Not a Social Duty

Uninspired selections, bungled fundraising and the flawed Tucson Music Hall are driving this fan away from the TSO

For the first time in 30 years, I'm not renewing my Tucson Symphony Orchestra season subscription.

I made that decision when I realized that I'd skipped a few concerts last season because of travel or illness, and I didn't care. If I don't regret missing concerts I'm having to pay more and more money for, why should I spend that money in the first place?

It isn't that the TSO is a bad orchestra; far from it. You won't confuse it with the Boston Symphony, but it's a perfectly able professional ensemble from front to back, much better than the band it was back in the 1970s, when it boasted some fine individual players (especially the principal woodwinds), but spotty work across larger sections.

Even so, the programming becomes less and less inspired every year. Most concerts are dominated by thrice-familiar pieces; anything new or unusual occupies only about five minutes of any program. (The big exception next season is Daniel Asia's Symphony No. 5, but that is a rare occurrence.) Like every arts organization, the TSO earns its tax-exempt status as an educational rather than an artistic endeavor, and education shouldn't be limited to kiddie concerts. Adults need to be introduced to new things, too. But when I read the schedule for next season, there are only a couple of things that look more attractive to me than staying home and watching a video.

Nationwide, orchestras are struggling to retain their audiences and build new ones. Attendance at TSO concerts the past few seasons has been spotty to dismal, from my vantage point in the balcony. Most of the talk in orchestra circles about building audience revolves around marketing, and maybe starting some concerts earlier, and just maybe dropping some ticket prices (the TSO has been going the opposite direction, even increasing ticket prices as the concert date nears).

Conversation rarely turns to questions of programming, except when the interlocutor is critic and blogger Greg Sandow, who has made a career of fretting about the future of classical music. Sandow emphasizes the need for orchestras to engage with potential young audiences (people in their 20s and 30s) by engaging more with popular culture. Sandow argues for something far more sophisticated than doing pops concerts with the latest winner of American Idol (as you'll find at his blog,, but his recommendations aren't going to lure a middle-age classical-music snob like me back to the Tucson Symphony.

Look--I go to plays one to three nights a week; I have various social obligations; and I do enjoy being home. When I want to hear music, I can play something from my carefully selected and substantial CD library, or from the material I've downloaded onto my PDA. I can hear what I want, when I want it, in acoustically well-balanced performances I know will engage me. I can't get that from the Tucson Symphony in the sonically troubled Tucson Music Hall.

Now, a performance that does not engage me is not necessarily a poor performance. It just doesn't have that extra kick I need as a reward for hearing a Beethoven or Tchaikovsky symphony for the 264th time in my life. I've touched on this issue several times in the TSO reviews I write for my blog, Cue Sheet, at the KUAT-FM Web site (

cue-sheet). Go there, and track my ambivalence.

Here's part of what I wrote about a concert last October:

"The TSO's performance of Beethoven and Mahler under conductor George Hanson was quite strong and in many ways even impressive. ... So many things about the performance were so right that I feel a little ungrateful wishing there'd been an additional dimension to the concert: a more surprising, more personal view of the music.

"Don't get me wrong; there wasn't anything dull or routine about the playing. In Beethoven's Symphony No. 1, phrasing was nicely pointed; tempos seemed just; and the woodwinds had good presence, easily holding their own against the reduced string ensemble. ...

"But there's a problem specific to the TCC Music Hall: Anything downstage, stage left, must struggle to be heard. Usually, it's the cellos that saw away to little audible effect, but now it's the second violins that suffer. Friday night, they sounded fine when playing on their own, as at the beginning of the second movement in the Beethoven, but they completely disappeared into tutti passages. There's not much Hanson and his players can do about this, short of hiring a wrecking ball, tearing down the hall and starting over.

"That balance issue aside, the performance was secure and efficient, but it didn't display much character beyond what naturally springs from the page. That's a good start, not to be discounted--too many dull or inattentive performers seem to do their best to stifle Beethoven's natural character--but with Beethoven performances as plentiful as they are, it would be nice for Hanson to set his interpretation apart somehow."

And about the season opener back in September, I kvetched:

"First, it was necessary to suffer through 10 minutes of nonmusical junk: an audience sing-along version of the "Star-Spangled Banner"--bad music imposed upon bad lyrics, badly sung--and a pep talk by the orchestra board's president. Save it for the people who haven't already bought tickets and need some persuading. Perhaps this was a subtle measure of damage control, as was the presence outside the hall of perky cotillion girls in their little black dresses, chirping, 'Welcome to the symphony!' to arriving (if scant) audience members. Management and its allies probably figured they had to do something to counteract the low-key, dignified presence of musicians outside the hall quietly publicizing their troubled contract negotiations, not to mention a recent article in the Tucson Weekly detailing the TSO's ongoing financial trouble and its needless feud with the Tucson Symphony Women's Association (see "Sour Notes," Sept. 20, 2007).

"What matters most to the public is what happens on the Music Hall stage, and last night's music-making was exceptionally solid, though it held no real interpretive surprises. Hanson and the orchestra opened the Brahms (Piano Concerto No. 1 with soloist Barry Douglas) with well-judged contrast between the dramatic first subject and tragic-lyrical second. The violin playing was crisply articulated if not as juicy-toned as one might wish in Brahms; the woodwinds and brass blended into and emerged from the ensemble admirably; and new timpanist Kimberly Toscano played with both forcefulness and control. In the first-movement climaxes, though, the lower string sound was poorly defined, and the orchestra didn't achieve its proper fullness until the quieter second movement."

So you get the point: The performances under the sensible and adept George Hanson are fully competent but rarely heart-stopping; the hall fails to project the orchestra to its best advantage; and the orchestra's management has faltered in its fundraising (and, according to one ex-board member, squandered precious money on useless studies) and bungled relations with musicians and donors, which causes behind-the-scenes problems that could soon affect the quality of what we hear in the hall.

I'd go back for more daring performances and more unusual repertory. That would probably lure younger people, too, who want to be engaged by their immediate experience and don't really care what's regarded as a Timeless Classic, and what's not. But as long as the TSO struggles hard merely to maintain the status quo, it's not going to inspire me--or many other people--to invest time and money in what should be a cultural adventure, not a social duty.

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