Last Monday was the finale for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra for the 2015/2016 season. I’m not a reg, but I had a subscription for 12 concerts this season in the dirtbag seats right at the very back, where nobody can judge you if you happen to pass out. As the most poorly dressed patron–not close–and almost certainly the most poor, but I can’t say I’m 100% sure, since people with very large negative numbers are also affluent–it always feels like I’ve transported myself into an entirely different world.
The VSO is nearing its 100th anniversary, and would probably be considered a relatively “young” symphony by world standards. It’s program for the season and advertising booklet, Allegro, showcases a mass list of generous donors that keep the institution running, with the help of the government of Canada at all levels. The tickets that I held had Air Canada and GoldCorp listed as sponsors, and get a mention before the concert. That is to say, the money that I paid isn’t even paying for half of the cost of occupying that seat at the Orpheum. Considering that I’m at section 6, the subsidy on my ticket has to be enormous.
It was the finale of the season, so after the intermission, our maestro Bramwell Tovey was doing his usual goodbyes to the musicians that were leaving the VSO: Concertmaster Dale Barltrop, and a 70 year old violinist whose name escapes me, is leaving for another symphony at a different city. That 70 year old fellow said words to the effect of, “I’ve played here under 4 different conductors; musicians and concertmasters come and go, as do conductors, but the VSO lives on. Together, the audience members, all of us, are the custodians of the institution.” That last part, which was verbatim, is something that struck me as something you’d expect from the world of Downton Abbey. Completely foreign, but even to the swamp on section 6, the heartfelt appeal to tradition, legacy, and the call to preserve and protect the institution was felt.
I’m rarely a sympathizer of Old World conservatism and this certainly embodies that, but I do like the Vancouver Symphony, and I do wish that it would always be as it was. As a small child my aunt would take me there, then under the great Sergiu Comissiona, and it was magical. Like most symphonies in North America, it’s struggling to survive as the demographics change, subscription sales fall, and its model that depends so heavily on sponsors and donors is no longer holding up. Called the Baumol effect, sectors where technology can’t increase productivity in ways that other sectors can, still face cost increases all the same. It still takes the same number of musicians as the Mozart days to perform a symphony–more in fact to perform modern compositions–but with 21st century wages and other costs. Staring at the page of bequests and legacies, one might think that there is no shortage of willing whales, but it seems like that species is soon going to become endangered as well. Perhaps the symphony’s destiny is like that of historical wonders where projects embodied more than a person’s life–unsustainable in a modern world that requires immediate return on investment. Not to justify the inherently unreasonable, but it still is a shame if the symphony is to lose its identity, or worse, die.