League of American Orchestras 2008 Conference Address

As I completed my tenure as president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, I felt it appropriate to share with the delegates to our annual conference in Denver thoughts that I had been gathering during that tenure. Although I will continue to represent the League by visiting orchestras around the country, as I have for more than five years now, and will deepen my involvement with some orchestras by doing more extensive consulting with them, I felt that the conclusion of that specific position--and in fact the conclusion of 45 consecutive years of full-time positions directly or indirectly connected with symphony orchestras--was an appropriate occasion for reflection and observation. So I hope you won't mind my taking advantage of the opportunity of sharing that speech with you. Here is the text of the speech.

I am going to ask you to indulge me for a few minutes today, as I share with you some observations made after 45 years in our world of music, including some 30 years of involvement with the League. The past seven of those years, as the League's chair and then president, have in many ways been the most satisfying, because they've provided for me the national perspective that you cannot get at one orchestra. You cannot understand the vitality of the orchestral scene in America unless you witness it first-hand, as I have with 133 different orchestras. The experience of hearing one of America's international-level orchestras--and we have quite a few that are the equal of any in the world--cannot be described in words. The impact of those orchestras is known to all of us. But you cannot understand the broader and deeper significance of America's entire orchestral life until you have experienced it for yourself. This position has allowed me to do that, and I'd like to share some thoughts with you.

Many of us feel that the arts have been increasingly marginalized in this country--a sure indication of a decaying society. Any careful examination of newspapers across America over the past 50 years will demonstrate dramatically the shrinking of arts coverage. Look at public television if you want further proof of the decreasing importance of the arts in America. Public television was started precisely to broadcast programming that would have too small an appeal for commercial TV. (Never mind that in my youth, classical music was seen regularly on commercial TV.) Now, public broadcasting frequently considers Sarah Brightman or Andrea Bocelli to be "highbrow" programming.

Government funding, in real dollars, has declined at all levels in the past quarter century.

And then there's our education system, which for the past 25 or 30 years in so many of our cities has been reducing or eliminating music and the arts.

Some of you have heard me say before that we as a field are not without guilt in creating the gulf that exists between orchestral music and major segments of our population. We have over the years allowed a rather precious, ritual-like atmosphere to accrue around our particular art form--in the way we present it and the way we talk and write about it--an atmosphere guaranteed to put some distance between the art and the people. If those who wrote about music wrote with the same passion, personal involvement, and communicative power that we find on the sports pages, we would be in a very different place.

But there are genuine societal issues at play as well. I see a growing climate of anti-intellectualism in America, and with it a lowering of the place of the arts on the national agenda. There is today a serious distortion of values in the world--a set of values that puts the short term ahead of the long term, that puts financial achievement ahead of ethical standards, and that minimizes the worth of intellectual achievement and of human expression. In truth, when future generations look back and judge the civilizations and societies of the past, it is first and foremost the cultural and artistic achievements of those societies that are spoken of. Whether it is Homer, Shakespeare, Mozart, Beethoven, Rembrandt, Picasso, James Baldwin, Garcia Lorca, or Leonard Bernstein--the artists and the art they created express the deepest and most profound thoughts of the civilizations in which they lived and worked. It is the achievements of those artists that, in fact, define civilizations, define humanity.

Many in positions of authority, those who shape education budgets and public agendas, seem to like simple answers: quantifiable, measurable, testable indications of progress. It is easier for them to talk and think in sound bites. So when we talk about the non-quantifiable, human qualities of music and the arts, when we start talking about the way in which an understanding of great art leads to a greater understanding of other cultures and peoples, to shaping a complete, creative, and productive human being more capable of bridging differences, we are asked to document it, perhaps on a graph. Well...I can't do that-- but every year of my life spent in music makes me more certain of it. You-- every one of you in this room today-- know it too. If I am pushed to "prove it," I might use as an example Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, made up of young musicians who are Palestinians, Arabs, and Israeli Jews--sitting together onstage, making music together instead of shooting at each other. Or Venezuela's El Sistema-- which has meaningfully changed the lives of tens of thousands of Venezuelan youngsters. For you see, in the end, the answer is in the music. All we have to do is bring it to people in a way that is inviting, involving, and communicative. And so our mission is to break down whatever barriers continue to exist so that the music itself can do its work.

We have historically been the field in the arts most resistant to change. While museums were adding audio guides, interactive exhibits, and imaginative new ways of bringing their art to their public, while opera companies were not only adding supertitles but utilizing advances in lighting and stage technology to keep their art form alive, many orchestras were continuing to present concerts that would look and feel pretty much the way concerts looked and felt to Brahms. But today I am seeing fresh, imaginative thinking everywhere in our field.

I can remember that 25 or 30 years ago, as music education started declining in hundreds of school systems, many in the orchestra field said, "That's bad. But it's not our job to fix it or deal with it." I don't hear that very much any more. I think we've all recognized that it is our responsibility to think about music education in the schools, and to partner with others to do everything we can to revitalize in-school music education. That is why close to 200 American orchestras have signed onto the League's Statement of Common Cause.

No orchestra can behave as if its mission statement were: "to perform, at the highest level possible, great music written for Western symphony orchestra, for those people who already like it and can afford its ticket prices." Those who shape our orchestras know this. The result is that today the field is innovating and experimenting in so many directions it can make your head spin. It is happening in cities and towns large and small, many of them places the national press rarely visits.

When I sit down with orchestra boards and staffs, more and more what they want to talk
about is civic engagement. If you go back ten or twenty years, when orchestras produced community programs, the aim of those programs was often to try to create ticket buyers. That has changed dramatically, and I'd like to think that the League has had something to do with encouraging and supporting that change. The League's new resource, On the Road to Authentic Civic Engagement: An Assessment Resource for Orchestras in Their Communities, is a direct response to a growing demand for tools to help in this area. More and more, orchestras are seeking ways to be true resources to all parts of their communities without regard to whether the people served ever turn into subscribers.

There is no question that giving full symphonic concerts in our concert halls is and always will be at the core of our mission. But its place at the center still leaves room for a broad and diverse range of activities that link us to our communities. That is vital to our future, and it is happening everywhere. Orchestras must be judged by all of their work--on and off the stage--and not solely by their main-series subscription concerts.

Orchestras are also thinking about concert presentation. Shouldn't the form of a symphony concert have evolved since Mendelssohn's day? Twenty-five years ago most conductors would not dare speak to audiences. Now, many of them do. You may think that is a trivial matter. I do not. The formalistic ritual of the symphony concert, almost mystical in its trappings, bears very little relationship to 21st-century America, and has for decades seemed more and more alien and distancing. I of course do not suggest that everything will be wonderful if all conductors start talking at every concert. But I do suggest that breaking down that wall of formality is essential, and that, when a conductor knows how to do it, this is one easy way to begin. Pre-concert lectures are common today, but were virtually non-existent 30 years ago. Thirty years ago no woman could seriously think about pursuing a career as a conductor. Now, while we may not have reached true gender equity--we're at least beginning to approach it.

In marketing and development, in patron service, in governance, in internal relationships, in re-thinking revenue models, in every single aspect of orchestra administration today there is a wonderful sense of questioning, of asking whether the way we did things 50 years ago is right for now. We are making real, if sometimes slow, progress on our internal relationships. The days in which musicians and managements were adversaries are slowly receding, and they must disappear. We are all in this together, and we better be unified.

Orchestras are trying experiments of varying kinds to reach the generations of young and middle-aged folks today who grew up re-wired by constant exposure to television, not to mention the Internet. Just how we recognize and deal with that is still a question, but it is a question being addressed. We must establish a culture in which orchestras are encouraged to experiment with concert formats, including visual elements, and be allowed to fail in some of those experiments. We should not underestimate the receptivity of young people to the music itself--even if we have to re-examine many aspects of the delivery system through which they experience it. Look at the health of our youth orchestras--I believe we have every reason to be optimistic about a future full of passionate musicians and listeners.

And if I may be allowed a parting rant about one of my hobby horses, it is crucial that more orchestras bring the element of fun back into the concert hall more frequently. I wrote some years ago in Symphony magazine about the disappearance of light classics from our main concert series--works like Suppé overtures or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies--works that have for the past 40 or 50 years been largely relegated to "pops" concerts. I have news for conductors who won't play these works because they "belong on pops concerts." When they were written, there were no pops concerts. I accept that symphonic music can and must explore the full range and depth of human emotion, including grief and tragedy. But charm, wit, and humor are also parts of the human character, and they belong in our concert halls too. Fun at a "serious" concert is okay, folks.

Continuing the process of thinking about all of the issues confronting symphony orchestras is the challenge that we all face, and a challenge that the League is more firmly and passionately dedicated to than ever. As I leave the presidency, and turn it over to the remarkably capable and imaginative Jesse Rosen, I am pleased that I will retain a relationship with this organization. I want to say that you have--to serve you and your orchestras--an extraordinary organization. The League board and the management team and staff are as good as it gets. To find a board chair with the wisdom, commitment, and leadership skills of Lowell Noteboom is very rare, and we all treasure it. As for Jesse, he has many brilliant qualities. But my favorite, and I've told him this, is his utter refusal to accept received, or conventional, wisdom. If you really want to spark his imagination, just say, "Well, that's the way we've always done it." Nothing gets his juices flowing quite like re-examining "the way we've always done it." His questioning, probing intellect, combined with his deep love of music, are qualities that are going to be of enormous value to each and every one of us who cares about orchestras. And I could go through every single strength on the League's remarkable management and staff team-- but if I did we'd be here through your scheduled flight departures. But I want you to know that being surrounded by this team during my time at the League has been a privilege and an honor.

For whatever it is worth, I remain optimistic about the health of orchestras in the future. Are there issues to be faced? Certainly. Are those who run orchestras meeting those challenges, and demonstrating imagination as they adapt to a changing environment? Absolutely. There is no question in my mind about that. This art form has a broad appeal and deep meaning to human beings of wildly different cultural, social, and economic backgrounds--that is because it communicates to us things that cannot be communicated in words. The strength of our orchestras is, in fact, the strength of the music they play.

As we go forward helping to shape the future of this art and, therefore, this society, let us all work to make certain that America takes the lead in making the future something more than faster computers, bigger buildings, more productive factories, greater profits--and certainly about something other than more devastating wars and conflicts. The peak of human achievement, in civilization after civilization, is represented by its artistic and cultural achievements. The great playwright Arthur Miller may well have put it best: "When the cannons have stopped firing, and the great victories of finance are reduced to surmise and are long forgotten, it is the art of the people that will confront future generations. The arts can do more to sustain the peace than all the wars, the armaments, and the threats and warnings of the politicians." Thank you.

June 20, 2008 2:44 PM |



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