How do you save America from a recession?
Easy, you kick out one of our most prominent and talented men of culture.
A grateful country owes this stroke of genius to San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, who, on his way out -- he's retiring in January '09, like George W. Bush -- has decided that SF Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas -- who makes more or less what the other very few major conductors of the very few world-famous orchestras make -- is way overpaid. To solve this problem, as reported in SF Weekly, Mr. Peskin "plans to make cutting the symphony's $1.8 million city subsidy his last public act before he retires in January".
Now, this is not about Mr. Peskin personally -- a gentleman who loves his Speedos, Californian friends alert us, and Opera Chic does not discriminate against the hirsute -- and this is not about whether Mr. Peskin may or may not have an axe to grind with MTT personally. Maybe -- unheard of for a politician, of course -- he may simply be out to score some cheap populist points ("classical music is for the rich", blah blah blah -- tell that to the armies of broke fans scrounging for that standing room seat or that new Rossini DVD).
The issue at large here is, the USA -- a country currently more feared than it is respected worldwide -- should obviously be proud of its splendid orchestras: the CSO, the NYPhil, Cleveland, the BSO, the LA Phil, Philly. And the SF Symphony, of course. They're the envy of the classical music world.
But if once upon a time we Americans had to import cranky Italians, certifiably insane Hungarians, and persecuted Jews in order to make our orchestras achieve the greatness they deserved, well, that era is over, thanks to Leonard Bernstein, to Thomas Schippers, and to a very few others -- little more than half a century ago, the first American who conducted the Scala orchestra here in Milan was at first regarded as some sort of mythical creature, like a unicorn -- "look, an American conductor!".
We do have foreigners running some of our orchestras now -- isolationism, quite discredited in politics, certainly has no place in the arts -- but thanks to our best conductors we also wipe that latent sense of smug superiority off off the faces of the few clueless Europeans who still have one, when it comes to classical music.
Whether the husky Mr. Peskin knows this or not, we owe it to people like -- and we're going in alphabetical order, because this issue is too important to turn it into a top 10 chart -- Marin Alsop, James Conlon, William Christie, JoAnn Falletta, Alan Gilbert, James Levine, Lorin Maazel, Kent Nagano, Andre Previn, Leonard Slatkin and, yes, Michael Tilson Thomas. And I'm certainly forgetting others.
Talk of renegotiating contracts in a big recession is one thing; insulting major artists as a bunch of freeloaders is entirely another -- by the way, the smarter Europeans, even if this is a season of budget cuts over here, too -- know that subsidizing great art makes a lot of sense because life is not all about professional sports and reality TV.
Maybe Mr. Peskin is unaware that other cities in America, not to mention the better funded, subsidized foreign orchestras and opera houses, would be thrilled to have a musician like Michael Tilson Thomas around more often. And San Francisco would be much poorer -- much less than the US$ 1.6 mil it cost to keep MTT in his place.
Opera Chic still remembers the cheering in Florence, at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, for our own James Conlon. James Levine two summers ago enchanted the Lucerne Festival -- a famously Marxist institution financed by Swiss banks.
Michael Tilson Thomas's family has helped make America great for generations. Insulting him because he dares to charge the rates that his peers -- very few all over the world, it's a small club -- have regularly charged for decades is simply douchy. With two unpopular wars costing us what will eventually amount to several trillion dollars, one supposes we American taxpayers might have other places to look into when it comes to budget cuts.
As Mark Swed writes, "Michael Tilson Thomas is worth every penny".