"New York and Los Angeles," he solemnly told me the other day, "are first tier."
"And Washington," he added, "because it's the capital city of the most powerful nation on Earth."
I nodded humbly. My friend is very wise.
"San Francisco and Chicago -- among other cities -- are second tier," he continued.
"What about Atlanta?" I asked -- because I had to.
He lifted an eyebrow. "Third tier," he said stonily. And the way he said it, I could tell that he considered Atlanta lucky to be -- theoretically speaking -- positioned so highly.
I'm not going to start a debate in print about where Atlanta ranks on the nation's cultural totem pole (not in this column at least), but something he said afterward keyed into another train of thought I've been nursing for some time.
"Third-tier cities," said my wise friend, "need to try harder."
They do indeed. And that simple statement of fact -- that we may not be the best, nor even near it; that we have a lot to learn from other, more culturally developed urban areas -- is something that Atlanta seems to have difficulty realizing. There is such a "go team!" attitude about everything we do. Not to belabor the point (although I do), but Atlanta is easily impressed -- with itself.
And, of course, this complacency carries over into the arts. Our serious self-enchantment causes us to embrace mediocrity indiscriminately. We give standing ovations at nearly every local classical performance, whether deserving or not. A recent local television program featuring a major Atlanta music ensemble ended up being nothing more that a celebratory hometown promotional travelogue suitable only for a hotel's in-house cable channel.
This sort of thing goes beyond hometown pride and into the frenzied realm of a need for self-assurance. That, in turn, leads to a defensive, thug-like attitude of self-protectiveness that isolates our individual music organizations.
Historically, this town has always been gleefully unashamed of its more-than-occasional resemblance to a swaggering boomtown. But modern Atlanta's classical music scene can be likened to a great big Civil War re-enactment fought in stereo surround-sound. The battle lines are consistently drawn. Competing choirs are out for blood. Community orchestras don't dare loan out personnel -- that would be like swapping officers the night before Gettysburg. The chamber music ensembles, bless them, are the only ones who work together in a spirit of cooperation (after all, most of their players come from large orchestras), realizing that in order to survive they've got to work together.
And that's the whole point.
The local theater groups realized it several years ago. Most of the city's professional theaters now hold unified casting auditions, and often share the stage for community events. If two of our better-known choral ensembles were to share the stage for a benefit, the carnage would be indescribable. It would be time to head for the hills (which, down here, means Asheville).
Granted, everything today is a competition for audience or advertising dollars -- and that includes the arts. But this small- town-minded-braggadocio brand of competitiveness has more to do with ego than economics.
Having said that, the other truth of the matter is that Atlanta has provided me performances that I will never forget. Right here in town, I've heard choral concerts that rivaled anything I've ever heard -- or probably will ever hear -- in Europe. I've been privileged to hear symphonic performances that will stay with me to the end of my days. So much that is right -- and often much that is extraordinary -- takes place here.
But until this city's classical music organizations coalesce into some sort of unified front, and stop trying to break each other's backs -- and until we climb down from our self-delusional magic mountain -- all the new concert halls, all the radio and television ads, all the high-priced New York market consultants, won't help us to advance to a national (much less an international) level of consistent achievement.
Never mind the Yanks. On the classical music front, the Battle of Atlanta rages still.
come on man you know you got a bromance. you probably still rock that OutKast…
Yes, 14 is the correct answer. I'll pass your info along to the group's manager,…
That was January of 2007, and they are 21 now, so I'm guessing 14?