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Sorry, We're Fresh Out of Mahler
The less compelling side of program substitutions.

by Holly Mulcahy
September 7, 2009

It's the beginning of another orchestra season and that means it's time to scout out the season brochures and websites of the groups I'll be playing in to see what's in store. It's hard not to notice that I look through season brochures as I would a restaurant menu. I narrow down the "main courses" that look most interesting or challenging to me and start planning my practicing accordingly.

Most of my concert-going friends analyze a season brochure like a menu as well and as I have Facebook discussions with them about programs, it seems many have already decided which concerts they want to attend. "I think we'll pass on the Classic Series VI, we don't care for a whole concert of Strauss, but I think we'll take the Classic Series II and V." And much like a restaurant, as one party orders the entrée, the other party prepares the dish.
But recently, I've noticed a growing number of orchestras switching programs to save money. While nobody should be faulted for trying to save money during tight times, they should be questioned for some of the options presented.
For example, if Mahler's Symphony No. 5 programmed is later replaced with a Beethoven or Mozart Symphony due to budget reasons, there should be questions as to how much is really saved. Is the audience comfortable with this? Imagine what would happen if a similar situation unfolded at a restaurant: "Sorry, we are out of the Filet Mignon but we are happy to present you with the Caesar salad instead. Same price, sorry."
Maybe this will be the best Caesar salad you'll ever eat. But while the entrée price hasn't changed, and the appetite may have wanted more, there must be sacrifices….right?
Sure, Mahler's Symphony No. 5 with the 33 wind and brass plus full 45-50 player string section is more expensive than a Beethoven or Mozart symphony with a mere 13 or so wind and brass plus a reduced string section. As we said, sacrifices must be made but assuming the audience will be fine because Beethoven and Mozart are equally "compelling" as Mahler is a cheap shot.
As a musician, I'll perform whatever is programmed to the best of my ability, just as I'm sure any good chef would do for items on his/her menu. But charging customers the same price for lower cost selections leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Would you keep going to your favorite restaurant if you were presented with menu substitutions? Maybe, if the dining experience was that important to you but you'd think twice about paying steak prices for salad entrees when you really wanted that steak.

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