Sixty years ago, classical music was the most Jewish thing in America. 80% of the conductors seemed to be some temperamental Jewish guy from Europe (unless he converted), and half the musicians he made miserable were Jewish too – 25% of every American orchestra were Jews from Europe, 25% were Jews born here. Oh, and 50% of the audience was Jewish too…
If you explained to anybody under the age of 70 that classical music was literally the soundtrack of daily life for everybody who is now over seventy, hardly anyone would believe you. It seems so completely distant from today’s life that it must have disappeared overnight.
In every concert hall, there’s always one eccentric who sits near the front at every show and gets way too involved in the music. In the Baltimore halls, it’s probably me. In DC, there’s an obese man with a great big bushy beard who wears suspenders on top of a dirty flannel shirt; he beats time to the music with his knees. In London, there’s a guy with long, curly, greying hair and a beard practically down to his ankles; he always wears tight fluorescent cycling jerseys and shorts to concerts and you can see all sorts of details about him you don’t want to see. In New York, there’s an old Jewish bald guy with a mustache and a giant wart on his forehead. He’s always outside begging for tickets and distracts the people near him inside by air-conducting.
The Baltimore Symphony is one of the greatest orchestras in America. It is an oasis in a tragic city where there is no respite from bad news. The City of Baltimore has only a very few civic institutions that can serve as ambassadors. It has two major league teams: the Ravens and the Orioles, and in the next 10-20 years, the Orioles may decide they can’t afford to stay in such a small market like ours. Baltimore has a number of fantastic small art museums and theaters and restaurants, but by far, the cultural crown jewel is the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which in the days of Zinman and Comissiona was as crucial to Baltimore’s identity and pride as the orchestras of Philadelphia and Boston and Cleveland and Minneapolis and Pittsburgh and St. Louis are still to their cities – and as great an orchestra as any of them.
Classical music is an unbroken tradition which has existed for the better part of a millennium, and yet in so many parts of the world, it is dying out; just like Yiddish, just like conservative and reformed Judaism, just like unreconstructed American liberalism. Dying is the most inevitable part of nature, and eventually it comes for everybody and everything; but the high arts is the only proof we have that anything at all defies the cycle of nature. It takes you to places and eras and worlds of which your mind could never conceive without them. The loss of a full-time Baltimore Symphony is like a fire at the Baltimore Museum of Art or the Walters Art Gallery – hundreds of paintings and sculptures and artifacts that are completely unique, that reach out to us across centuries, that let us commune with the ambitions and yearnings of people and places long dead, and are so fragile that it only takes an instant to destroy all that uniqueness which has lived on for centuries. Once erased, you can never get it back.
All artists have ever wanted to do is make your lives more joyful, more meaningful, more beautiful. It’s almost a cliche that Americans don’t like the high arts, which we perceive as something elitist, and that Americans don’t like history, the lessons of which we perceive as not applying to us. But it would seem of late that we’re drawing closer and closer to learning that the lessons of history still very much applying here. If America, if American Jews, let things this beautiful die, how much else can we allow to die?