V. Seeking a hero.

Who? In a recent article, Tony Tommasini, The New York Times’ lead music writer, commented on the search for the New York Philharmonic’s next music director. The great orchestra is struggling with a brilliant but old-school conductor and aging, listless audiences. Tommasini suggested that a new music director must be not just a conductor but also a cultural leader, a spokesman for music who can inspire new audiences. He stressed that the Phil’s director should be locally-based, not an aloof, peripatetic superstar whose baton belongs to many orchestras.

An example of a local arts hero is Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony’s maestro. MTT, as he is widely-known, has whipped SFS into a world-class musical organization, not just musically but more widely, culturally. MTT is a “native son,” living in the city, seen frolicking with his dog at the Presidio, engaged with the city and the arts. He founded a national orchestra for young people and has become a voluble advocate for the arts nationally. He was the natural choice to host PBS’s “Keeping Score”, modeled on Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts.

A cultural leader doesn’t necessarily have to be a performer. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, for instance, energized the arts (the sexy part). A mayor or a prominent businessperson can be such a leader. (The dashing Gavin Newsome is not; neither is Michael Bloomberg or the despicable Donald Trump.)

Despite a slew of generous and indispensable donors, San Diego has neither a mayor nor a businessperson at the ready. I’m not sure why Jerry Sanders was at the League meeting Monday night. Sanders gave his standard speech on the city’s finances; the news is not good, yada yada. He delivered platitudes: “You can’t cut arts and culture and expect people to feel good about the city they live in.”

With his head submerged in the city’s purse, Sanders can’t get past a limited notion of the arts as a “feel good” pursuit. (Has he ever seen “Macbeth?”) From that position, he can’t see very far, can’t lead.

Don’t expect Sanders to advocate for, say, a new concert hall. Nashville just got one. Yeah, music is its lifeblood, but we hardly associate Nashville with Mozart or Ligeti. The arts flow in San Diego’s blood; leadership can get them gushing.


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