Is new music and outreach the problem?

UPDATE: Check out my 2nd post on this topic, this one taking on Kennicott's ideas of new music.

An article posted at newrepublic is making the music rounds. It's title and page name give it all away: America's Orchestras are in Crisis: How an effort to popularize classical music undermines what makes orchestras great. The page title: orchestras-crisis-outreach-ruining-them.

The article starts out describing Nashville Symphony's near foreclosure, mainly due to being unable to afford the interested on a letter of credit that helped build a $123.5 million symphony center. The symphony has been running deficits for the past few years in the $10-20 million range. Yes, this is a problem, somewhat...If we take for granted that they are supposed to always operate in the black and be a for profit. Which, as I discussed earlier, isn't really the point of orchestras.

Which gets me to the main question that popped into my head after reading this article: What is the point of an orchestra. According to the writer, Philip Kennicott, it is mainly about the standard rep. And that is a stance he maintains throughout the article.

There are lots of interesting bits, a notable attack on the "Americanizing the American Orchestra" document, with a fun quote by Edward Rothstein calling it "thoroughly wrongheaded, an abdication of the tradition orchestras represent and a refusal to accept responsibilities on artistic leadership." Kennicott seemed completely in league with this opinion.

It's interesting to me, as I decided to re-read the "Americanizing" before posting this. Kennicott says that most orchestras adopted the basic tenets of the document. After re-reading it, I couldn't disagree more. "Achieving Cultural Diversity" is laughable, the entire chapter on "The relationship of Musicians and the Orchestral Institution" has been completely ignored, the concert-going experience has become less and less varied over the years, orchestras in education are more about working with elite groups, or small movements forward, volunteerism is low, orchestral leadership is mostly run by non-musicians that have no training in even running a non-profit, and the repertoire is stagnant. So, what do I mean? Well, taking apart Kennicott and the 200+ page "Americanizing" would be a dissertation--and while I am writing a dissertation, it is not on the American Orchestra. I am a composer, after all...

So, let me approach these problems from my perspective: 29 years old, composer and trombonist, finishing a doctorate in music composition, starting my professional life pretty well, and someone who loves Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, and any number of other composers whose last names start with B.

Skipping ahead through Kennicott's history of the orchestra (which is quite good), I come to a statement that made me a bit sad: "Almost none of this is of any interest to serious listeners, including those with diverse musical tastes who prefer the real thing to the local orchestras attempt to imitate jazz, ethnic, or pop forms." This in reference to Detroit symphony having special events that include video-game nights, the Texas Tenors, the Indigo Girls, holiday events, movie nights, etc. My gut reaction?

Well, I'm interested in video-game nights, Indigo Girls (or similar style concerts), and movie nights. I'm not into holiday events, but that's because I'm a Grinch, and I'm not into cross-over artists like Josh Grobin (though I have been to a Josh Grobin concert, and he is a charismatic guy. Just not my cup of tea). So, I sit here thinking "Who is Kennicott representing?"

My answer is simple: "The Olde Guard." These are the same people that dislike Boulez, and wanted music that was, no matter what, tied to the "orchestral tradition," which is really not that old, nor is it that demanding. Kennicott is right on to point out how things have changed, how the silent listening is "counterculture" and even that it's a good thing. Couldn't agree more there, though I think the amount of "shushing" when a concert goer does send some heartened gratitude toward the orchestra at an "inappropriate time" is also rude...I'm sure most concert-goers in a normal audience would have freaked out when, after a group premiered a piece of mine and nailed it, I jumped up, screamed "YEAH! WAY TO GO!!!" and wanted to just run on stage and hug every musician for performing so beautifully. In that moment, it wasn't that it was "my" music, but that this was a piece I was intimate with, and they nailed it. The same could be said after hearing the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra perform Bruckner 4 to a nearly empty house many years ago. It was so empty, with my $10 student rush "sit wherever is open" ticket, I got premium seats. The ISO NAILED that performance, and, without a moment of hesitation, I clapped between movements, and leaped from my seat at the end screaming "BRAVISSIMO!" Yes, I'm that guy that, at that point being around 21, and an undergraduate in music, was so excited for Bruckner that I screamed like a Beilieber.

I've been in on conversations about orchestras, and, honestly, I think while Kennicott has some good thoughts, and his heart is in the right place, he's not looking at some facts.
Fact 1: the "base" is getting older, and isn't willing to spend money in a tough economy.

Fact 2: Orchestras are not doing a good job expanding their bases.

Fact 3: Younger generations are turned off by orchestras not just because of the music, but because the orchestras and their defenders themselves tell them "this music isn't for you. You're not 'serious' enough."

Fact 4: young musicians ARE TURNING AWAY FROM ORCHESTRAS! Not only are orchestras alienating future attendees, but the musicians themselves are turning away. Kennicott doesn't care about video game music. Well, guess what, most of us don't care about seeing every Beethoven symphony offered every year in a single metropolitan area. Why? because

Fact 5: All music is available for people to listen to at a moments notice for a small price (or free), and the orchestra isn't doing a good job of showing what they provide over the recorded medium, or offering things that the recorded medium can't offer.

Fact 6: People are generally uneducated about the music, not in a "you don't understand sonata form" but in the "I've never even heard something from an opera" or "What instruments are in a symphony? Strings, right?"

Fact 7: Never before has orchestral music been so much about being a "museum." And, to defend myself from Kennicott's attack of "Well don't you like museums?" my answer is "Yes, I do, but orchestras are not museums." Orchestras are living, breathing entities. During Mozart's time, did they play nothing but Telemann and CPE Bach? During Beethoven's, nothing by Haydn? During Brahms, nothing by Beethoven?  If they had, we wouldn't have gotten much Mozart, Brahms, etc...No, before Beethoven the groups were tied to courts with each court having its own composer. Orchestras got bigger and less centralized starting in the Classical period, and by Beethoven there were more state-run groups (which coincided with the creation of centralization of power in the 18th and 19th century). Even then, groups were "clique" oriented, with some composers being the laureates and taking charge--I think of the French Grand Opera and Meyerbeer as resident. Orchestral programs often had local flavors from the great composers of the area, and at times it was difficult for composers to become more "metropolitan." And many died in obscurity, or with one or two modest hits outside their area. Take, for instance, Bruckner, who had one major orchestral success--his 7th symphony. Beyond that, he was somewhat known for his masses, and definitely for his organ playing. He applied for teaching positions in Vienna regularly, and was turned down almost continuously, until he reached a much older age and finally had got to teach a few years. All this in his mid to late 60s.

These facts are important. And the way to fix most of them is through outreach. Kennicott thinks turning to outreach defeats the purpose of the orchestra. What is the purpose of the American orchestra? Most say it is to bring the greatest music at the highest possible level to their community. If your community doesn't know the music you're playing, then is the concert the correct "teaching" experience? I don't think so.

The final bit in Kennicott's writing is more a review of a specific piece. First Kennicott talks about the failing to increase the amount of black musicians in the St. Louis Youth Orchestra...which, I have an entire blogpost formulating on why youth orchestras, and music program in general, fail with many urban and rural communities, really only thriving in suburban areas (lemme give you a hint: money).

Kennicott dislike Ingram Marshall's "Kingdom Come." Now, I'll admit that I am somewhat ignorant of the piece--and I've tried to purchase and download it, but it seems being in Sweden makes that process a little more complicated...

Anyway, Kennicott created a checklist of the "currently fashionable...new classical works: ...harmonically and melodically accessible and socially topical, it mixes media, and it draws on musical cultures outside the concert hall." Hm, well, I don't see a problem with those things at all. And, I guess he hasn't gone to many new music concerts because to make such a blanket generalization about contemporary music is as profoundly silly as making such a blanket generalization about orchestral music. Kennicott also seems to like melodic styles than motivic styles, which makes me wonder how much he likes the development sections of, say, Brahms. But that's not where I get a little concerned: these are opinions, and we are all allowed our opinions. And until I hear "Kingdom Come" I can't really enter a dialogue about its effectiveness as a piece...and even then I lose the live portion (such as Kennicott's critique that the recorded media weren't of high quality. Well, that could be any number of things, from the speakers to the production, to the overall aesthetic. When I get the recording, I can make a better judgement. hopefully in a few days).

No, it's the end. "The problem with 'Kingdom Come' is that it subverts much taht is good about the tradition it supposedly continues. The orchestra willingly suppressed virtuosity, spontaneity, and the raw power of its acoustic sound...Why make young people play it? It seems a very ill sign for the future that bad music is so willingly foisted on serious juniors musicians who have already made a commitment to the art form." (emphasis added)

Wow dude...wow. Ok, I get that Kennicott is a critic. And, honestly, I'm also pretty damn scathing. But let's approach it from this fashion. Virtuosity...in orchestral playing? Really? Alright, I'm gonna be honest. As a trombone player, I haven't had an orchestral part I couldn't basically sight read written by anyone pre-20th century. There was once a tricky part of a Schumann symphony where I had to run arpeggios through the circle of fifths. If that wasn't a general exercise I did every day at that point, it may have been difficult. But orchestral music ISN'T about virtuosity. In fact, when a modern composer writes a truly virtuosic work, it's often not played.

Spontaneity, eh? Yes, Brahms is incredibly spontaneous. Well, he might have been 100+ years ago. But we're talking about a fully notated medium. The spontaneity factor of live music comes from the active participation of many people in a live artistic act. If, someone, Ingram Marshall defeated that, then I am truly impressed. If it was defeated, it wasn't because there was fixed media, but because the group hasn't worked in the medium long enough...not to say fixed media doesn't have it's own challenges for spontaneity, but it is, in some form, interactive (albeit passively). To say that since the recording never changes, it destroys the experience is tantamount to saying "I don't listen to recordings because they're always the same." A good fixed media part will have a depth and interest that brings the performers and audience into the work. Now, did Marshall do that? Dunno yet (nonesuch, get on the bandwagon and let me download same day at least...).

Raw power of the acoustic sound: to me that says "no Mahler sized tuttis." In that case Mozart doesn't have much raw power. No, unless the group is truly, 100% subservient, in that their role in the piece is completely secondary, then there is raw power.

Now, there is of course there is the reality that Marshall may have written a bad piece of music. He may have failed and created an overwhelming tape part with sparse background accompaniment. The mix in the hall may have been so far off that the fixed media dominated when it wasn't supposed to. All of these are readily possible.

But let's take a look at that last bit: Is it "bad' music, and why force young people to play it. Well, did he talk to any of the young performers? There are two really interesting videos that are recordings of the youth symphony skyping with Ingram Marshall about the piece. The musicians seemed very engaged in the conversation. And be sure to listen to part 2 as well.

And, maybe, here's the crux--these musicians don't know the tradition of electronic music. I'm guessing Kennicott doesn't either. Listeners are even more in the dark--not only do they have electronics, which is unknown and therefore "evil" AND Pärt like music, and you've got a recipe for a difficult reception. But the question is "why does this matter to the orchestra?"

Because the orchestra is about performing great music. If it is just a museum, then we limit the possibilities of great music, and actually ignore the tradition of working with living composers. We also take for granted that music that isn't "pop," that isn't something that can be completely understood in a single listening (at times), and that if you don't get it, you're not in the club. Maybe we, orchestras and all musicians, should strive to bring more people into the club. And to not get stuck on purely aesthetic issues--Kennicott doesn't like Ingram Marshall's piece. That's perfectly fine. But to turn it into demonizing new music and asking "why should young performers play it?" Because if no one first played Beethoven, we wouldn't play it now. Because if Stravinsky hadn't worked with the Ballet Russe and worked with a crazy, innovative choreographer and put together Firebird, then orchestras wouldn't be putting it on concerts as their "new music."

So, by having more than a 19th century aesthetic, are we showing fear? Are we destroying the orchestra by having outreach programs?

Or is the orchestra falling under the weight of a 19th century aesthetic that doesn't connect with as many people today? And who's fault is that? Obviously I love this music. I didn't get into music as an orchestral guy, but it grew on me. I didn't even play in an orchestra till undergrad (tiny school in rural Indiana--we had a band, mainly a marching band...and definitely no orchestra). But the problem comes from all sides, the contemporary folks and the "olde guarde."

One last anecdote: the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, as they were coming out of huge cuts and terrible press, got Time for Three as their resident chamber group, and scored a nice collaboration with New Amsterdam records. What came out of it were a series of concerts with tons of newer works, some pop music (Time for Three is known for their pop arrangements), and high attendance. That's right, they got results from the programming. Do you know who went?

Friends of mine from HS, people that had played in band, but hadn't played an instrument in 10 years. People that heard the buzz and wondered who Nico Muhly was. People that enjoyed instrumental music because of their experiences at a young age, being drawn into the music. People that, prior to that year, hadn't gone to the orchestra.

Then I look at their latest season. Conservative doesn't even quite cover it. The only "new" work that really takes a leading role is Gorecki's Third Symphony. It's a gigantic, beautiful work, but is 100% aesthetically Romantic.

No, orchestras have tons of problems. But outreach and "bad new music" isn't really the problem. At least not when a 29 year old, young professional musician looks at it...a musician that feels as locked out of the concert hall as he does the bar with his own music and aesthetic.

So, why don't we leave the criticism on the side of the road. When I posted about the conservative season by the ISO, I had lots of people jump down my throat, saying I should be "supportive of our orchestra no matter what." I responded "I AM supportive. If I wasn't, I wouldn't have told them. I want them to succeed, and I think they'll alienate the audiences they drew in the spring!" More yells at me. Who defended me? The musicians. Why?

Because being supportive means offering criticism, but also looking at facts. Until orchestras, and their staunch "olde guarde" defenders really look at the facts of a changing musical landscape, they'll continue to flounder.

And much respect to Philip Kennicott. His article did need written, and it shows a point of view I think many people have. Now let's really start the conversation, without the orchestra league (which, yeah, is kind of impotent), and without the management (cause, well...if you've read my past stuff, you'll know I'm pro musician run and anti-for profit farming that it's become). Let's find real answers and keep an important institution around

UPDATE: Check out my 2nd post on this topic, this one taking on Kennicott's ideas of new music.

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