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Sign of the Times

April 30, 2012

No arts organization can or should live forever, no matter how revered and well-funded it might be.

Stil, the possible demise of an amateur wind ensemble (which used to give public performances but is now a reading oriented pickup group) that's been around in the Bay Area since the 1970s and with which I've been loosely associated over the last few years has made me pause with some regret and think about the various reasons why this is happening and if anything might be done to prevent it from ceasing to exist.

The main problem is one of attendance decline:

"Participation in the group has markedly declined," the group's administrator wrote in an email yesterday. "In the last 13 months, we've met 16 times in 56 weeks, about 29%. This year, from January through April, we've met 6 times in 16 weeks, about 38%. Last year, from March through December 2011, we had 5 dectets, 4 quintets and 2 quartets. This year we've had 3 quintets, 1 quartet, and 2 trios."

The ensemble tried to accommodate members' commitments by changing the meeting time from a Wednesday to a Thursday evening. But that plan didn't stick.

And now the Oakland church that has provided free space for the group to rehearse in every week for many years wants it to pay $100 a month to use the facilities.

The financial burden isn't really the issue -- if people really wanted to play, the group would find a way to self-finance or raise money some other way. I'm sure the church wouldn't beyond negotiating a preferred rate. Or musicians could host get-togethers in their homes or find another venue.

It's a sad sign of the times though, that a group with as low a commitment threshold as this one should collapse through lack of interest or the mere reality of modern, over-scheduled life. I, for one, haven't played with it for a while for two main reasons: I am indeed over-scheduled and schlepping to the dark depths of Oakland to play music for 90 minutes on a Wednesday evening just isn't a priority for me right now.

I'm not exactly Heinz Holliger on the oboe, but I have to admit that the other issue that keeps me away from the group is the overall lack of musicianship skills. Many of the core musicians are extremely old and don't have as good a sense of hearing and seeing as they used to have, though I can only dream of playing as well as they do at the age of 85! I don't feel all that satisfied by hacking my way poorly through an evening of music. If the musical standards were higher, I'd probably feel more inspired to attend. Ironically, it's probably the low-commitment aspect that's ultimately keeping me (and perhaps others like me) away.

That being said, some people have been playing with that group since its inception, and losing it will be very hard on them. Beyond the loss of a great and rare pickup playing opportunity for wind instrumentalists in the Bay Area, the demise of the group presents another challenge: What to do with the amazing collection of wind ensemble music which it has amassed over the years. The repertoire in the organization's collection ranges from the Baroque to the brand new. It's an enviable stash that any university or conservatory archive would salivate at the thought of acquiring.

So here's what I think should happen: The music should be offered as a gift to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music or Mills College or some other venerable music institution. Music students will drool over the stuff. In exchange, the receiving organization should provide a room once a week for free to the donating wind ensemble to play in as well as access to the music. Not only will the group benefit from the ongoing free space, but it will also hopefully receive an injection of new musical blood in the form of talented music students. THat should go a long way towards renewing the energy and raising the level of musicianship.


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