The Sound of Silence
Conductor Bill Eddins on what’s ailing our orchestras—and a plan to help
On his blog at Insidethearts.com, Bill Eddins recently wrote, “We lost.” Battling deficits, the nation’s flagship orchestras are in retreat, shrinking payrolls from Philadelphia to Chicago to the Twin Cities. Free concerts, as the Minnesota Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra offered to win the sympathy of audiences, won’t help. “Too little, WAY too late,” Eddins wrote.
Eddins served the Minnesota Orchestra as its assistant and then associate conductor from 1992 to 1997. He now leads the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (which is doing just fine, owing to Canada’s generous public support) and still lives in the Prospect Park neighborhood of Minneapolis, where his front yard features a wire sculpture of a dreadlocked dude raising a baton.
On a sunny afternoon, he’s in the music studio above his garage, where the walls are lined with autographed photos of classical superstars and President Obama. He plays “his baby,” a circa-1900 Steinway piano, while dissecting the decline of orchestras. Flagship orchestras were and still are the biggest classical game in town, he says, which compelled musicians to ask for more money and security. But they lashed themselves to an unwieldy ship. “Too expensive, too impersonal, too rigid,” Eddins says. And now it’s sinking.
Eddins had this studio built four years ago as a musical man cave—his wife is a clarinetist with the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra and they couldn’t practice in the house at the same time without wanting to kill each other. But now he sees a broader opportunity. “It may be the only place in the world like it,” he says—a non-commercial recording studio perfectly calibrated for chamber music. Sound reflectors hang from the ceiling, a closet houses digital-recording technology. This fall, he and several colleagues opened the studio for business, launching a nonprofit called the HEAR Project (donations eagerly accepted at usaprojects.org) to help solo artists and chamber groups inexpensively make, as he puts it, “career-defining recordings.”
Recordings can be calling cards, something musicians now need. Cuts in arts education have disconnected patrons from musicians, and if musicians were secure in orchestras they were also invisible. As that work fades, they’ll need to establish themselves as journeymen, an apt term given that they’re now being offered a bricklayer’s salary to start with the SPCO. Eddins laments the loss of prestige but sees a silver lining of independence and intimacy. He advocates a return to the chamber music of several centuries ago, when solo or small-group performances were literally staged in chambers, or rooms, of patrons’ homes. He hopes to hold soirees in his studio and will kick off the HEAR Project with a fundraising concert in the studio on December 21, the day of the Mayan apocalypse. He’ll host an ensemble performing the “Quartet for the End of Time” by Olivier Messiaen. Take that however you’d like.