fire alarm went off and the building emptied. As we were the last to leave, I ran into Harvey in the BAM lobby. He said to me: “I hope the place burns down.” 

The critic Winthrop Sargeant once summarized the force of Arturo Toscanini’s leadership of the New York Philharmonic as a “psychology of crisis” and likened the members of Toscanini’s orchestra to persons trapped in a sinking ship, pursuing a prodigious course of action out of desperation. At BAM, the Thursday morning meeting of department heads in Harvey’s office was a weekly ritual. The main event was invariably the BAM budget: a page of numbers, of which the ones that mattered showed updated income and expenses versus projections for the season. The hot seats were occupied by the marketing director and director of finance. A self-conscious congeniality failed to mask a mood of exigency.

Today, the American arts are ever more in crisis – the building is actually burning. On the fund-raising side of things, the wealthiest Americans are less likely to care about the arts. Our major charitable foundations remain in thrall to an equation likening the arts to instruments of social justice – a naïve disorientation. Two years ago, I interviewed some of the major players in this drama, among whom the wisest counselled patience: the pendulum will swing back. It hasn’t yet. I previously referenced the resulting article, in The American Purposehere it is again, freshly pertinent. 

Whatever I was able to achieve running the Brooklyn Philharmonic was abetted by major grants from the Mellon, Knight, Hearst, and Rockefeller Foundations – not one of which retains much interest in saving classical music. (We were also the first orchestra ever to be supported by the NEH – which remains an invaluable resource for orchestras ambitious to become mission-driven.) The frustrations of the foundation community (which I had occasion to witness first-hand) were entirely understandable: American orchestras have chronically resisted innovation. But an enlightened policy of selective support is more urgently needed than ever.

And of course audiences are dwindling. Here is another set of issues even more vexing: the impact of social media and shrinking attention spans, of what the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa calls “social acceleration,” of what I call the erasure of cultural memory. In my most recent book, The Propaganda of Freedom, I address the relationship between the artist and the state — and make a case for vastly increased federal support. There is at present no political will for that – indeed there are no national spokespersons of prominence for the arts. As I ponder in The Propaganda of Freedom, it’s a little known fact that the day John F. Kennedy died, the morning edition of the New York Times announced that he would be appointing a member of his inner circle, Richard Goodwin, to lead a new council on the arts. Nothing like that ever happened. It greatly matters now.

And all of this makes arts leadership the more challenging – and, arguably, visionary leadership the more elusive.

What, finally, is one to make of the ongoing SFSO controversy? Is it some form of incipient scandal that titillates a crowd? Or might the avalanche of responses I’m getting signal a constructive moment? Here’s a weathervane: according to rumor, the Chicago Symphony is about to announce its next “music director,” succeeding Ricardo Muti. This is an orchestra which, during its first half century, had only two presiding conductors: Theodore Thomas (1891-1905) was succeeded by his assistant Fredrick Stock (1905-1942). Both became fixtures in the cultural life of the city. Neither had conflicting commitments elsewhere. Thomas began as a legendary barnstorming educator; his Chicago initiatives included “workingman’s concerts.” Stock’s commitment to the Midwest (which he toured extensively) was absolute, his popularity immense. Touting (from the stage) the “I-will spirit of Chicago,” he spurned prestigious offers to relocate northeast. He implemented concerts targeting ethnic neighborhoods with seats costing fifteen to fifty cents. He led his own children’s concerts. He inaugurated outdoor summer concerts at Grant Park. (And I could go on.)

Will today’s Chicago Symphony opt for an institutional leader? Or will I follow today’s pack and choose a young conductor already spread thin? And if the latter, where will leadership reside? 

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