Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The 21st Century Orchestra

A while ago, a friend of mine, conductor Kelly Corcoran, posted a blog on her feelings on the orchestra in the 21st century, and I posted a response to that blog. I just re-read it, and I thought it was pretty interesting, and might be interesting to some of you! Read and discuss! :)

Kelly's Blog post:

What is my vision of the 21st century orchestra?

I believe that the 21st century orchestra must have relevance to its community and to the world. Despite efforts in education and other community events, American orchestras in particular have become more and more disconnected from the greater community. While the average American is passionate about some genre of music, most are not supporters of classical music. I believe that while everyone may not be destined to become a lover of classical music, it is the duty of American orchestras in the 21st century to reinvent classical music and its role within our world.

In a culture of Walmart, American Idol and fast food, why is classical music relevant in the modern world and especially in the United States? Music, like all the arts, is an expression of our culture. Through music, one can discuss politics, rebellion, anger, love and literally every aspect of our existence. Music is capable of speaking to, motivating and inspiring, the masses. When looking at nearly every historical event in our world, the arts reflect the views and the strength of humanity. It is art that is the primary artifact that we have to reflect upon our heritage and history and in turn discover who we are as a culture and what we want to be in the future.

I come from a family that is not musical. My father is a police officer and my mother is a businesswoman. Neither is a supporter of classical music. They would never buy a classical CD and even with two daughters that have pursued music as a career, they rarely attend concerts. I often ask them why they do not listen to classical music, especially since they are obsessive about other genres of music like rock and country. They respond: popular music has lyrics, there is not always a popular culture reference in classical music, classical music is not mainstream, it is not Americanized enough, we dont know how to connect with it. The main thing they repeat: we just dont hear it enough; we did not grow up with it. They both agree that if they had more exposure to classical music they would possibly be interested in learning more about it.

If the conclusion is that we need to have more exposure to classical music and hear it from an early age, lets look at what orchestras are doing to address these points. Many orchestras have thriving education concerts. At the Canton Symphony, we are successful in connecting with young people and presenting music in a context where it can connect with the rest of their lives. For us, our educational programs focus on children from Kindergarten through Sixth grade. What about high school and college? This is where most young people begin to find themselves and this is the time when we need to continue to sustain our efforts so that the seeds that we plant in childhood can truly grow into flowering adults. Classical music, like any genre, will be subject to opinion, but it is our duty to place this genre on an equal playing field with the other popular music of our culture.

As technology and the pace of business become increasingly faster, young people and adults alike are spending more and more time on the Internet and plugged in. Having recently created my own music site on MySpace, I have become nearly obsessive with the sheer quantity of music that is available at your fingertips on the Internet. Never before in history has it been so easy to listen to all kinds of music. Where one may rarely browse or wander into the section at the record store for a genre that they are not interested in, online, one can quickly take a second to give a new band or artist a chance before passing judgment. Classical music MUST be present on music sites like MySpace. It is not enough to merely be present, but the history and depth of classical music must be represented in the scope of what is available online. Sites like MySpace allow audiences the opportunity to hear orchestras and compositions of all kinds. Genres like Rock and Pop are saturated with bands and new artists and the actual level of talent within these genres is quite extreme. People are growing more and more passionate about developing eclectic tastes of many different styles and quality classical music should be part of the mix. Why shouldnt one listen to the New York Phil play Mozart next to cutting edge rock bands like Muse or U2, or listen to Renee Fleming followed by Sting? Music is music and by juxtaposing different genres, we hear everything in a new way. The Internet is our platform to intermingle the diversity of the world and in turn draw people into our concert halls.

Classical music does have some obstacles, especially in the concert hall. When the average American thinks of a concert, they think of a performance with a specific musician that they know, like Billy Joel or Elton John. During the concert, the musician interacts with the audience and there is a casual feeling of entertainment and excitement. This is quite different from the formality of the average orchestral concert where the musicians come on stage and you really know very little about them. One may say, it doesnt matter, you dont need to know them, you are there to listen to and enjoy the music. This may be true, but it is absolutely opposite of the typical American concert experience. Orchestras need to reinvent the concert experience not necessarily with casual clothes on stage or extravagant strobe lights. It can be as simple as pre and post concert events where audience members can meet the musicians and turn them into local celebrities or putting up a big screen behind the stage where a camera zooms in on certain musicians during a performance. Suddenly, one can see the expression on the face of the oboe player during his or her solo, or see how fast those fingers are moving on those string instruments. This is already being done in many education concerts, but why not integrate it into a subscription event? Variety and balance are key.

Looking back through the centuries, orchestras have evolved. Wagners orchestra was much bigger than Mozarts, Bernstein championed the education concert and today orchestras are thinking more and more outside the box. What does the future hold? Perhaps there are still new orchestral instruments to be created and integrated into the repertoire, maybe the format of the concert experience will change, maybe there will be more education concerts than any other type of concert. These changes are important, but to me, my vision will be complete if three steps are achieved. First, orchestras must champion classical music as a genre and be advocates for the exposure of classical music. If MTV is truly music television, why isnt there a segment dedicated to classical music? When walking through the mall, why shouldnt it be classical music playing? Why cant classical music be used as a theme song for a TV show? Why shouldnt MySpace have as many classical music pages as any other genre? Orchestras must actively be pursuing all of these issues. Secondly, an orchestra must be an essential, indispensable part of ones community, to the point where any large-scale community event would naturally involve the orchestra. This can be accomplished through education programs, but must be specific to the identity of each unique community. Lastly, and most importantly, all programs must have relevance to our world. These connections already exist in the programs that orchestras currently perform. They must simply be pointed out to our audiences. For example, in Canton, we performed Beethovens Ninth Symphony with Marvin Hamlischs Anatomy of Peace. Beethovens message of brotherhood and unity was echoed in the modern, current message of peace and one law for all that was found in Hamlischs work. Through connections, we can see that the messages of the past are often still the messages of today. One does not need to perform Rock or Pop music on a program with Classical repertoire to find relevance. It is always there on a deep and strong level in the greatest classical literature.

If orchestras can point out to their audiences why every performance is a different, magical moment in time, our American culture will want to be a part of it. Perhaps one day next to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland there will be a Classical Music Hall of Fame packed with visitors scrambling to get a view of Coplands letters, Bernsteins baton or one of the taxicabs Philip Glass used to drive. Or, maybe, there will be an exhibit on the influence of Ravi Shankar and Indian music on musicians like Philip Glass to the Beatles, now thats a connection!

My response:


Great blog - I whole heartedly agree with you on all counts, but I'd like to get a dialogue going on this and respond to all of your points. I think we see everything very much the same - however from different points of view - yours from a conductors (inside looking out) - mine from a composers (outside looking in).

Let me start off by getting this out of my system - hehe - as a composer of the 21st century, I feel like I've been abandoned by the orchestra. Now let me also say that I think, from the composer's perspective, that this is almost 100% our fault. Composers really got greedy and careless with the orchestra and their audiences in the last century - and I believe that it is imperative that orchestras stop performing this "academic" music immediately - yes I said it! If a piece of music needs a dissertation in the program to be understood, it shouldn't be on the program. It's true that there are often lengthy program notes for pieces like the Beethoven you mentioned - however, since this piece was written nearly 200 years ago and in a completely different world, this is necessary. At the time that Beethoven wrote the piece however, it was relevant to its audience. Today's music should be relevant to today's audiences. There ARE composers out there trying to achieve this (mostly of my generation or younger) - but as long as the "new music" spots are being taken by the Samuel Adlers out there (let that music stay in the universities and the "composers conferences" where it belongs), we will NEVER gain the modern audiences trust or admiration again.

You mentioned programs that mix genres - like Mozart and Sting, etc. I agree that this would be really cool - however, what you don't mention is trying to find some modern music written for the orchestra that can connect with these audiences in the same way that the Sting can. I honestly believe that the only way to save the orchestra is through its repertoire, and right now - as great as the standard rep is - it's become nothing more than a historical curiosity.

I also believe that the orchestra itself HAS to change - radically. You also mentioned this point, but I'd like to elaborate on it if that's cool (from my perspective). The orchestra today is essentially still rooted in traditions that carry over from the 19th century - including its instrumentation and conventions like seating and a strict hierarchy in the sections. Today's audiences are used to hearing recorded and amplified music. Classical stalwarts will hold that they have simply lost the ability to "hear" the orchestra - bullshit. It's called CHANGE. Orchestras need to become more flexible in instrumentation - also concerts need to be amplified and mixed - and also recorded that way in the studio. I'm speaking of as of yet unwritten works - I agree that any repertoire written in the 19th century should be performed in that tradition - but for today, that tradition is dead, and orchestras are not moving forward.

Let me add a disclaimer now, and tell you that I very much hope you're not taking any of this as an attack on you or even on the orchestra - my intention is not to attack - it's just laying out how I feel - that's all :)

As a 21st century composer, I absolutely feel it's my DUTY to connect with people of today. If that doesn't happen - well - then I fail I guess. But I - like many other composers my age - need help doing it. If orchestras are not actively seeking us out, then none of it will ever matter.

I also come from a completely non musical family - maybe that has given us some perspective - who knows. I grew up playing rock music - it was my first experience with writing and playing, and I have always embraced it (even when a very famous American composer told me to NEVER listen to rock music again). This has always caused friction with every composition professor I've had - and honestly, as I have started to embrace it more and more as of late, it has really created a rift between myself and many on the comp faculty of my last school. They see a change coming, and believe me they do not like it - it is a very real threat to all of them, which is why these established composers will fight tooth and nail to keep music like mine far away from orchestras.

Sorry if this is an out of control rant, but you brought up some issues that have opened the flood gates - haha.

I think I'll leave it at that for now - if you disagree with anything that I've said or feel like I'm just misinformed, please let me know. Thanks for posting this Kelly - the orchestra and classical music world needs people like you out there.

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