Like internet-based companies whose central headquarters are little more than a mailing address, classical music ensembles increasingly exist in many places at once.
And that raises the question: What makes an ensemble authentically "local"? Are the early-music groups Tempesta di Mare and Piffaro the Renaissance Band less local because some of their regular members don't live here? Is the choral group Seraphic Fire, based in Florida, "local" now that it performs periodically in Philadelphia?
A wave-of-the-future moment hit me over the winter with another "fire" group. The Cleveland ensemble Apollo's Fire recorded Bach's St. John Passion in a New York City-area venue with significant Philadelphia faces in the chorus: Robin Bier, whose Les Canards Chantants ensemble is based in Bryn Athyn; and Steven Bradshaw, whose Variant 6 is in Philadelphia.
The Cleveland group was out to distinguish itself by producing a recording that could compete artistically in the international market. Specialists were needed. Can Cleveland still claim it for its own? Will anybody care with a recording that cultivates audiences and impresses potential funders?
Civic pride - the pleasure of saying, "This beautiful thing is ours" - is a powerful force in maintaining any expensive performing-arts institution. But anyone who thinks an orchestra's leadership and membership should be exclusively planted in their community is living in the last century.
In decades past, Eugene Ormandy, leader of the Philadelphia Orchestra, did not spend his weeks off jetting around the world to work with others. Rather, he stuck around to welcome the ensemble's various honored guests. Now, music directors bolster their musical relationships by having multiple simultaneous commitments.
Everybody is nicer to an artist who has other places to go. Early in Kurt Masur's New York Philharmonic tenure, I asked the Leipzig-based conductor how he was improving the orchestra so quickly. "I tell them if you don't want to play well for me, I'll go home," he said. Would the Philadelphia Orchestra have offered Yannick Nézet-Séguin a 10-year contract were he not about to be hired by the Metropolitan Opera?
Yet civic pride had a fatal collision with the drive for excellence in the unlikely setting of Pottstown. The worthy Pottstown Symphony Orchestra died somewhere around 2010, partly because an out-of-touch board tried to turn back the clock - to a time when orchestras and their leadership could be seen hanging out at the corner hardware store - and require all orchestra members to be from Pottstown.
But accommodating that kind of civic pride and playing good concerts were mutually exclusive, according to Kevin Wood in his book The Board: A Chronicle of the Decline and Fall of the Pottstown Symphony Orchestra, A Study in Ethics and in Mismanagement (Deutscher Wissenschafts-Verlag, 153 pp., $18.90). Wood was the orchestra's executive director, so he saw it from the inside.
Census figures alone tell much of the story: Since peaking in 1960, Pottstown's population has inched down to 22,000, much of it economically depressed and not inclined to support culture.
In the orchestra's place is the Pennsylvania Philharmonic. Formed in 2014, it recently announced a new season of pops and classical concerts (including major soloists, such as cellist Zuill Bailey), serving multiple communities, including Pottstown, West Chester, York, and Easton, and drawing its musicians from surrounding major cities. Its address is an Ardmore post office box.
The orchestra is primarily an educational tool; more than half its concerts are in schools. CEO M. Scott Robinson admits paychecks sometimes go out late. Better than not at all, which soured longtime alliances with the Pottstown orchestra. Compared to something like the Minnesota Orchestra's 15-month lockout two years ago, the Pottstown demise may seem small, but it is still a cautionary tale worth noting.
The academic tone of Wood's book makes his Pottstown autopsy a somewhat challenging read. He is out to state his case (sometimes with details that border on nauseating), but he describes the guilty so vaguely their machinations are hard to follow.
Under conductor Rosalind Erwin, and with freelancers from Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other places, the orchestra was on the verge of going beyond regional recognition in 2007 with a proposed DVD of The Planets that would feature visuals from the Hubble Space Telescope. The standard of playing was high; some concerts were broadcast on WHYY. Newport Classics made an on-site visit. Eventually, union restrictions killed the project.
While board members sought to localize the orchestra membership as one solution to the financial problems, marketers rightly doubted the marquee value of an orchestra with the name of Pottstown attached to it. You'll notice the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic, of Wilkes-Barre, does not call itself the Pocono Symphony.
A tricky issue, civic pride. In Philadelphia, sharing Nézet-Séguin with the Metropolitan Opera is a point of pride. Had the now-deceased Pottstown Symphony Orchestra been forced to recruit only local players, the quality may well have declined, and the institution would no longer be worth saving.
And standards continually rise, not just because the Berlin Philharmonic's Digital Concert Hall delivers video concerts to your iPad regularly. Groups like the Princeton Symphony Orchestra give concerts as satisfying as any, and you don't need refined big-city ears to know that. A good performance - when the musicians go beyond struggling with the notes and are actually saying something - is something you feel in your gut. And the geographic origins of the players are well in the distance.