I recently spent the three consecutive weekends speaking at conferences pertinent to the fate of America’s orchestras.
The first, at Grinnell College, was sponsored by the American Association of Liberal Arts Colleges. The topic was reforming music curricula. The second, at the University of South Carolina, was a “summit” sponsored by the College Music Society. The topic was the same. The third, in Baltimore, was the annual conference of the League of American Orchestras.
As the only person to attend even two of these events, let alone all three (a fact in itself significant), I find I have a lot to think about. I foresee a perfect storm moving at high velocity. #
Both academic conferences endorsed the same new template. Its advocates are progressive educators – the ones ready for change. I have no doubt that something resembling the changes they endorse will happen. It’s just a question of how soon.
One feature of the new template is removing “Orchestra” from the center of things and repositioning it to the side as an ancillary activity, possibly optional. Instead, students will be encouraged to form their own smaller ensembles. Or they will perform in ensembles practicing non-Western genres. Or they will find other opportunities to perform.
In general, there is a feeling that students today have creative propensities that must be respected and welcomed. The orchestra experience falls outside this purview. Also, Western classical music will no longer be privileged in the teaching and practice of Music. And there is a pervasive move to require improvisation and composition as aspects of instrumental instruction.
Another new area of primary emphasis is music as an agent of social responsibility.
In other words: the young musicians orchestras most need will not gravitate to orchestras. Instead, orchestras will get the blinkered conservatory graduates who don’t care about the institutional life of an orchestra – who will dutifully rehearse and perform. It therefore becomes more than ever incumbent upon orchestras to empower musicians to more fully participate in an expansive institutional mission.
An interesting question is whether orchestral reform can occur at music schools and conservatories. My impression is that “Orchestra” is perceived as a bastion of conservatism and that campus conductors are perceived as unlikely partners in progressive curricular change. They cling to “professional training” – traditional repertoire and formats – for non-existent jobs. Could not the campus orchestra be rethought as a timely experimental laboratory? “Orchestra” could impart the history of conducting, the history of performance practice, the institutional history of the orchestra. It could generate cross-curricular study of a symphony or composer. It could be all kinds of things that it is not.
— II –
These were the thoughts I brought to the League conference in Baltimore. What I discovered there was the same impressive sense of urgency I had encountered among the educators. But here it was channeled toward a single, focused goal: creating a “pipeline” that would send gifted African-American and Hispanic instrumentalists into scarce and coveted orchestral jobs. The ethnic composition of orchestras – to date, overwhelmingly white – would begin (if barely) to mirror that of the communities they serve. Because this effort is mightily supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (an invaluable and influential bulwark for innovation in the symphonic field), it seems likely to bring results. The urgent question on the table becomes: will there be further change?
The conductor Theodore Thomas, who more than anyone propagated the “symphony orchestra” as an American specialty, prophetically preached: “A symphony orchestra shows the culture of the community, not opera.” By the 1920s, in American cities large and small, the local orchestra had become the bellwether of civic cultural identity. After that, the world changed and orchestras did not; a Boston Symphony concert, ca. 1890 (before radio, before recordings, before tidal social and demographic upheavals), was more or less the same as the symphonic concerts we hear and see today. (I have told this story in detail in my Classical Music in America: A History.) That orchestras no longer “show the culture of the community” rightly preoccupies the League.
There is a schizoid elephant in the room. As everyone in the orchestra business knows, musicians and administrators do not adequately experience joint ownership of the enterprise at hand. The players rehearse and perform at arm’s length from the front office. They submit to the authority of the music director. They guard work rules written to protect their interests; they strive for higher pay and more services. They little participate in the crucial activities that keep any orchestra alive: fund-raising and marketing. Their artistic input is usually negligible at best. Their purview is dangerously skewed.
The tensions between the players and the staff may be strident or subtle, but they are pervasive. Changing the racial composition of a law school makes immediate sense; it will impact the field. Changing the racial composition of an orchestra won’t critically impact unless other changes are ignited. This point circles back to the educators at Grinnell and the University of South Carolina: the most talented young musicians tend to be the most creative. They will not aspire to sit obediently in orchestra seats.
— III –
Nothing is more informative about the caliber of an orchestra than the listening behavior of the musicians when others are playing and they are not. Are they keenly attuned or staring into space?
In my experience, the keenest listeners are to be found in certain European orchestras – such as the Berlin Philharmonic (which picks its conductors; whose principal players rotate). And then there is the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the members of which are picked by its conductor: Ivan Fischer. I have never encountered an orchestra that manifests a more meddlesome active intelligence (unless they are conductorless chamber orchestras like Gidon Kremer’s peerless Kremerata Baltica). Fischer’s players may burst into song in the midst of a Dvorak symphony (I am not making this up). For Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony, Fischer may situate the solo winds around a potted tree. He may choose to begin a rehearsal by having everyone play some Bach for fifteen or twenty minutes. Or the orchestra may learn an Argentine song for use as an encore in Buenos Aires. In fact, Budapest Festival Orchestra encores are often sung. (I cannot imagine a more democratic bonding experience.) The communal intensity of the Budapest Festival Orchestra is instantly tangible.
Fischer’s hiring practices and work rules would be unthinkable in America: the musicians hold two-year contracts and rehearse without a clock. And yet I do not doubt that there are young Americans who would sooner play with Fischer than win a seat in Franz Welser-Most’s Cleveland Orchestra.
I do not know if Ivan Fischer has ever been discussed at League of American Orchestras conference. But a Youth Orchestras session, at the League’s Baltimore conference, brought Fischer’s practices instantly to mind. The discourse was electrifying – here, serving inner-city pre-collegiate instrumentalists, were American orchestras fully in ferment. What I heard connected directly to what progressive music educators are saying: the creative impulse must be seized. A new repertoire, a new sound, a new disposition of instruments, a new concert experience must be countenanced.
I left that room with many questions. What about our nation’s summer orchestral camps? Will they, too, take a lead? Or will they continue to replicate a dying model at odds with present-day realities?
And there is the nagging question of “excellence.” Museums can maintain the canon by simply keeping Rembrandt on the walls. But inspired readings of Brahms symphonies are increasingly hard to come by. Skill is a prerequisite. So is engagement. These are priorities that must be squared with “showing the culture of the community.”
Our orchestras are facing a perfect storm moving at high velocity. How fast can they adapt? The most adaptive orchestra I know is the South Dakota Symphony. Its music director, Delta David Gier, began his tenure by initiating a Lakota Music Project linking to nine Indian reservations; most recently, he took Dvorak’s New World Symphony to Native American audiences in remote Sisseton. With its enterprising nine-member “core,” the South Dakota Symphony is positioned to maximize personal interaction with Sioux Falls residents and institutions.
The Detroit Symphony, energized by a crippling strike, is another orchestra making strides toward showing the culture of the community. That Detroit is the host orchestra for the League’s 2017 conference, next June, is auspicious. The League’s sense of urgency will likely be sustained. Will the conference again identify a single focused goal? How about expanding the role of individual musicians in every facet of orchestral life?
— IV –
The historian in me cannot resist a brief postscript. Here are four vignettes from the early history of the American orchestra:
1.Henry Higginson, who invented, owned, and operated the Boston Symphony, and also built Symphony Hall, was a colossal visionary. After service in the Civil War, he ran a plantation for freedmen in Georgia. Upon inaugurating the BSO in 1881, he insisted that there be twenty-five cent tickets available for all concerts. Even in 1881, this was a sum so small that other Boston orchestras complained that Higginson’s ticket prices (personally subsidized by Higginson, who also paid all salaries) would drive them out of business. Breaking with Brahmin Boston, Higginson was a philo-Semite, ready to hire a Jewish music director (Mahler and Bruno Walter were seriously considered) decades before the trustees of the New York Philharmonic rejected the possibility of a Jewish conductor post-Toscanini (for this incredible story, see my Classical Music in America, pp. 423-424), and the trustees of the Boston Symphony looked askance at Leonard Bernstein’s Jewishness post-Koussevitzky.
2.In Brooklyn, the major presenter of symphonic concerts was a woman: Laura Langford, president of the Seidl Society. There were many more Seidl Society concerts than there were New York Philharmonic concerts across the river. The conductor was the same: Anton Seidl, Richard Wagner’s most intimate protégé. Langford charged as little as fifteen cents for Seidl Society concerts, most of which took place fourteen times a week at Coney Island. She prioritized bringing working women and African-American orphans to the seaside Music Pavilion. Seidl himself loudly championed access for working men and women. Langford and Seidl also prioritized hiring leading female pianists and violinists. And, over the objections of the Seidl Orchestra, they hired a female harpist (whose engagement was made a public cause).
3.In Manhattan, Antonin Dvorak chose an African-American, Harry Burleigh, to be his personal assistant at the National Conservatory of Music. Dvorak conducted his own transcription of Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” at Madison Square Garden in 1894 with an African-American chorus, a racially mixed orchestra, and two African-American soloists: Burleigh and the “Black Patti,” Sissieretta Jones. Burleigh went on to become the person most responsible for turning spirituals into art songs.
4.Henry Krehbiel, the dean of New York music critics and Dvorak’s most important champion in the press, endorsed Dvorak’s conviction that “Negro melodies” would be the fundament of a future American music. He wrote the first book-length study of plantation song. At the 1893 World’s Columbia Exposition in Chicago, he did not gawk at the African “Dahomians,” as others did, but admired the rhythmic sophistication of their songs and dances. He also eagerly promoted study of Native American song.
Higginson, Langford, Seidl, Dvorak, and Krehbiel tirelessly extolled the moral properties of music. They understood art as an instrument for social reform both timely and timeless. The early history of the American orchestra is a history of ceaseless innovation.