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Elephant, Bull, Whatever

Photo by Lisa KohlerDRIVING INTO TOWN TO MEET PHILharmonic honcho-designate Deborah Borda at her first L.A. press conference, I found solace and sadness on KPCC's Talk of the City, host Linda Othenin-Girard's valiant daily attempt to elicit intelligent phoned-in comment from concerned citizens. The morning's topic was the exhibition by young British artists at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the outpouring of municipal hostility engendered by some of its contents. Incensed by one work in particular -- a collage that surrounded a portrait of the Virgin Mary with tributary images legitimately honored by some faiths (e.g., a dollop of elephant dung, a ritual symbol in the artist's native Africa) but deemed offensive by some of New York's religious spokesfolk -- Mayor Giuliani and his pals among the city's traditionally uptight Catholic leadership have stomped down hard on the Museum, threatening both funding cutoffs and eviction from its handsome and newly renovated premises.

Echoes of traditional run-ins between governments and creative artists have been resounding far and near, all the way from the "Degenerate" art shows in Mr. Hitler's palmy days to Harry Truman's threat to punch out a Washington music critic for panning his daughter Margaret. They invariably produce bonanzas in the wrong places: a boost for Mayor Giuliani's presumed senatorial ambitions; sellout crowds at the Brooklyn Museum (with a concomitant rise in the value of the artworks themselves, on which the auction house of Christie has dibs), fame far beyond merit for Washington critic Paul Hume.

Up to my arrival at the Music Center, the votes on KPCC were running well in favor of cutting the Brooklyn Museum adrift, along with its "obscene" and "revolting" artwork (none of which, of course, the callers had seen). To Linette, the situation called for "a whole 'nother set of values." Terry offered a capsule history of art, which "kept getting better and better until the 1800s, and then started to fall off again." Linda, horrified at the thought of public support for the arts, called for the election of new officials to shut down all funding. Only Candice, bless 'er, seemed willing to grant the young Brits some benefit of the doubt; the value of all art, she nobly proclaimed, lies in its power to mystify, to suggest "something more."

I wish this were all as funny as it ought to be. The sad fact is that the arts have been in trouble ever since the invention of the democratic process. The absolute monarchs and aristocrats -- the Medicis, Haydn's boss Count Esterhazy, Wagner's pal Ludwig of Bavaria -- nurtured the arts as their private privilege, and hand-picked their audiences from among their own circles. Once there were public concert halls and museums open to ticket buyers, the elephant dung hit the fan. The mission of the arts to direct an observer's mind toward the "something more" defined by one of KPCC's callers gave way to the notion of the arts as the public's pal, soothing and accessible. The yahoo politicos build impregnable fortresses by constantly trumpeting to their constituents that the insults perpetrated by degenerate painters and composers of tuneless cacophonies are supported by public taxes. On the few occasions when the arts have made some degree of inroads toward popular acceptance, they have done so on the basis of externals: fancy new buildings, expressive ideals watered down to easy-listening kitsch, the perversions heaped upon the very nature of the artist so that David Helfgott's brainless murder of pop tidbits outdraws Alfred Brendel's wise discourses on Beethoven or Schubert sonatas.

We have been given to believe, and were so again at last week's Philharmonic press conference, that salvation for a large chunk of Los Angeles' artistic life rests upon the building of the Disney Concert Hall. It could even be true; given the appropriate drenching in hype, any new public edifice can be counted upon for sellout business in its first few months. As a fledgling critic, I watched Lincoln Center go up, building by building, in New York in the 1960s; I listened to the predictions of acoustic splendor at Philharmonic (now Avery Fisher) Hall almost from the placing of the cornerstone; I shared my colleagues' disappointment verging on contempt as, remake after remake, the sound of the hall remained flawed (as it still is). I remember that neither the New York Philharmonic -- the hall's main tenant -- nor any of the regular visiting attractions showed any notable sign in their first-year offerings that the hall signified the outlay of new concepts in programming, in reaching new audiences, in stimulating new thinking among composers young and old. I also remember, of course, that Philharmonic Hall's first year was New York's hot ticket, that on most nights you couldn't get near the place.

EVERYBODY KNEW THAT ERNEST Fleischmann would be a hard act to follow as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's artistic administrator; indeed, it had taken nearly two years for a Philharmonic search committee to find a successor willing to walk in his shoes. It took only a few weeks to lure Deborah Borda away from the New York Philharmonic to walk in Willem Wijnbergen's shoes. Wisely, she made it clear at our first get-together that it was too early to reveal -- or, probably, even to formulate -- plans. Everybody in the room was on best behavior; nobody had the bad manners to ask about the well-publicized and long-enduring feud between Borda and New York's peppery maestro Kurt Masur; the photographers snapped many hugs between her and the comparatively benign Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Masur or not, Borda did an important job in New York. Her change in concert formats, instituting series of shorter concerts at rush hour to lure commuters, was a good move nicely tuned to New York rhythms. Maybe it would work here, maybe not. A woman, an American: It could be an unbeatable parlay. Barring a Richter 9.1, she'll get the new hall built.

Then, of course, she'll have to face the softly voiced but widely held conviction that the Music Center concept is wrong and was from the start, that the whole complex sits in a barren, audience-hostile area, remote from anywhere else, its car access -- bad enough on Dodger nights -- about to be further threatened by the Staples Center sports arena a few blocks to the south. One day, in a nostalgic mood, she'll remember the crowds strolling past Lincoln Center night and day, the array of nearby restaurants, the welcoming lighting in the Plaza, the great hangout area around the fountain, the allure of the artwork that gleams from the Metropolitan Opera House (second-rate Chagall though it be). Then she'll stroll through the gloomy, ill-lit, unwelcoming space at the Music Center, dodge if she can the inane ventriloquist who howls into his dummy, search in vain for refreshment worthy to be thought of as food, and wonder about the many empty seats at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion night after night. That's part of your new job, Deborah Borda. Won't you miss Mayor Giuliani, even a little bit?


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