Monday, November 23, 2015

A Few Final Words From Joseph Silverstein

Reporter transcribes her notes from a recent interview with Utah Symphony's late conductor.

Posted By on November 23, 2015, 1:36 PM

  • Michael Schoenfeld
Editor's Note: Over the weekend, Joseph Silverstein—violin virtuoso and Utah Symphony musical director from 1983 to 1998— died at the age of 83 following a heart attack. City Weekly reporter Katharine Biele had just interviewed Silverstein for her Nov. 12 cover story, "Musical Chairs." What follows are some of Biele's notes from perhaps what might have been the maestro's final interview.

Maestro Joseph Silverstein was a man of immense talent and huge heart. In a recent interview, Silverstein talked at length about the state of music in the United States.

“The obituaries are really premature,” said Silverstein, referring to the anxiety symphony administrations have about their bottom lines. In Utah, that anxiety resulted in the merger of the Utah Symphony with the Utah Opera, and, despite a budget that’s now in the black, the general belief that symphonies need to appeal to a different demographic—perhaps with different musicians and a different repertoire.

“If you take a look at the spread, you will see a decentralization of the whole cultural phenomenon.”

Look at Sarasota, Fla., he said: It has a good orchestra, opera and ballet company. “But 30 years ago, there was only a semi-professional orchestra, no opera and a stitched-together ballet. Now, it is very well attended, and that is not the only place with such cultural intensity.”

In the Berkshires, he said, there are 3,000 seats for sale at performance venues outside of the Tanglewood, speaking of the scene in Massachusetts. There are four active theater companies, and three companies have two stages. The Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival has two stages.

“People who are burying classical music—they are not getting out from the desks in New York,” he said. That was largely in reference to a comment made by former Utah Symphony CEO Melia Tourangeau, who said: “The real key is finding that core of relevancy in the community, demonstrating relevancy as an institution.”

Silverstein didn’t buy that. “We have to engage a different audience? Wait a minute—you have a great product performed by extremely competent musicians, and you feel you have to redesign the audience or redesign the product?”

Instead, he said, the product continues to be relevant, but may need to adjust to new venues. In New York City, for instance, some nightclub venues have become places to perform concerts. Traditional audiences are moving away from traditional population centers, he said. “Audiences are getting older, but the U.S. is getting older, too. … I’m not in any despair over the state of classical music.”

That’s not to say there aren’t bumps in the road.

“Yes, some have financial problems. Philadelphia just emerged from bankruptcy. There are some unfortunate cases like the Minnesota orchestra.” Last year, Minnesota musicians took a 15 percent cut in pay to end a lockout, and it has struggled to attract patrons. “But Omaha is doing very well. It’s a mixed bag, unquestionably, but it’s not as if nothing’s going on.”

Silverstein was most concerned about the state of public education and its lack of emphasis on music and arts. Music in public schools has been savaged by cost-cutting, he noted.

“I’m not particularly happy with public education, and that is evidenced by the morons who were debating the other night,” he said, referring to the Republican candidates debate on CNN.

“Now, there is empirical evidence by brain scans that people listening to classical music have definably greater development in certain parts of their brain. It’s not that going to a concert is stupefying; it’s stimulating.”

Utah has been doing that all along, Silverstein said. “Children’s concerts are very important. I conducted a number of them … the appearance of a maestro at the Brigham City public schools was an important thing to do.”

And schools are where you incubate a new audience. “Yes, you need to bring in people who haven’t been there before, but if you believe in the product, performed beautifully, and in the persuasive quality of that product, then you bring people to the hall that’s accessible in time, location and price.”

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