Why Not the Best? by George Slade

Among international athletes and their fans, London was the place to be in late July and early August this year. The known quantities—Roger Federer, Lindsay Whalen, the Williams sisters, Michael Phelps, and Usain Bolt, to name a few—shared the stage with hundreds of stars and aspirants in dozens of sports at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. To watch the Olympic games is to witness the best of the best gathered together from around the world.

On this side of the pond, in a different arena, a second site of concentrated excellence is a long day’s drive from the Twin Cities. In Columbus, Indiana, outstanding examples of architecture, landscape architecture, and public art grace the city because of a CEO’s vision. Columbus, a town of just over 44,000 people in south central Indiana, features what is undoubtedly the highest per capita incidence of unique built environments anywhere. Buildings by I. M. Pei, Cesar Pelli, Robert Venturi, and many others accompany sculpture and installations by Henry Moore and Dale Chihuly.

J. Irwin Miller, who led Cummins Engine Company from 1951 to 1977, saw a way to insure that his town would flourish and attract the best new engineering talent. As he said in a company film, “Whatever you do in this world, you’ve got a responsibility and a privilege of doing it the very best way you can. And whether it is architecture or cooking or drama or music, the best is none too good for any of us.”

In the 1950s Miller began a program to pay the fees of great architects and a percent of the costs of building new structures by those architects in Columbus, Cummins’ home base. As Miller’s son Will recounted in a recent profile on National Public Radio, J. Irwin emphasized that “mediocrity is expensive”—in other words, he recognized that quality would pay dividends over decades, that cutting corners only saves in the short term. Columbus, then, has the long-term version of the Olympics, a gathering of stellar examples of achievement at the highest levels.

The parallels to orchestral communities abound. Musicians, like Olympic athletes, strive for personal and collective bests. The settings of the best orchestras, like the quadrennial Olympic events, elicit outstanding performances from musicians and reward audiences with great music. Live performances feature what might be understood as a conversation between players and listeners, as the energy of one feeds and coalesces with those of the other. At the highest levels, surprising and delightful results can occur; in London, the Spanish and Lithuanian basketball teams played the United States—a team that included Kobe Bryant and LeBron James—to seven- and five-point final margins, respectively, and Brit Andy Murray defeated world champion Federer in straight sets to the uproarious acclaim of his countrymen.

In Columbus, Miller’s philanthropic, communitarian leadership fosters an environment in which excellence lives on nearly every block. One vision, translated into the practice of corporate responsibility, forms a transcendent city—an Olympus, perhaps, a utopian city on a hill that assembles talent to enrich all who encounter it.

All orchestras strive for this excellence, and the best distinguish themselves by both effort and patronage. Ask a city that has lost an orchestra if its character as a place hasn’t suffered significant damage. Remember J. Irwin Miller’s words, that mediocrity is costly, the “responsibility and privilege” of sustained excellence has its rewards, and “the best is none too good for any of us.”

George Slade played piano, flutophone, guitar, and recorder until his mid-teens, when his artistic focus shifted to photography. He first experienced the Minnesota Orchestra during grade school field trips to Northrop Auditorium. His appreciation for classical music grew in his twenties, when his mother ran a record store in downtown St. Paul’s Landmark Center. Since 2005 he has lived with a violinist, whose music fills his life. 

Slade’s writings on photographic matters can be found in print and online; his blog, re:photographica, is located at http://rephotographica-slade.blogspot.com/

—George Slade, August 2012

2 thoughts on “Why Not the Best? by George Slade

  1. Pingback: Why Not the Best? by George Slade | Minnesota Orchestra Musicians

  2. Excellent points, I’ve been told by an education administrator that “quality does not pay the bill” ………short sided vision is dangerous in all areas and a symphony orchestra is vital to a community and must be sustained. Musicans of the orchestras should continue to speak up and counter the backward approach of orchestra management. I think more people in the community will become more vocal and express their support of classical music musicians stick together and resist the “dumbing down” of the orchestra.

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