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November 30, 2006

Are 21st-century conservatories training musicians for orchestras of the 20th century?

I recently had the privilege of spending about two hours with a group of students from the Curtis Institute of Music, most of them majoring in orchestral instrument performance (but some composers and keyboard players were among them as well). The subject which I was asked to address was, broadly stated, "where are orchestras headed?"

I have to tell you how encouraging this time was. To be in a room with about 30 young music students who actually cared - cared passionately - about symphony orchestras, and their role in society, their ability to connect with the next generation of audiences, their willingness to be flexible. I spoke for about a half-hour, and then engaged in discussion for the remaining time. I spoke about the need for orchestras to re-think how concerts are presented, especially to younger audiences who grew up in a television/video age. I spoke about the need for orchestras to connect to communities, for orchestras to be willing to help audiences understand this art form (the way audio guides help us in the museum). After going over the challenges facing orchestras, I said the following:

"So what does this mean to you - musicians who may well be going out into the field of orchestras to make your profession? I think above all it means not only being open to a more flexible view of what the concert experience should be, but in fact being active participants in shaping that future. It means interacting with managements and boards in a positive way - which doesn't mean you won't negotiate contracts aggressively and passionately, but it does mean you'll also interact with them throughout the year in a positive way. You will be open to new ways of the music being presented on stage, and you will be open to new ways of working in communities. You might, if it suits your talents, be asked to speak publicly, or teach, or interact with community groups. If orchestras are going to connect with their communities, this may mean sometimes getting outside of the norm of 80-100 musicians appearing on one stage in a concert hall.

It is likely that we will have to find new ways of using technology too. The old idea of technology - specifically recordings - being a major source of income for musicians and orchestra managements is over; it now must be seen as a way of distributing the music to a wider audience - not as a cash cow. All of this cannot happen to its full effectiveness without musicians as part of the thinking - and it cannot happen without a flexible approach from all."

What was so encouraging was the students' receptiveness to these ideas - and, in the discussion, the contribution of their own ideas and energy. It does make one feel that the future is very strong and secure.

This topic is of course widely discussed in our field on an ongoing basis--what should musician training actually entail? It is the League's belief that orchestras and conservatories and schools of music need to be in frequent dialogue to ensure that music students are receiving a complete education, beyond performance. Here is a link to a SYMPHONY Magazine article by Susan Elliott, which explores how orchestras and higher education institutions are addressing this issue.

Posted by hfogel at November 30, 2006 4:37 PM

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You wrote: You will be open to new ways of the music being presented on stage....

That's a marvelously -- and dangerously -- ambiguous and ill-defined exhortation. It could mean anything from the imbecile notion of presenting pop and rock acts on the same stage with a symphony orchestra in concert to something as innocuous as orchestra musicians dressing in everyday dark suits or dresses rather than the formalwear now the typical norm.

What exactly did you actually have in mind?


Posted by: A.C. Douglas at November 30, 2006 6:40 PM

I can assure you that I did not mean presenting pop and rock acts on the same stage with a symphony orchestra. The possibilities are many and varied - and must always keep in mind not distracting from the artistic experience of the music. It can mean conductors speaking to the audience, whether to explain a new piece, or tell the audience why they happened to put a particular program together. It can certainly mean replacing white tie and tails with something less forbidding. It might mean using a screen to project a pianist and the keyboard, so the entire audience can see the contact between pianist and piano rather than just those on the left side of the house. It can mean that a program of music inspired by Shakespeare includes actors reading brief scenes from Shakespeare related to the music. These are just a few possible approaches - I think that orchestras need to explore a variety of approaches to vary the concert experience, to remove the sameness of ritual that hangs over many concerts. All of these things are being tried in different ways at different orchestras - and I would encourage that experimentation, and would encourage an open mind and willingness to accept some change among those in the audience.

Henry Fogel

Posted by: Henry Fogel at November 30, 2006 11:04 PM

How is it an imbecilic notion to have an orchestra share a stage with a rock band? How would the juxtaposition of rock and classical music be any different from juxtaposing an avant garde piece by Morton Feldman or Pierre Boulez next to a symphony by Beethoven? Is Elvis Costello's recent foray into the orchestral milieu an imbecilic idea or something that orchestras should consider as a way to expand the horizons of their audience?

Posted by: Ben Loeb at December 4, 2006 1:11 AM

It is imbecilic to mix classical symphonic music with rock for many reasons. 1. Classical music is acoustic, not electronic, as is rock. The two don't mix as one sound source is from instruments and the other is from speakers. 2. Rock music is dominated by mostly imbecilic rhythym and has little else to give beyond noise. 3. Rock music is commercial entertainment, classical music is art. 4. Rock music lacks form and thematic development and most other characteristics of classical music. 5. Classical music is based on fundamental precepts such as beauty and rock music is the opposite, based on precepts of noise, ugliness, animalism, raunch, egotism, greed and so on. 6. Classical music requires a great deal of thought, care, technique and training. Rock music requires energy, limited technique, a great deal of shallow thought, and not necessarily any training whatsoever. How someone could think they are at all compatible would seem to betray a complete lack of substantive thought.

As for telling students at the Curtis Institute that their perhaps most-cherished institution and dream, the symphony orchestra, cannot survive on its own merits is, to me, destructive, and unnecessary, and plants doubts and seeds of fear in vulnerable minds. It is sad how little faith administrators have in music. Granted, the youth of today are different, but the work is in teaching them, teaching to make distinctions, to think beyond the obvious, to not be puppets of mass merchants and technology, to look for beauty and substance and higher quality, to preserve their sense of hearing, and to also wait for them to be mature enough to appreciate what is there for them. There are reasons for symphony audiences to be older: the cost, the advance planning, the calmer energy, the emotional maturity and greater need for what the music has to give. We have to make sure they remember to come. We have to reclaim our place in the mass media whatever it is or will be. We have to proclaim unashamedly that not all things are equal, some things are inherently greater than others. We have to maintain cultural authenticity in our performances. We have to not get in between the audience and the music. It is appalling to come to a concert and be talked to by the conductor as if we can't understand or appreciate what we're going to hear. Who came up with the ridiculous idea of an "animateur?" and using such a nonsensical term? Talk about creating barriers to clarity. Now I'm starting to ramble, so I'll go with one more thought: non-profit organizational structures, theory, and its practitioners is killing music as much as anything else.

Posted by: SDZ at January 21, 2007 10:02 PM

I had a much longer response composed, detailing why my attitudes as a working conductor and professor of music are pretty much diametrically opposed to SDZ's, as enumerated in the post above. But then I hit 'preview' to read through it before I actually posted, and the whole page went away: the posting code on this page sucks. Thus, I go with the more pithy:

SDZ: you are an ignorant elitist. Educate thyself.

Posted by: SS at January 25, 2007 3:34 PM

Let's face it--young musicians are being educated in a more open-minded way than we were: very strictly classical, as opposed to being exposed to audiences of wider tastes these days, and presenters whose willingness to bend a bit to accommodate the varied ages they are targeting today. Today's younger audiences have 30 years more listening-to-the-radio and cd experience than the typical classical audiences of yesteryear, so the training of young musicians is thus more open-minded (atleast from what I hear and see at my concerts).

Sharing the stage means different things to different people. Sharing the idiom is another story: I was speaking with an orchestra manager yesterday--we chatted about various things. As soon as I mentioned Keith Emerson and his piano concerto, the tone of the conversation changed. He lit up the conversation, and was so excited. He said his orchestra played with the Moody Blues, Yes, and others. He remembered the London Philharmonio/Emerson, Lake and Palmer recordings--this was truly someone who came from the generation that simply couldn't ignore the sounds around him. Was his orchestra now ready to embrace works like the Emerson Concerto? Does he want to attract the 40+ crowd to buy tickets to the orchestra concerts--the same age group that was hooked on ELP, Yes, Moody Blues? You bet. Can Gershwin and Emerson be programmed on the same concert? You bet. How about Ginastera and Emerson? Absolutely!What's music to one person may not be to the next--and vice versa. What we are finding out is that most pop composers were initially classically trained, and know more about the classics than we could have imagined. Peter Tork, of the Monkees, has shared some profound classical music insights with me--the likes of which I would not have imagined during the 1960s buying The Monkees series of LPs! Don't be fooled--there's a great resource with these artists, and co-mingling the styles onstage with them is a good thing when done properly.

Posted by: Jeffrey Biegel at March 2, 2007 6:10 AM