Not quite Cleveland

Thoughts on keeping the faith in the Sac Philharmonic

Conductor Michael Morgan directs.

Conductor Michael Morgan directs.

Photo By Kent Lacin

As someone who’s been away since the 1970s, this critic is dying to spout off about classical music in his hometown. I’ve heard about lethal mixes of funding disasters, bankruptcies, charlatans, cancellations, lawsuits, police investigations and resignations during the last decade, and these things have a way of getting a journalist’s juices going.

What on Earth happened? Trying to follow each grueling episode of this soap opera buffa is like sitting through a George Romero film festival, where orchestras are the zombies raised from the dead, and each sequel has a more absurd premise than the last one.

But am I too late? Is it just crying over spilled milk? What about spouting off over spilled milk? That’s got to be good for something, right? The last ugly rumor we heard was three years ago when, according to a certain local newspaper, a newly formed Sacramento Symphony was on its way back. Other sources even claimed that conductor Carter Nice, who led the original Sacramento Symphony from 1979–92, would return to lead it.

Now, for those of you who got up to get a soft drink during this drama and missed some of the crucial plot points, the original Sacramento Symphony went defunct in 1996 and was reborn the following year as the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra. This little face-lift proceeded under the surgeon’s blade of a charming Serbian conductor, Zvonimir Ha…cko, who gained a reputation (whether fair or not) for stretching financial realities until they broke. It was he who ended up buying the rights to the name “Sacramento Symphony” in order to split from the SPO circa 1999. Ha…cko also was behind the announcement three years ago that a new organization under this name would return.

Well, these returns have, shall we say, diminished to zero. Perhaps we should move on, let bygones finally remain bygones. We ought just to be glad that we still have the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra and that it’s still making music—worthwhile and enjoyable music, in fact, as was demonstrated late last month at the Community Center Theater with an evening of works by Elgar, R. Strauss and Rózsa. Based on the music alone, the SPO remains a competent, worthy organization, and under the charismatic leadership of conductor Michael Morgan, it still thrives with impressive professionalism.

With Elgar’s Enigma Variations as the evening’s centerpiece, Morgan shined for all the right reasons. It’s a formidable piece with many intricacies, almost all of which were tightly and dramatically executed. Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder, too, made for an especially challenging item. Written shortly after the end of World War II, this particular example of post-romanticism is colder and more unsentimental than one would think, at least until the coda of the final song. Its source, a set of cryptically symbolic poems by Hermann Hesse, makes no innovative statement, since at that time Hesse was propped up by the new government as the new ideal of German culture. But the exquisitely poised guest artist, soprano Talise Trevigne, controlled the varied timbre of her voice with laserlike precision. Brava!

Morgan passed off the evening’s opening bonbon, five cues from Rózsa’s soundtrack to Ben-Hur, to the reliable assistant conductor, Ming Luke, who hammed it up almost without overdoing it. I’m not as big a fan of this music as others apparently are, but let loud brass fanfares, booming timpani and tinnitus speak for themselves. There was also some confusion as to whether this was actually part of a “choral suite,” since none of the cues used a chorus.

The only thing with more twists and turns than these horns is the history of the Sac Philharmonic.

Photo By Kent Lacin

The more pressing problem, though, is that orchestras do not live on music alone. There’s always the money factor—which, for many musical organizations, means community outreach programs, often involved with education. This recent concert broke with the tradition of keeping the important but always sobering nonmusical matters in the periphery. First off, a local teacher made an announcement, chiming in about the Greek tragedy of cutting music programs out of public schools. He also reminded us that for some time now, the 31 days of March apparently have represented “Music In Our Schools Month” (or MIOSM, as proclaimed by the National Association for Music Education, insisting on putting an “®” in the upper left corner of both the title and acronym). Published letters in the concert program from the superintendent of the San Juan School District (from which this critic sprang) and a local teacher serving as SPO education director again reminded us of MIOSM, even if they both misplaced one word in the title, thus confounding my Google search thereof.

The executive director and CEO of the SPO then gave a second announcement about matching funds and subscriptions. A raffle after intermission, complete with rotating cage and a grand prize, engendered the sort of suspense that only money can. All that was missing was Howie Mandel, demanding, “Deal or no deal?”

Like the supposedly commercial-free Public Broadcasting System, fund-raising pleas are so commonplace with arts events that we tend never to give them a second thought. This time, I did. In the SPO’s case, once the money talk starts, that troubled past decade looms like a hooded skeleton with a scythe. Yet, as further explicated at its Web site, the SPO is a phoenix rising out of the ashes.

OK, that’s enough for me. Spilled milk aside, if they’re going to open the door by harping on business in the shadow of their near extinction, I’ll just go ahead and assess some past blunders.

First: The Sacramento Symphony’s demise, and later rebirth as the SPO, wasn’t some unusual occurrence. Reaganomics in the late 1980s smote many an active orchestra via hyperscrimping, brutal restructuring and other ways of “going outside the dots.” In fact, conductor Michael Morgan’s other primary orchestra, the Oakland East Bay Symphony (formerly the Oakland Symphony), went through the same awkward process in 1988. Although Sacramento’s shakeup occurred later (during the dot-com bubble of prosperity), it was part and parcel of the same trend. In any case, it’s not like our orchestra simply fell prey to some ominous and rare force majeure.

Second: The SPO ought not to flaunt the fact that someone paid good money (especially in an era of hyperscrimping) for a national study comparing Sacramento’s general demographic to Cleveland’s. Nor should it imply, therefore, that according to the laws of elementary logic (with a few twisted ipso factos thrown in), Sacramento soon could host an organization like the legendary Cleveland Orchestra. As one of the legendary “Big Five” (along with Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago), the Cleveland Orchestra really isn’t the sort of fruit that Sacramento soil could yield—as if something as simple as a change of fertilizer could make it happen. Actually, fertilizer might be a fitting analogy when used in a different way. But generally, such studies tend to incite the very stuff that got the SPO in trouble in the first place. It’s also important to remember that in Cleveland’s case, a single conductor, the late George Szell, took much credit for the musical renaissance there during the 1950s.

Sure, this critic likes pipe dreams almost as much as spouting off, but perhaps we should put a little bit less on our plate. And while we’re at it, leave fund-raising and raffles for occasions other than concerts. That said, SPO’s latest effort nonetheless gave me a chance to consider what really has been keeping the institution alive, and it hasn’t anything to do with phoenixes, demographics or even Cleveland.

Whether or not he’s the next Szell, Morgan, who begins his 10th year with the SPO next year, is one asset this orchestra can rely on. He steps into the fray, controls the situation and provides sanity, smarts, savvy, competence, deep musical understanding and, most importantly under the circumstances, plenty of wit. Alas, Maestro Morgan does not belong to the more common school of conducting that insists its members be elegant, statuesque and handsome. But somehow, that’s to his advantage. It all works toward a more progressive, less plastic approach to music-making—an effective combination for an orchestra on the ropes.

What a guilty pleasure it has been to delve into the woeful tale of classical music in Sacramento—not for reasons of sadism, mind you, but because the musicians themselves certainly aren’t to blame, and there is light at the end of the tunnel. Today even Ha…cko, who with his Euro-charm and guile fulfilled the role of villain for many observers, recedes from prominence and blame. Who could have a problem with Euro-charm and guile when across the street from the concert hall an Austrian bodybuilder is sitting in the governor’s office? Now if only we could get arts administrators to spot the bad apples quicker and say, “Hasta la vista, baby.”