A Discussion of... No Vivaldi In the Garage by Sheldon Morgenstern

This post is the first of a series that will present and reflect upon various books and articles that I come across in my research.  The goal will be to digest what is presented, question what is left unanswered, and ponder the conclusions made by the author.  It is by no means a book review, and should not be viewed as such.

No Vivaldi in the Garage: A Requiem for Classical Music in America by Sheldon Morgenstern (Northeastern University Press, 2001. New Edition 1 July 2005)

As the title suggests, this book takes the stance that classical music in America is fading fast from American cultural life.  Furthermore, conductor and arts administrator Sheldon Morgenstern laments that the quality of classical music performances, on the whole, is declining right along with the financial state of American orchestras.

A bit about Sheldon Morgenstern, before we continue.  Born in Cleveland, OH in 1938, Morgenstern was trained as a musician and conductor before founding the Eastern Music Festival in 1961 or 1962 (depending on where you get your information).  The Eastern Musical Festival remains to this day one of the oldest and best known summer music festivals for young musicians.  Morgenstern, who started on the French horn, studied at Florida State University and Northwestern University, and in the summers at the Brevard Music Center (another very well known music festival, also in North Carolina).  He performed, as a horn player, with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and went on to study conducting at the New England Conservatory.  In addition to founding EMF, Morgenstern spent his professional life conducting mostly university orchestras in the United States, as well as professional ensembles in Budapest, Seville, and Warsaw.  He died in 2007.

No Vivaldi in the Garage concludes with two proposed solutions: first, allot more taxpayer dollars to the arts and to arts education, and second, refocus public arts education in schools away from marching band and pep band and presumably towards wind ensemble, orchestra, and chamber music.  Morgenstern is far from the first person to suggest these changes, in fact arts advocates in America have been pressing for more governmental support for at least the last 50 years.  What struck me is the assumption, from Morgenstern and others, that the inherent value of classical music is well understood and assumed by both the American government and the general public.  I believe, more so after reading Morgenstern's book, that the problem lies in the lack of value given to classical music, and the necessity to re-establish this value by making classical music more current and inclusive.


Morgenstern offers stark criticism in three main areas of American classical music: the operation of orchestras, programming (what the orchestras play and who decides), and music education.

Morgenstern places the blame for the financial demise of American orchestras on both the orchestra management, and surprisingly, the unions themselves.  The managerial structure of American orchestras, by and large, follows the below models (source: League of American Orchestras, http://www.americanorchestras.org/158-career-center/career-center/1140-organization-charts.html):

Large Orchestra Sample 2.png
Mid Size Orchestra Sample 1.png

As you can see, the orchestras are managed at the top by the Board of Directors and Executive Director, who are almost never musicians or people with artistic musical backgrounds.  The Music Director, or chief conductor, is the 'highest' artist in the management structure, but this person has varying degrees of artistic independence and artistic influence, depending on the orchestra.  A chronic problem, according to Morgenstern, is that the Boards put artistic concern as the lowest priority; "the first issue is the money, the second is the art" (Morgenstern, 53).  Furthermore, the Music Director is expected to be a chief fundraiser for the orchestra, not only the artistic leader.  Morgenstern describes the former music director of the Atlanta Symphony, Henry Sopkin, as "a master at hobnobbing with the financially, and socially elite, a detestable requisite for music directors of all orchestras in North America" (Morgenstern, 29).  Morgenstern argues that the primary responsibility of the Board of Directors should be fundraising, not managing the orchestra.  

Second, Morgenstern says, the unions are partially to blame.  This is a somewhat controversial stance, but Morgenstern partially attributes the dismal outlook of professional American ensembles to the International Congress of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ISCOM), stating they misled musician and boards members into accepting long term contracts that are not financially stable.  ISCOM is a Players' Conference of the American Federation of Musicians (the musician's union), and represents 4,000 musicians from 52 US symphony orchestras.  As a lobbying organization, it is governed by a board of professional symphony orchestra musicians from a selection of major orchestras, and its job is to advocate for American symphony orchestra musicians, providing advice as well as legal assistance.  Morgenstern argues that the ISCOM's role in negotiating contracts for AFM musicians has created an unstable financial situation whereby orchestra boards and musicians agree to a contract that the symphony orchestra then cannot support, financially, long term.  One could argue, on the other hand, that ISCOM's firm stance defending the contracts of symphony musicians has just as frequently led to what is referred to as a "lock out", where the Board of Directors and union do not reach a collective bargaining agreement and the musicians are effectively 'locked out' of their jobs until a new contract can be signed.  ISCOM's apparent role in the financial instability of orchestras will have to investigated further at another time, as I do not feel Morgenstern makes a compelling argument here.  


Perhaps most interesting to me was Morgenstern's insistence that bad programming decisions has led to the mediocrity and loss of interest in American classical music.  He contradicts himself more than once, but his argument (as referenced in my previous post) is that old music is classical music.  He maintains that only pre-Bartok/Stravinsky/Hindemith repertoire should be played; "those composers [Brahms, Dvorak, Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, R. Strauss] and their contemporaries are the ones whose music fills concert halls worldwide" (Morgenstern, 95).  Not only is this not true, but precisely the mentality that I feel must change within classical music.  He admits that there is a problem repeating the 'classics': "I was beginning to understand", he writes, "that even the finest orchestra musicians can lose their sense of inspiration after their three hundredth or so performance of a Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky or Mahler symphony.  And yet these works are all that keeps some of our North American professional orchestras alive - this is the music that sells tickets" (Morgenstern, 27).  He admits to having once seeing a young audience observe the Berg Violin Concerto (1935) with "fascination and wonderment" but still does not advocate for contemporary music's inclusion in the classical symphonic repertoire, nor does he makes the connection that perhaps including this repertoire might break the monotony for musicians and eliminate the mediocrity he has come to observe (Morgenstern, 159). 


Morgenstern's insistence and advocacy for increased arts education in schools is unfortunately not new.  In the late 1970s, early 1980s, he writes, "those were the years when North American orchestras were beginning to realize two things that EMF (Eastern Music Festival) had known for nearly 20 years... audiences were dwindling because of the lack of arts education in the schools, and outreach programs by string quartets, brass quintets, and woodwind quintets seemed the only way to bring classical music to our young and kindle the interest in orchestral performance" (Morgenstern, 68).   While I believe there are many reasons for declining classical music audiences in parts of the United States, it is true that US orchestras, acknowledging that young people are not learning about classical music in school, have made huge strides to develop better outreach programs to reach young people.  I would be curious, in the future, to study different outreach programs in Finland versus the United States to see what the differences might be and why.  Even though it is well understood that arts education is beneficial to child development, it is constantly being cut from public school curriculums because of budget problems.  This creates as cycle, whereby young people not only do not learn about art, but are being taught that arts does not need to be funded.   


No Vivaldi in the Garage concisely summarizes many problems in American classical musical culture: orchestra's business operational structure, the reliance on private and corporate sponsorship, the lack of arts education in public schools, and conservative programming.  While the first three of these are criticized, the last one regarding programming is actually advocated, which I found very surprisingly.  There is also the assumption throughout that classical music and arts education are inherently understood as necessary and positive in American cultural life and society.  This, unfortunately, is simply not true.  How, then, to establish value in classical music in America?  How to advocate successfully for arts education?  For now, to be continued.


Lucy Abrams