by Jim Harris
The world-renowned Philadelphia Orchestra is filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. At a press conference last week, the orchestra’s Board Chairman, Richard Worley said, “We’re running low on cash.” Well, golly, who can’t identify with that? I haven’t had any disposable income since 1986, and that was only for five minutes.
Since I don’t have any multi-million dollar endowments tucked away like the orchestra does, I’ve learned how to improvise, live cheaply and get the most out what I’ve got. I think I might just have a few suggestions that would help the “Faltering (or ‘Defaulting’) Philadelphians” to survive.
At that same press conference, officials stressed that “concerts would go on as scheduled, including the evening’s performance of a Mahler symphony.” You see, that’s a problem right there. Mahler’s symphonies are so incredibly long and boring that listeners often fall into deep sleeps requiring a team of ushers with cattle prods to wake them up.
If the orchestra wants to bring in new listeners, they’re going to have to adapt to the changing artistic sensibilities of our times. Philadelphia public schools are eliminating classical music programs so that Governor Corbett can give tax breaks to the gas drilling industry. Hence, most of the music that kids hear today is coming from the media (and from the drillers who are dropping all their change on the way to the bank).
Songs on the radio are never longer than three minutes, and even that seems pretty long for contemporary attention spans. Most movie and TV soundtracks consist of bits of songs plugged in at key moments, a practice that does justice to neither the song nor the drama, but it’s a cheap alternative to writing a score, and modern audiences don’t seem to mind. So here are my suggestions:
•The Philadelphia Orchestra should play only short, robust pieces — no dirges, requiems, triangle concertos or 90-minute symphonies. Get the people in and get them out quick, before they lose interest. This would also reduce concert hall utility bills.
•Contemporary audiences also like to see peppy dancing accompanying their music. The musicians could learn to do a few dance steps while they play, or at least sway in time with the music. Hiring some gymnasts to do back flips during crescendos would also increase the level of entertainment.
•Sporting events are very popular these days. Take a few ideas from them. Introduce competition by having orchestras go head to head in contests — a la “American Idol,” complete with obnoxious “celebrity” judges. Sell beer and have fuzzy mascots running around kibitzing (“Loudwig Van Boobyhatch,” perhaps, or “Wolfgang Amadingbat”). Let conductors hold post-concert press conferences, where they analyze their players’ performances.
•Some catchy slogans would help, as well. Maybe “Stop and smell the orchestra,” “Got Class?” or “Hey, we’re broke. Would it kill you to attend a concert?”
•Along those lines, maybe begging is not such a bad idea. Mail out fund-raising fliers with pictures of raggedy-looking orchestra members pawning their instruments, or playing for tips on the street. In fact, playing for tips on the street (“busking”) is a great way to generate more income. If each player made $40 a day, that would generate an extra million dollars per year.
•Another moneymaking opportunity might be to take the orchestra’s $140 million endowment and bet it on a horse. Win or lose, it would generate tremendous publicity. Recording some ring tones could be lucrative, too. How about a hip-hop “Ride of the Valkyries?”
•As a cost-cutting measure, why not have them play the same piece for an entire season? That would cut down on rehearsal time and leave even more time for busking. Additionally, civic-minded citizens with room to spare could be invited to “adopt” an orchestra member. (A word of caution here — avoid adopting percussionists; they’re all nuts.)
•And finally, to improve the concert hall experience, have a smoking section. Allow cigars, hookahs and medical marijuana. Provide reclining chairs for the audience. Put racy photos and dirty words in the program.
•Encourage audience participation in the form of dancing, singing along or jumping up on the podium to conduct a few bars. Have a red carpet so fur-clad, jewel encrusted highbrows can promenade for the cheap-seaters. Everybody wins.
We need to do whatever it takes to keep the world’s best orchestra playing here in Philadelphia. If we lose them, shame on us.
(Ed. Note: Jim Harris feels the pain of Philadelphia Orchestra members who may have to start eating dinner at Wendy’s instead of Vetri and The Four Seasons. The average player makes about $130,000 per year, while some make more than $300,000 plus lots of benefits. Harris makes almost that much writing for the Local, so his musical income is gravy. Unfortunately, Jim does not like French food.)