Banding together to make music
October 17, 1980
By 1980 the capital city finally had a performing venue fit for music not made using guitars. It also had a fine symphony orchestra to go with it. That the serious music culture was the one thing about life in Springfield that improved in the era—probably because it was not a responsibility of government— was unexpected but no less welcome.
Alas, Springfield's orchestra got better as the economics of orchestras got worse. In 1993 the SSO was obliged to merge with a similar outfit in Bloomington-Normal—the two bands had shared players for years—to form the Illinois Symphony Orchestra.
On October 14, the Springfield Symphony Orchestra opened its thirty-second season, with performances of works by Grieg, Schumann, and Faure under the baton of guest conductor Kenneth Kiesler. This makes the SSO a cultural institution of longer standing than the Springfield Redbirds, City Day School, and the ’Nferno’s wet T-shirt contests. Of course, just about all cities in Illinois have orchestras, which are regarded as civic improvements like paved sidewalks. Springfield’s is a successful ensemble by all measures from performing skill to financial vigor, a success all the more unaccountable for its having taken place in a town where culture is as recent a fad as good government. Springfieldians who wouldn’t be seen at a ballet go to the SSO expressly in order to be seen.
Why? We may safely assume that not all the SSO’s faithful are music lovers; there is the usual complement of listeners who, even while listening to familiar staples like Brahms symphonies, carefully count the movements as listed on the program so they’ll know-when to clap. The New York Times music critic Donal Henahan explains what he has called America’s “outbreak of orchestras” by suggesting that Americans find the symphony, with its ranks and files and militaristic chain of command, safer; says Henahan, “We Americans are more interested in organizing the arts into disciplined legions than in treating them as volatile forces in society.”
True enough; ask Vachel Lindsay. But local patriotism plays a part too. Henahan notes that certain orchestras—Chicago is one—have come to be used as antidotes for critics with poisoned reputations. In the sixty years that Springfield has had a permanent symphony, enthusiasm has waxed and waned, and it is perhaps significant that its most recent resurrection took place in 1948, during an era when Springfield was held up to the scorn of the readers of the Saturday Evening Post as being sophisticated only in its corruption.
The links between Bach and the boosters in Springfield were close from the start. The old Springfield Civic Orchestra Association was founded in 1920; in 1924 organizers boasted that the local band was “recognized as the only orchestra of symphonic proportions of this size in the United States.” That claim sounds fishy to me, but it was this, rather than any claim to musical merit, that undergirded subsequent appeals for support. (Maybe there was a reason: A 1936 article lists the “distinguished features” of the group as “the faithfulness of the players, an ever present spirit of camaraderie and enthusiasm and mounting ambition in the performance of great works in music.” Not a word about whether they sounded good.) In 1928 for example, the orchestra’s acting president asked for business donations because the orchestra gave Springfield “unusual prestige in this field.” It was typical that the association formed to support the SCO was organized by the Chamber of Commerce.
The current Springfield Symphony Orchestra Association was formed in 1948. Things were rocky at first. One of the founders—a banker, and thus presumably an honest man—told me a few years ago that the orchestra’s first conductor was hired mainly because he was the only man in town who owned his own set of tails. The players were volunteers and the groups stuck to the standards; the first concert program ranged from the Baroque to the bathetic (Bach to “Showboat”) with an appearance by The Nutcracker in between. Serious music was a new experience for Springfield audiences. The press too; the Illinois State Journal told first-nighters that they would hear the Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor—but it forgot to tell them whose.
Light classics and tarted-up show tunes remained staples of the repertory for years, and still would were it not for the influence of conductor Harry Farbman, who has been able to get Springfield not only to swallow such exotic fare as Stravinsky and Mahler but even to like it a little. The size of the orchestra has increased, as has its budget (which reportedly is in the $70,000-a-year range) and its professional polish. It is not a community orchestra in the sense that, say, Belleville’s is, rather an expensive entertainment. But it has become good entertainment nonetheless.
Having achieved a certain artistic as well as financial integrity, then, one may ask of the orchestra’s worthy stewards, “What’s next?’’ The answer is the PAC. Beginning with the 1981-82 season, the SSO will move into the new 2000-seat performing arts auditorium which the taxpayers so generously appended to the Public Affairs Center at Sangamon State University’s lakeside campus in Springfield. For thirty-two years the SSO has performed in the auditorium of Springfield High School, which is now sixty-three years old. This has always been slightly embarrassing for that faction of the SSO audience who regards dressing up for an evening at the high school as akin to serving a white Bordeaux with a bucket of Colonel Sanders’ extra crispy. The SHS hall has hard wooden seats, no air conditioning, and uncertain acoustics. Worse, one must climb two flights of stairs to reach it—a formidable barrier to many of the SSO’s clientele. Worse still, one must occasionally park one’s car on nearby streets and walk as far as fifty, even one hundred yards to the door.
The PAC, by comparison, will be heaven. No steps to climb, air conditioning, better acoustics (or so I’m told), upholstered seats. And, since SSU thoughtfully paved a nearby cornfield, parking is so easy that even a senatorial candidate can manage it. There is still a yawning stretch of outdoors to be covered between car and door, but the SSO management reportedly is considering running shuttle buses to and fro so that every coiffure will arrive at intermission intact. (There is, however, the chance that large numbers of the SSO’s fans will have trouble finding SSU at first; they’ve never been there, since an interest in the arts that includes Bergman films, poetry readings, and similar fare typically offered at SSU would be considered unhealthy, even obsessive, by most SSO patrons.)
The move to the PAC will cost SSO more money, but according to a member of the committee negotiating the arrangement, “the ticket cost will not be impacted in a major way”—meaning that the price won’t go up. The PAC will increase the potential gate by 447 seats (from 1,494 to 1,941). SSO officials believe that there are at least that many potential symphony-goers lurking out there to fill these new seats. An old rule of thumb holds that two to three percent of the population may be counted as orchestra fans. This is fewer people than belong to bowling leagues, fewer even than are running for SMEAA board seats. But it does mean there are anywhere from 500 to 1,500 people who don’t now show up at SHS on Tuesday nights who might be persuaded to do so in the future.
More interestingly, SSO officials insist that the move to the PAC will enable the orchestra to increase the diversity of its audience as well as its size. I doubt that concerts of the SSO will ever show the antic variety of people seen at the Great Hall at Urbana’s Krannert Center, where tubercular U of I students in jeans sit between faculty members whose suit pants are as well polished as their lectures and locals who dress up in evening gowns and both pieces of jewelry. But such a liberalization of the musical franchise is bound to change the SSO, both as an orchestra and as a social institution.
For example, many young Springfieldians do not attend SSO concerts out of snobbish distaste for the country-club atmosphere that pertains there. The elitist tone among parts of the audience is largely affected, of course. The hair among concert-goers is often bluer than their blood, and the crowd is not upper class, merely upper income. How much the infusion of people to whom even a big frog in a small pond is still a frog will tarnish the glitter of concert nights no one knows.
More importantly, new listeners will constitute a new constituency for the SSO’s music director. This may be an improvement; audience impatience might finally do away with the irritating local custom of playing the “Star Spangled Banner” before each concert. It might also prove disastrous, especially if the SSO begins drawing a younger crowd. Young people are scarcely more sophisticated musically than their parents; look what the baby boom did to Top 40 radio. Although they would barf at “South Pacific” medleys they will swallow symphonic swill cooked up by the Moody Blues.
These factors, plus the inevitability of a new conductor/music director to replace the estimable Farbman, practically insure that the next regime will be much different than anything the last thirty years have seen. They also practically insure that the SSO will be what local orchestras in Springfield seldom have been—interesting. □