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John Lamb, Published June 19 2010

Lamb: FMSO’s vital sounds

A Wall Street Journal theater columnist has hit some sour notes with a column questioning just how necessary small-market symphonies are.

In particular, he’ll be hearing from one of the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra’s biggest boosters: Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker.

In a June 12 column called “The Zero Option: Do regional orchestras still make artistic sense,” Terry Teachout questions the relevancy of symphonies in second- and third-tier markets, especially compared to similarly sized theaters and museums.

“Most, after all, offer a predictable mix of ultrafamiliar classics and soufflé-light pops programs,” Teachout writes of the smaller symphonies.

He adds that in order to keep attendance up, many are faced with watering down programs: “Less Schubert, more ‘Star Wars,’ ” he writes.

One of his arguments is that in the digital age, why bother attending a live performance of a masterpiece by some “Podunk” orchestra when you could download a premiere philharmonic playing the same number flawlessly?

“There are so many things that are ridiculous, asinine in that article,” FMSO Executive Director Linda Coates said, calling the column “pretty jaw-dropping” and “so unbelievably condescending.”

“This guy seems to think people out here in fly-over land are cultured by being pandered to,” Coates said Thursday. “Fargo-Moorhead is equally sophisticated, if not more so, than the people he’s writing for.”

Coates drafted a response and suggested Mayor Walaker sign and send, which he did.

While Coates’ symphony office is in Moorhead and Walaker is Fargo’s leader, their paths cross regularly. From 2006-08 she was Walaker’s deputy mayor, and Walaker has been a season-ticket holder with the FMSO for a decade.

The letter challenges Teachout’s dismissal of second-tier symphonies.

“The experience of a live orchestral concert … is a powerful shared experience that transcends recorded perfection,” the letter states.

It goes on to point out how the 2009 flood scrapped the planned symphony season finale. Instead, two free community concerts were performed at the Fargodome, where most of the sandbags were filled during the fight. With sandbags at his feet, conductor Bernard Rubenstein led the symphony through “audience-friendly” pieces like Aaron Copland selections and Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” leading to an emotional outpouring.

“Mr. Teachout, you can keep your snotty references to ‘Podunk Philharmonic,’ ” the letter concludes. “I will treasure my city’s orchestra for its embodiment of the indomitable Spirit of Fargo.”

“To dismiss the value to our community seems to be rather absurd,” Walaker said Friday afternoon. “I would put our concertmaster (violinist Benjamin Sung) against any concertmaster in the United States. The same for our director (Rubenstein).”

Whether there will be a reprise is uncertain. Teachout did not respond to questions on Friday.

One thing is certain: The Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra’s place in the community is loud and clear.

Readers can reach Forum columnist John Lamb at (701) 241-5533