Is Anybody Listening?

Beyond Arizona, musicians rave about it, but the Phoenix Symphony, at 50, plays to half-empty houses at home. Can its new maestro, Hermann Michael, fill the seats?

Maestro Hermann Michael, the new music director for the Phoenix Symphony, is a natty man who wears two-tone shoes and layers sweater vests over short-sleeved shirts, even when temperatures outside reach 100.

He beams and beckons his way through rehearsals with the orchestra, slashing out perfect Nike swooshes with his baton, flicking his fingers to convey sounds for which there are no words.

Michael's native language is German, his English is excellent, but the language he speaks to the musicians is something else entirely.

"After bar 23, be-bang, be-bang," he sings.
"After 24: tom, tom, a very heavy accent, sforzando on ze zecond quarter!"
The musicians understand. He lifts the baton and the violins soar out.
"Right!" he shouts.
The violas slide in.
"Very short!"

The strings chase each other through the hall, violins flurrying, cellos a step lower and a half-step behind, Michael pulling and poking at the notes as they fly past his podium. After an hour, when the orchestra takes a break, Michael will retreat to his dressing room to peel off his sweat-soaked clothes and put on another neatly matched sweater vest and short-sleeved shirt.

As it heads into its 50th season, the Phoenix Symphony has a new contract with its musicians--for years the lowest-paid in the business--and a relatively new CEO who has managed to balance the books for the first time in years. But Michael (pronounced MEEK-eye-el) is the great white-haired hope, the element that the orchestra's board and management think can fill Symphony Hall.

Michael's credentials are superlative: He's conducted the London Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera, nearly every major orchestra in this country--Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles--as well as most of the second-tier orchestras. He's tremendously popular with musicians from coast to coast, and the fact that he's been landed by Phoenix is considered a coup. He's charming and talkative; when he sat for an interview with New Times, he literally had to be dragged away by his wife Brigitta to make his next appointment.

Michael has guest-conducted in Phoenix since 1988; for the past two years, he has filled in as artistic adviser while the full-fledged search for a music director dragged on. When he was ultimately chosen, he turned down offers and potential offers in Buffalo, Kansas City and Utah.

And although the maestro admits that Arizona's climate played a part in his decision, he says he was attracted by the quality and personality of the orchestra.

"There is a chemistry that you cannot explain, and that happens in abundance here," he says.

"It vas luff at first zight," he said into a microphone at the press conference called to announce his appointment.

And the feeling is mutual for the musicians.
"The energy in the orchestra is tremendous," says Richard Bock, the principal cellist and a symphony veteran of 11 years. "The level of enthusiasm, the amount of giving; I've never seen it for a concert. People are talking to each other who haven't talked to each other for 10 years. Today the conversation was, 'God, please don't let him be run over by a car.'"

But other elements play into the success of the symphony, and they all have to do with money. There has to be a dedicated board, a competent management and a willing audience, and in the 50-year history of the Phoenix Symphony, those elements have never been in place--at least not at the same time. Despite the competence of its musicians, the symphony has never been able to fill its hall and it has limped along financially, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy more than once.

Its current president and CEO, Joan Squires, seems to have turned the orchestra away from the brink of insolvency.

"If we are careful with this orchestra, we can continue to move forward," she says. "But we certainly have to make sure the financial base is there."

All it needs now is an audience.
"I've heard this question for 10 years: Why hasn't the symphony caught on?" says Dr. Richard Hill, who sits on the symphony board.

Part of the answer may be that Phoenix ain't ready for culture.

Symphonies sit high on the list of assets that distinguish sophisticated cities from cow towns. Every second-rate-city PR flack greeting an out-of-town travel writer or corporate front man will talk about that burg's "world-class art museum and symphony" right after he touts the professional sports franchise and tax-built stadium.

But often that is lip service, a municipal version of buying books by the yard to fill shelves or seeking out the finest artwork to match the living-room couch. It's supposed to be there, even if you don't care much for it or understand why it costs as much as it does.

"A lot of the business community supports the symphony because they don't want to be in a town that loses one," says former Phoenix mayor and symphony maven Terry Goddard. "It's like losing your first string when you're going into tough negotiations with high-tech corporations that you want to relocate here."

Sacramento, New Orleans and Denver have lost symphonies; San Diego's declared bankruptcy. There is discord even in the biggest and best-paid symphonies: The orchestras in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Atlanta all went on strike within the last year, quibbling over money and media and scheduling.

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