Listening to America's Symphonic Treasures, in All Fifty States

Not long ago I spent a day with the board, management, and musicians of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra in Little Rock. That visit represented, for me, a bit of a personal milestone: I am now able to say that I have had some contact with a symphony orchestra in every one of our fifty states. That does not mean I have heard all of them--sadly, there wasn't a concert on the day I was in Little Rock--and some of those contacts were many, many years ago and took the form of just hearing a concert, not meeting with those who make up the orchestra. But still, I suspect that there aren't that many who can say they've touched, in some way, orchestras in all fifty states. And it did get me to thinking about something I've written before: the amazing resilience and quality of our American orchestras.
Just in January alone I heard concerts of real quality--concerts that provided me with artistic satisfaction without the need to apologize for the locale ("oh well, considering the size of the town, I suppose it was pretty good..."). Nope, these concerts were satisfying listening experiences for someone who has been listening to classical music for half a century. Where did they take place? Fairfax, Virginia (the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra); Grand Junction, Colorado (the Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra); and Albuquerque, New Mexico (the New Mexico Symphony).

All three were impressive, and for reasons both similar and unique. In Fairfax, a candidate for their music director position (Daniel Meyer) showed the kind of energy and intensity that a new face can bring to an orchestra, especially one clearly showing his wares in hopes of being the chosen one. In Grand Junction, the first surprise was an all-American program that featured one work I'd never heard before (Gwyneth Walker's moving A Testament to Peace); a work by one of America's greatest composers, but one that I'd never before encountered in live performance (Aaron Copland's A Letter from Home); and two classics, Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and Gershwin's An American in Paris. None only that, but Music Director Kirk Gustafson has programmed an American work on every concert this season!  And he gets terrific, committed playing from the Grand Junction Symphony. Then, a week later, I caught the New Mexico Symphony, an orchestra that I had last heard some twenty years ago. Goodness how it has grown! Music Director Guillermo Figueroa is a violinist, and he has clearly developed the orchestra's string ensemble and quality enormously. The Figueroa family--he has two cousins in the Met Opera Orchestra, one being principal cellist--played with him in the Beethoven Triple Concerto, which had all the conviction and passion you'd expect from a family gathering. But it was Beethoven's Fifth Symphony that showed the development of this orchestra. The playing had nuance, shape, subtle dynamic shading, and drama. While Figueroa took quick tempos, it never sounded rushed, because the orchestra was in complete control.

I write all of this not to become a music critic reviewing concerts. That isn't the purpose of this blog. I write it because of the fact that having somehow reached this milestone of coming into contact with orchestras in every single state made me focus once again on the remarkable depth and quality of symphonic music-making in these United States. This quality, its diversity and its scope make it one of the cultural treasures of America.

April 10, 2009 2:53 PM | | Comments (2)



I love your observations here, Henry. I'm proud to see (and hear about) the quality of American orchestras, and am excited about Grand Junction's programming decision. That's not from a jingoistic standpoint at all, I just feel that orchestral music so often is tossed in the European bucket in people's minds by default, and erroneously.

I'm particularly proud of my local symphony (Nashville), which is made up of exceptional artists, and is blessed with an energetic conductor (Guerrero) who is making wonderful programming choices, and bit by bit, helping to galvanize this decidedly commercial music-oriented city around its fine classical ensembles.

This phenomenon--of excellent professional symphonic music-making throughout the 50 states--simply wasn't true even three decades ago. Dozens of new or rehabilitated concert halls house these orchestras. And classical music's audience has shrunk, grayed and ossified--as is often said--during those same decades? Don't think so.

Sometimes this has happened with board leadership, but more often it's staff or music director. There looms a disconnect--between amateur boards made up of people who may know nothing about music, let alone its specialized business model--and professional staff, conductor and players. With too many boards, at least the ones I've been in or worked for, inertia and the anxiousness not to disagree with or offend other board members, with whom they might have important business relationships, tends to rule.

On the other hand... I'm working with a German orchestra now, and their business structure, with the bulk of funding coming from the government, does offer a kind of stability, but there's little relationship to the public or community. Ticket sales account for only about 12% of the budget! What's even more disconcerting is that they think that's fine...


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