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Symbols and the Orchestra: Three examples from the ‘90sBY: Dan Rottenberg 05.10.2011
Before you dismiss the value of symbols, consider their use at three institutions: the Philadelphia Police Department, the Philadelphia School District and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
What Police Chief Timoney understood
Our contributor Maria Thompson Corley reminds us that Britain’s royal wedding and Osama bin Laden’s death carry only symbolic value, and of course she is right— except for the only part.
Symbols often matter more than the real thing, as artists especially should appreciate. What, after all, is Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony other than musical symbols marked on paper? What is the Mona Lisa other than paint splashed on a canvas? What is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address other than a series of abstract symbols scribbled on the back of an envelope?
The value of symbols was first driven home to me back in the ’90s, when Philadelphia’s two greatest civic headaches were its police force and its public school system. (What else is new?) At the time, both departments were run by highly regarded leaders— John Timoney and David Hornbeck, respectively. An objective observer back then could rationally argue that the schools were in much better shape than the police. Yet Timoney, the police chef, proved far more effective in seizing the public’s imagination and consequently the public’s support.
Everywhere you turned in those days, there was Timoney— at press conferences, crime scenes, panel discussions, college campuses. One night at the Plays and Players Theatre I found myself sitting next to him. He even made a surprise appearance one Saturday morning at a Philadelphia Orchestra children’s concert, stomping onto the stage in full police regalia during the playing of Khatchaturian’s Sabre Dance to issue a speeding ticket to the conductor.
Hornbeck, by contrast, was invisible to the general public. As Tom Ferrick put it in the Inquirer, he functioned more as a consultant than as a school superintendent. Consequently, Hornbeck failed to enlist the public and political support that he needed to achieve his goals.
The ability to use symbols effectively is precisely what I was talking about last month when I referred to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s “inability to project the confident aura of a winner,” notwithstanding the superb quality of its musicians. Let me offer one small example, also from the ‘90s.
My patience ebbed
The performing arts complex now known as the Kimmel Center was originally conceived in the 1980s as “Orchestra Hall,” a $140 million project of, by and for the Orchestra. But the project was repeatedly delayed because its fund-raising lagged: By 1994 only $100 million had been raised, and meanwhile the estimated cost had risen to $150 million.
Shortly thereafter, the Orchestra called a press conference to announce what should have been exciting news: The $150 million goal had finally been reached.
Then came the bad news: The cost of the project had risen to $175 million in the interim, so the Orchestra needed another $25 million before ground could be broken.
Sitting in the audience, I felt my already limited supply of patience eroding. I raised my hand.
“If I give you $25 million today,” I asked, “could you break ground tomorrow?”
By posing this obviously rhetorical question, I hoped to inspire one of the three officials on the dais— president Joe Kluger, chairman Peter Benoliel and board member Elise du Pont— to seize my bait and produce an appropriately rhetorical answer, something like, “If you give us $25 million today, we will personally grab our shovels and start digging tonight!”
No such luck. “Well,” came the limp reply, “first we have to revise the schematic drawings, and then….”
I forget how that sentence ended, but I vividly recall what I (like everyone else in the audience) was thinking: “…. and by then the cost will have risen by another $25 million.” It was almost as if they were afraid to move forward.
Of course I didn’t have $25 million to give them. But if I did, a confident sales pitch might have wrested the necessary cash from my wallet right then and there. Eventually, of course, “Orchestra Hall” was subsumed into a larger project that was taken from the Orchestra’s hands.
Timoney, once his luster wore off in Philadelphia, decamped for Miami. Symbolic acts, after all, can take you just so far. But they can take you somewhere. Just ask Barack Obama.♦
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