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June 20, 2007

New orchestras

by Greg Sandow

I loved what Robert and Ed had to say about new orchestral stuff -- the need for a new orchestral culture, and how much fun it would be to have an entirely new kind of orchestra.

There are models, tentative ones, anyway, for a new kind of orchestra. Once there was a group called the Wild Ginger Phlharmonic, which if I remember correctly had east and west coast branches. I got to know the east coast branch. The orchestra was made up of music students, who'd gather for a week before each concert, off in a rural area, and do nothing but rehearse. Then they'd play in New York, with wonderful verve and joy. Their conductor seemed largely to serve as a referee, and you could see moments in their concerts when one of the players -- maybe one of the rear-stand cellists -- would get an idea about how some passage should go, and then the whole orchestra would take fire from him.

There were downsides. They built the transition to the finale of Beethoven's Fifth with edge of the seat excitement, then exploded so loudly when the finale began that there was nowhere else to go for the rest of the movement. And they fell apart, administratively, for lack of professional management skill.

Then there's Red, An Orchestra, in Cleveland, which draws over 1000 younger people to each of its concerts. Recently it played in Second Life. I've never been to its concerts, though I've talked to some of the people who run it. Red seems to succeed on programming, and most of all on branding itself, so to speak, as an exciting shared experience. People who identify with it wear red to its concerts.

I'm also told that the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra in Houston does things in a new way. I'm friendly with the person who started it and runs it, Alecia Lawyer, an oboist. She e-mailed me in response to this blog, and I'll quote some of what she said:

I have been reading the highlights from the blog. I really feel like ROCO has addressed all of these concerns.  Our mission is the connection of people.  We HAVE changed the experience in the middle and we do get the audiences and the funding from a wide variety of sources.  I think this was a success from the beginning because I have been involved  in Houston non-musically for so long, developing relationships through volunteer work and just frankly thoroughly living in Houston with no intention of leaving it. 

Here is what our latest conductor put on his blog:

It took me a while, but I want to tell you about my concert last week in Houston with the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra. It was founded by oboist/executive director/mom Alecia Lawyer. Besides being an excellent ensemble, and programming daring, adventurous music, "ROCO" has drastically changed the classical concert format. Here's the run-down:

5pm concerts, 90 minute concert duration, free child care/music education during concert, 5 minute intermission, surprise pieces at the beginning and end of the concert.

Also, if you fill out a card, you are eligible to be one of four people who gets to sit in the orchestra for one piece after the break. (It's a great way to get info about your audience).

And ... during the five minute intermission, the ENTIRE ORCHESTRA mingles with the audience.

Finally, the older kids in child care get to come hear part of the program right after the break, and are always acknowledged by the conductor and audience. It's great to hear them cheer from the balcony.

They've done it -- they've taken a classical concert and made it into a friendly, fun, social event without compromising the music. Thus proving what I've always thought -- it's not the music or the programming that need help in the orchestra world, it's the EXPERIENCE.

Edwin Outwater

I know (this is Greg again) that there are other examples.


And about new orchestra culture. A few years ago, Bruce Coppock and I led a discussion at a retreat attended by people from many orchestras about why orchestras don't play better -- and with more visible involvement. Bruce, for those who don't know, is the executive director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and has done wonders (along with their board chair, Lowell Noteboom, and many of the musicians) to make the SPCO one of the best-run orchestras in this country.

Bruce and I agreed on our premise, that orchestras need to engage their audiences much more fully -- with their playing. The people in the discussion were mostly musicians, from a variety of large and medium orchestras, and at first some of them resisted what we said. It was the conductors' fault, they said, if they weren't fully involved.

Eventually, though, Bruce and I seemed to convince everyone. The field is endangered. You're playing great art, which you're committed to. And there's an audience out there! In what other kind of performance do people routinely not do their best, and then blame someone else for it? (In this case, the conductors.) The larger gathering in which this took place required reports from all the discussions that individuals organized. Normally, just one person reports for the group. In our case, to emphasize how important we thought our conclusions were, everyone involved got up, and stood behind Bruce as he made the report.

In a later gathering of the same sort, I sat in on a musicians-only discussion of why orchestra musicians don't look more involved when they played. All the musicians present, again from a variety of large and medium-sized orchestras, agreed that musicians ought to look more involved. But how to make that happen? Orchestra managements couldn't suggest it. That would be the kiss of death. The musicians would refuse to go along.

Boards of directors couldn't suggest it. The musicians would cite contract provisions, saying that boards have no voice in such things.

So the leadership would have to come from the musicians. Who really aren't organized to take such initiatives. So, as Robert says, we're going to need a big change in orchestra culture. I'm sure this will come as a younger generation takes over, both among the players, and in the managements and boards.


Orchestra dress has been mentioned in this blog, and of course that's got to change. It's astonishing, in fact, that it hasn't, especially since we now routinely see soloists and conductors who avoid standard concert dress.

There are two reasons, I'd guess, why orchestras mostly haven't changed:

First, there's a solid minority of musicians (not to mention conductors and, not least, members of the audience) who like the formal dress. The late Hans Vonk, when he was music director in St. Louis, told me how much he loved putting on his tails. It helped him prepare for performances, he said. He felt like an actor getting into a costume. I have to respect that, and would never have asked him to change.

Second, to change how orchestras dress would mean that someone would have to decide what the new way of dressing would be. That could lead to ghastly fights between musicians and management. I can imagine it's easier just to avoid the question.

And yet...the formal dress really has to do. I'd suggest, as an interim measure, that some concerts be given with formal dress and some without.

Posted by gsandow at June 20, 2007 10:54 AM


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