With the organ performance by James David Christie at St. Augustine's Church on Saturday, the 2003 Northwest Bach Festival closed the curtain on another successful, if financially challenging year. Once again, Gunther Schuller graced the Festival and our city with his artistry, leadership and friendship.
The Festival's success serves to remind us that the longtime association among the organizers, Connoisseur Concerts, and Eastern Washington University remains critical. I refer to underwriting and, more important than that, the steady supply of gifted musicians and otherwise involved faculty members that EWU provides. Viewed more broadly, this informal association has, for more than half a century, proved vital to the health of professional music performance throughout Spokane. And musical opportunities like the Bach Festival have also allowed Eastern to land very talented musicians as professors.
It's a classic case of synergy. EWU attracts the excellent music faculty it does only because of the presence of the Spokane Symphony and other local music organizations. At the same time, because of Eastern's music faculty, Spokane enjoys a much better part-time symphony than it otherwise could ever hope to put on stage.
Since professional musicians here must find other employment to make ends meet, the SSO must be able to hold out the prospect of related employment for at least some members. For decades now, Eastern has provided most of that employment (along with, to lesser degrees, WSU, Whitworth and Gonzaga).
And Eastern benefits, too. EWU remains a small university located in an out-of-the-way town -- not an obvious draw for musicians whose study and training has taken them to more exciting places. But Eastern has an ace in the hole: the Spokane Symphony. Come to Spokane, teach on the Cheney campus and you, too, can play in a serious orchestra under excellent, even renowned conductors, such as Fabio Mechetti and, sometimes, even Gunther Schuller.
Over the years, many excellent students have selected Eastern because they knew they could find violin instruction provided by the likes of SSO Concertmaster Kelly Farris; training from SYO principal cellist John Marshall; instruction from SYO principal bassoonist Lynn Feller-Marshall; or perhaps percussion instruction from the recently retired principal player Martin Zyskowski. Nor does the school's isolation matter all that much. These students know that Eastern's well-trained and accomplished music faculty can serve as their launching pad to the larger music world.
More than three years ago, in one of his first official acts, EWU President Stephen Jordan formally designated music performance and training as one of Eastern's "Centers of Excellence." This designation, in the minds of the state Higher Education Coordinating Board (that gave its blessing), Senator Jim West (who forced the issue) and the Governor's staff (which in the end mediated all disputes) wasn't to serve merely as window dressing, nor as a public relations ploy. No, it was to influence decision-making on campus. All parties assumed that funding as well as the active support and involvement of leadership would reflect the "Centers" designation. In other words, music instruction would be safer than other programs from the shifting winds of state funding and other uncertainties.
So far, however, this hasn't happened. Despite the designation, the education budget game is won or lost on high teacher-to-student ratios. Music instruction will always appear costly because of those ratios are lower than in other fields of study. Furthermore, EWU's support for a wide range of synergistically important music organizations -- like the Bach Festival -- can be rationalized as "instruction" only with difficulty.
So where does this leave things? Eastern needs to live up to that "Centers of Excellence" designation, and to do so it has several options:
1. Argue for new money;
2. Change its internal budget rationale;
3. Divert non-state, non-instructional dollars.
As for the first tactic, well, that's going to be a tough sell in these difficult budget circumstances. There's not enough money for many existing programs. Still, it's better to ask and be rejected than not to ask.
The second tactic holds more promise. An argument can be made that Eastern's music program supports a wide range of critical university functions, from instruction to public relations, from student recruiting to fund-raising. Once subjected to serious "program budget review," the Department of Music will be positioned to make a claim on several budgets across campus.
And the diversion of non-state dollars holds still more promise. There's more non-state funding available than you'd think -- the University of Washington is a great example of a public school with massive private investment for things like medical research and arts programs. A relatively small amount from these sources has made, and could continue to make, a huge difference at Eastern. And diversion is easy to affect. Leadership must only agree upon an annual amount necessary to support, at some level, the "synergistic programs," and then decide to have that amount automatically transferred on an annual basis. Nothing more will be needed than a stroke of the pen by the right person.
Eastern has been an extremely important but little-known piece of the local arts scene puzzle for decades. But without a savvy approach to bolstering that role, the music it makes could end on a sour note.