More on Sellars
In response to my Peter Sellars blog entry from a few weeks ago, I received a letter from Paul A. Alter that questions the substance of Sellars's keynote speech at the League's 2006 National Conference in Los Angeles:
Sellars' remarks ring hollow to me. I do not doubt his honesty and sincerity, but I do not see how the experiences he cites can be replicated to benefit other orchestras in other cities. Some, in fact, might prove to be disastrous.
Neither do I agree with the respondent above who says that the symphony orchestra is a corpse. Rather, it is an art form that has spent the last 50 years driving it devotees away.
But, maybe I'm wrong about Sellars' sermon. So do something for me, please. Post a list of things we can actually do that you derive from his talk. I can't, and that's why I say it is beautiful, heartfelt, touching, and empty.
Mr. Alter asks us for a concrete list of things that orchestras can do to truly connect to their respective communities. In response, I offer the following:
To me, the beauty of Sellars' remarks is that they underline the human connection that is central to music and state it in an eloquent way. It was never meant to be a "how-to" list, and in fact, such a list is impossible because every orchestra is different and every community is different. The experiences that he cites cannot be replicated, but understanding the meaning of those experiences can lead to intelligent exploration by individual orchestras of how to become meaningful participants in their own communities. I believe that orchestras, if they are to survive and thrive in the future, must come to mean something to those in their communities who may never attend subscription concerts. They must become true community resources, providing musical benefits to a wider range of people than their subscription audiences. The approach to trying to achieve resonance in any one community is a local, not a global, issue - except for a few guiding principles. The main one is that those responsible for making decisions at the orchestra need to make personal connections with leaders in their community, and ask questions. An orchestra staff that sits in its office and dreams up community programs with no community input, and then goes out and offers them, is already at a disadvantage. This is old-fashioned "outreach," and note that "outreach" is a one-directional word - we will reach out to you. True community engagement means identifying community leaders (churches, community centers, ethnic cultural and historical organizations, whatever are key community institutions in your community) and engaging them in a conversation that starts from the point of view of "if your organization had a relationship with our orchestra that was meaningful for you, what might it look like?" Discussions then take off from that starting point.
In addition, if Mr. Alter's comment is correct, that orchestras have spent the past fifty years driving devotees away (and I believe there is some validity to that view), then what has to take place is serious conversation in the orchestra world about what behavior caused that, and what should be changed to reverse that trend. That is one of the roles that we believe the American Symphony Orchestra League can play - helping to provoke conversations that matter about issues of importance.
It is also worth noting that the pessimism about orchestras is not founded on fact and is an old story. Note the following editorial from a music publication:
For our orchestras, the economic situation has become even more acute over the course of the past few years: costs (particularly salaries) have gone up, subsidies have gone down, and concert audiences have dwindled alarmingly. No one with any sense of fiscal fairness would begrudge instrumentalists their recent overdue salary increases...
What rankles, however, is the dwindling audience; the older concert-going generation is thinning out, and the seats it used to occupy are not being taken up by a younger one.
Sounds like it was written last week, doesn't it? Nope. It was written 38 years ago, in 1969 in Stereo Review magazine. In fact, orchestra growth across this country has been quite extraordinary since 1969.
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