Last June, an extraordinary thunderstorm ripped through my fair city, leaving half a million without power and downing an astonishing number of beautiful old trees.
On my daily walk to the coffee shop, a tall tree lay across 34th Street, door-sized chunks of sidewalk split like a drawbridge over the gaping hole where its dangling roots once ran. The top of its canopy, previously the domain of birds, insects, and exceptionally brave squirrels, was half-flattened against the asphalt just shy of the yellow center line. I walked up to it, and touched my finger to leaves that had never before felt human hands. They were still firm and green, and remained so for many days.
When a tree falls, it lives on long after its death is sealed.
Watching the Minnesota Orchestra, I cannot shake the feeling that this tree fell many months ago, and we are now watching it die slowly on the asphalt. The roots are in the air. The trunk is horizontal. Neither hard-headed problem solving nor gracious diplomacy nor righteous indignation can undo what is done. I am an optimist, sometimes to the point of absurdity, but today my heart tells me that there is nothing for us to do but grieve.
Tucked into today’s encouraging tidbits of news
about the Twin Cities orchestras is one telling detail. The MN Orchestra board wants to restore the organization’s mission statement to its
former proper state (they removed the word “orchestra” last year, if you can believe it), but
“with two changes to emphasize community service and financial stability.” In that proposal is laid bare
the philosophical chasm that originally lead to this fiasco.
The words “financial stability” do not belong in any arts organization’s mission statement. Financial stability is a means, not an end.
The music is the mission.
Nothing prepares you for what the doctor says:
“You have brain cancer. The tumor is large and growing. We need to remove approximately one third of your brain, and we need to remove it immediately. If we don’t, you will be dead in five years.”
As the lockout of Minnesota’s two world-class orchestras continues, I’ve given a lot of thought to the dilemma. A credible outside perspective is hard to find, and we’re left in a “he said / she said” back and forth between management and musicians. Listening to it all, I believe them both on their key points: yes, an organization that is drawing heavily from its endowment cannot last — and yes, the proposed cuts would be an artistic kneecapping for the orchestras.
I’ve thought hard, and I’ve made up my mind. To accept the financial status quo is to doom the orchestras to a slow death — but to accept the proposed cuts is to kill them now. I wish the orchestras could last forever in their current state. But if that cannot be, if it comes right down to it and we are truly forced to choose, the orchestras should draw down their endowments. I’d rather have 10 more years of great music than 100 years of mediocrity.