Retrospective 2: In the spirit of compromise

Today has been a doozy of a day. At Midnight EST, the US Federal Government shutdown. In Minnesota, Osmo Vänskä resigned after management canceled the Carnegie Hall concerts. Adding insult to injury, with the lockout continuing in Minnesota and no end in sight, Aaron Jay Kernis resigned as head of the Composers' Institute, a major initiative for young orchestral composers run in conjunction with the Minnesota Symphony. And the NYC Opera has canceled the rest of their season and plan on filling of bankruptcy.

All these situations are difficult. At least two really stem from incredibly stubborn groups that just refuse to work in any sort of meaningful fashion with their counterparts. Instead of being two sides of a discussion, people have turned this situation into life-or-death, adversarial, war-like situations. What should be about fostering a compromise for what's best for the entire group by bringing together multiple view-points have become "showdowns at the OK Coral (Chorale?)." 

If you've read this blog, you know I take a very firm stance on most issues. I attempt to formulate these stances by doing at least some research, finding out what's happening, and weighing different opinions against my own personal experiences. Sometimes my own personal experience outweighs opinions, and sometimes my view is swayed in the middle of writing a post.

This is a post where my views were swayed.

I started out writing a post in one vein, and, there's a chance that will come back. But, right now, I look at these situations, and realize that for all my pigheadedness (something I have in spades), I do want to find answers that will work for as many people as possible, across a wide variety of situations.

What does this mean in music?

I'm going to approach this from a few angles, looking at some common perceptions of classical music from both listeners, classical musicians, and myself, and brainstorming ways that these issues may be rectified across the three views. These are, of course, based on wide-generalities, and must be changed in the real world. 

1) Programming:

In a perfect world, I'd love for a significant amount of recent works and 20th century works. Every orchestra should commission at least 1 work a year, and devout at least 25% of the programming to new works. By new works, I'll give some leeway and say anything post WWII. I'd really like there to be an emphasis on American music and music of composers from as wide of backgrounds as possible. This isn't from a "we have to include everyone" idea, but because composers from different backgrounds produce wildly different and engaging music inspired by their background.

I am not taking a Wuorinen viewpoint--25% "masterworks," 25% "20th century works," 25% "living composers known works," and 25% "the untried." While that would be interesting, and in some quarters a dedication to new music, as well as to various outreach and funding possibilities have led to success. But, let's be honest, what happens in LA would not fly in, say, Indianapolis. And what happens in NYC wouldn't work in Atlanta.

So, looking from a few viewpoints, what would be a good breakdown for programming? Where do pops orchestras fit in?

First, I honestly think core programming of Common Practice Period works should be high. I really do love Beethoven, Bruckner, Haydn, Bach, and many others. I think orchestras should look for new and interesting works from that period--and one area I think that needs improved on the most is in concertos. It's always disconcerting to see the same violin concerto programmed multiple years in a row. Yes, the choice is up to the soloist, but wouldn't it be great, in the spirit of compromise, for the soloist and the orchestra to really talk? I'm sure Hilary Hahn would play something other than the Sibelius if you said "Uh, Ms. Hahn, we've done the Sibelius three years in a row...do you have any other concertos? The Tchaikovsky maybe? Haven't done that in years!" It'd still fit the bill of a "standard rep" concerto, but it'd be different. And, of course, the soloist would still have final say.

I do think a larger portion of subscription concerts (non-pops) should be newer works. At this point, I'd say that most orchestras, as best, give 25% over to new works, with maybe a commission every year. I'd love to see every orchestra really give 25% and at least one, if not two commissions a year. At least one work per concert (roughly) would be great--that'd normally fill out to something more like 33% of total works, but not total time. Most of those would undoubtedly be openers, 10-15 minute works.

As for pops concerts, I actually don't have an issue with pops concerts at all, as long as they aren't done at the expense of subscription concerts. And I think cross-over collaborations can actually be really fruitful musical endeavors. Philip Kennicott would hate me for this, but, a piece of me actually enjoyed this piece:

This of course may not fit many orchestras, or their setup...But I can't help but remember the excitement I heard out of Indy with Time for Three, pairing up to play classical works and some more pop style arrangements with the orchestra. Crossing the lines, combining ideas, and being adventuresome can produce good programs.

It won't always work. Not everyone piece will be a winner. But, if we never try, and never move forward, the programs will get really stale as well. And just because one work didn't go well, doesn't mean others won't.

So, there ya go--I'm not against the masterworks, but I do want more effort given to newer works.

2) Attitude
I've touched on this before--how people view the orchestra makes a difference. The physical interaction of the group does change the experience for audience members. What's this have to do with attitude?

I want, one, orchestra performers to always perform like they love the music. Even if they don't like the music, play like you love it. Give it that feeling. I want musicians to be engaged, lively, concentrate, smile, and worry less about being "proper" and more about playing.

I want the orchestra to not care if someone enthusiastically claps between movements. And I want the rest of the audience not to jump down that person's fault. One man, Richard Dare, wrote an article over a year ago talking about how he felt stifled at a concert hall. He wanted to clap, laugh, scream, etc.

As someone that goes to popular concerts, jazz concerts, and "somber, reverential" classical concerts, I can understand. All these concerts have different social graces--you don't usually see too many rock concerts where everyone sits quietly, nor do you see jazz concerts where everyone is singing the tune. And, I think, allowing for good-natured feedback in a live performance is great. Clapping between movements? Well, it can slow things down considerably, but on the other hand, showing that immediate appreciation is also great. As a musician, it's always great when someone claps for me--in a jazz tune, ending a solo (especially one I didn't do so hot on), and hearing applause actually gives me some energy. I'm not a fan of applause after my solo in Bolero, but after a beautiful movement of a symphony? sure.

I mean, is that really all that more "disruptive" than the huge amount of somewhat forced coughing and sneezing?

So, musicians, love what you do every minute. Don't act like you hate something, even if you do--welcome to being a professional. Enter into every piece looking for positives, ways to create beautiful music, and with an open mind. And audience, show appreciation at "appropriate" times, not while music is playing, and everyone else should be supportive and happy someone liked it enough to clap loudly at the end of a movement.

And, if you need to laugh, give an appreciative "yeah!" for a wonderfully nailed solo, or tap your foot, go for it...just do it quietly. Sit next to me the next time I'm at an orchestra concert--you'll see me do all these things, in as surreptitiously a manner as possible. And when I get annoyed looks, I laugh a bit more, because I know the "decorum" of the classical concert all too well.

3) Outreach

First off, let's face a few facts. 1) the age of the audience has gone up steadily. 2) The cause of this is many fold--click on the link in the previous portion. 3) we're tempted, as musicians, to find quick answers. I often hear "it's the fault of education," "the music isn't relevant," "kids aren't into live concerts." Well, all those things could be to blame. So could the "we do it to ourselves," the "Ivory Tower" idea. 4) music education is a varied issue, ranging from topics covered, to time in the classroom, to style of teaching. 5) cultural shifts have changed how we consume media

So, to me, this is where outreach comes in. First, I want to turn music education and outreach away from the one that is most often pushed: performance. There are lots of initiatives that are important here that should have focuses, for sure: youth symphonies, instrument donations, free lessons and sectionals, free after school programs (such as El Sistema). These are great, and I'm definitely not calling for a "rob Peter to pay Paul" mentality with these suggestions.

I think orchestras, new music ensembles, actually every performing group in any area, should do more outreach for listening.

I don't mean free concerts. Free concerts are nice, but I'm thinking more...

Lecture recitals.

Oh yes, those things so many have done in their doctorates. A small group, maybe playing chamber and solo works, go to schools. They present to, hopefully, to groups smaller than everyone in the school. In the presentation, hopefully running about 50 minutes, musicians talk not about the technical bits of music, nor about how to get a career in music, but about listening to music. I mean presentations like this one by Benjamin Zander. And many of you know this little outtake of Bobby McFerrin

Now, the bit with McFerrin does have performance, but not in the way I was talking--it's not about making performers, it's about connecting an audience with music.

This is something many classically trained musicians want to do. Heck, it's why many of us got into this--I know it's why I'm here.

Audience members respond well to the "pre-concert" talks, many show up, want to hear more about the music. It creates a more rich listening experience when they hear musicians talk passionately about the music. Why is it always in the concert hall? Why aren't there more talks out in the public?

One guess is because, in some places, they tried, a couple times. And not many people showed up. Any new event takes time to build. So, these new outreach programs may not pay dividends in the near future--but it'll matter when those 12 year old kids that you reached with a couple outreach lecture recitals become 29 year olds with jobs and want to support the orchestra that came to them with outreach lecture/concerts.

And keep up all the rest of the outreach as well--everything plays a big part. And if more of the small groups would band together, more of these outreach opportunities could occur as well. It'd be great if members from lots of different groups got together and formed an "outreach coalition," in the spirit of compromise.

I do have another whole blog being prepped on outreach ideas for musicians of all walks, so stay tuned.

and finally:

4) Get over the fear of the new

Ok, this one isn't just going to be about compromise, about looking at lots of viewpoints and offering what I think are constructive views.

This one is personal.

Everyone involved: be willing to evolve.

A friend of mine posted a question that led to a lot of this thinking, and one point at the end struck me: How do we incorporate more meaningful new music into our models while not condemning the standard rep?

One word sticks out and makes me think. The question itself is important: how do we incorporate new music into the standard rep? What types of pieces? In what ways, context, etc? I've covered that already.

But it's another word: meaningful.

What is meaningful new music? How do we categorize it? Is it technically well constructed new music? Is it new music an audience will like? Is it new music that the orchestral musicians like? Is it socially and culturally relevant new music?

But, for me, this takes a different tone. Whenever I see meaningful, and in retrospect, use meaningful, it has a connotation of distrust. It says "I'm not sure I find this thing of equal importance to my current mindset." Like I said, I see this in myself as much as I do others. But it's an important idea to think about. How attached are we all to our current modes of thinking? Our current whims? Our current philosophies?

When I see the strikes in Minnesota, I see two groups that are stuck in their philosophies. One is a set of bankers masquerading as non-profit board-members, trying to cut from the largest profit differential, salaries, to make more money for the stake-holders...in this case, the endowment I guess. And I see musicians saying "the old ways are fine--we'll take a bit of a pay cut, but don't change what we do." Now, don't mistake this; I am firmly on the side of the musicians and think the management has acted atrociously. However, I think a lot of these questions come from a "new vs. old" dilemma. And I'm tired of "versus." I really do want cooperation and collaboration.

So, everyone, be ready to try new things. Because, let's be honest, a lot of the old systems are failing. I'm not sure they were ever designed to work all that well in the first place, and with the cultural, social, and economic shifts in America, old paradigms are going to have to fall away.

This doesn't mean getting rid of the masterworks. And it doesn't mean embracing only the newest fads.

But it does mean keeping an open mind and talking.

So, everyone, weigh in. Where can we start at building a new image for orchestras, and for classical music? What sort of image do you see?

For me, I see an image that retains its virtues, but isn't afraid to evolve through the cooperation of everyone involved: the audience, management, musicians, and guys like me, new music composers who love academia.

No comments: