Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A Tale of Two Cities

I mentioned in an earlier post Montréal's celebration of the OSM's new music director, Kent Nagano. And celebration is the right word - it seems that, if no one else, the media and political élite, as well as the Roman Catholic church (are they still part of the élite in Montréal?), were entirely caught up in the fact that there was a new man of the arts in town.

While the Canadian media focuses on the terrible shootings in Montréal, often trying to articulate it as a Québec problem (Did anyone else notice how the "distinct society", rejected in many circles in English Canada, seems to fit very nicely as the basis, the ground, as an explanation for these tragic events in many of the opinion pieces and attempts to come to grips with what happened?) , I'd like to turn things around and again trumpet something that Montréal does quite well - celebrate the arts.

I recall it because there was no greater contrast to Montréal's experience than sitting in the Jack Singer Concert Hall in Calgary to catch the début of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra's new music director, Roberto Minczuk, as he lead the orchestra in a fine performance of two symphonies: Haydn's 88th and Mahler's 5th. (More on the concert itself in a couple of days.)

The hall wasn't full. There was a new music director, with Mahler on the programme, and the hall wasn't full.

I should point out, hypocrite that I am, that I have been to a total of one Toronto Symphony Orchestra concerts since moving here nearly a decade ago. But I was a regular attendee to CPO concerts back in the day, and it was shocking to see a good chunk of empty seats in the hall. The hall would have been packed 10 years ago.

Moreover, the CPO is a great mid-sized orchestra. They played these works well, with a tight sound, and it was doubly depressing to see how poorly received all this was in the heart of the New West.

I guess what was sad for me was that I moved away from Calgary for precisely these reasons, a kind of hostility to the fine arts amongst the general population. If you're under 18, there are some phenomenal opportunities for classical musicians in Calgary, with the Mount Royal Conservatory program and the Kiwanis Festival providing a pretty strong foundation. After you turn 18 however, things go downhill fairly fast. What happens to all these kids when they leave? Has anyone ever noticed that many artists trained by these fantastic programs in Calgary, never stay there, that there is a serious cultural brain drain out there, to turn another old chestnut on its head?

Perhaps I'm making too much of this, but an editorial in the Calgary Herald while I was there reinforced some of my old prejudices about how people deal with the arts in there, and perhaps why all these talented young musicians either flee or give up. Entitled, "Plumbers have honour, too", it is essentially a plea by the Herald Editorial Board for young people to enter trades.

What I find unsurprising, but tiring still the same, is the focus on arts or humanities degrees as comprising the class of individuals who should put down those books and pick up the monkey wrench.

"Canada needs philosophers, but not a nation full of them." says the editorial board, and I say, my god, what a nation we would have if we were all philosophers! Can you imagine the kind of democracy we'd live in?

Beyond the patronizing silliness of the editorial, especially given the editorial board is probably stacked with Arts grads, there is a blindness here to the large masses of BComm degrees granted by the University of Calgary, which time and time again, has been shown to be one of the least effective degrees for er, success in business.

These, and the other "applied" degrees aren't mentioned, because I suppose, one can make the straight connection between their degree and their job.

I actually would agree with their editorial board that too many degrees are being granted, but the reasons for this isn't due to a massive increase in Arts and Humanities degrees, but as a result of all these applied degrees.

You can get a degree in Philosophy at U of C, and you can also get a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management - which do you think has more majors? Who do you think is more useful? A degree's usefulness is a one-to-one correspondence between what's on your parchment and your job title? It seems so, because arts majors get it on both sides for this.

It's also terribly, terribly wrong, and cuts to the heart of whether or not education is designed to create citizens, or workers. We all know where the Calgary Herald editorial board stands on this divide, and it is a divide, but it saddened me to watch the CPO give a fantastic performance to a house with empty seats, and I can't help but think that, while we're all searching for "cultural" reasons to explain events, that there isn't a relationship between the Herald editorial and CPO attendance.

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