on the record: November 2006 Archives
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.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.
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."
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.
In a recent column, Norman Lebrecht wrote: "The average age in U.S. podia, Cleveland apart, is pushing 70. The American orchestra is in dire need of a wake-up call."
While I do not wish to comment on Mr. Lebrecht's opinions, I do think it is appropriate to expect factual accuracy in print. Of the 19 largest U.S. orchestras that have music directors currently under contract, the average age of those music directors, Cleveland apart, is 55.6. There is one age 70 or older, and six age 60 or older. Specifically, here is an alphabetical list of those 19, which includes Cleveland (though they are omitted from the averaging):
Atlanta, Robert Spano , 45
Baltimore, Marin Alsop, 50
Boston, James Levine, 63
Cincinnati, Paavo Järvi, 43
Cleveland, Franz Welser-Möst, 46
Houston, Hans Graf, 56
Indianapolis, Mario Venzago, 58
Los Angeles, Esa-Pekka Salonen, 48
Milwaukee, Andreas Delfs, 48
Minnesota, Osmo Vänska, 53
National, Leonard Slatkin, 62
New Jersey, Neeme Järvi, 69
New York, Lorin Maazel, 76
Philadelphia, Christoph Eschenbach, 66
Oregon, Carlos Kalmar, 48
Saint Louis, David Robertson, 48
San Francisco, Michael Tilson Thomas, 61
Seattle, Gerard Schwarz, 59
Utah, Keith Lockhart, 47
Just wanted to be clear about the facts.
The story "Unsuccessful Overtures" by Judith Dobrzynski has caused quite a bit of discussion in the field, and I'd like to share with you the letter I sent last week to the Wall Street Journal.
"To the Editor:
As President and CEO of the American Symphony Orchestra League, I must express my concern over the recent "Unsuccessful Orchestras" story in last weekend's "Leisure & Arts," which fails to capture the very positive messages and conclusions that were also a part of the report, and the important lessons learned by the 15 participating orchestras and the foundation, lessons that will be of immense help to all orchestras.
The world we live in is changing drastically, and orchestras, like other nonprofit arts organizations (not to mention professional sports and the movie industry) are facing a sea change in the way the general public consumes art, culture, and entertainment. It is important to note that one of the principal conclusions stated in the report was: "Despite predictions of the death of classical music and its audience, there is healthy support for the art form."
Bravo to the Knight Foundation for giving 15 American orchestras the financial backing to experiment with new models and ways of doing business and the freedom to take risks, and for encouraging discussions that have led to some great change in the orchestra field.
Minimalist Jukebox concerts offered at midnight in Los Angeles; the brand new multi media television and web series Keeping Score in San Francisco; new concert formats for presenting traditional music in greater context in Chicago, St. Louis, Houston, Spokane and others; distribution of recordings over iTunes from concerts in New York, Los Angeles, and Milwaukee; podcasting in Utah and Virginia. These are just a handful of the many innovative ways orchestras are finding new audiences in our changed world. And, by the way, some of those varied offerings are finding success in transferring new audiences to traditional concerts as well.
Also encouraging is that in an informal survey of the League's membership this fall, 72% of orchestras report increased or steady attendance over this time last year, and the orchestras with increases outnumber the ones with steady attendance by a 2-1 margin.
President & CEO
American Symphony Orchestra League"
It has been said that those who succeed must first have many failures. It is wonderful that the Knight Foundation has helped orchestras to have important discussions, and to experiment. What we must all do is have the patience to allow experimentation, to recognize that genuine experimentation actually anticipates failures and partial successes, and that those are the ways one learns and improves. None of us have had the opportunity to see all the light bulbs that Edison tried which did not work.
In a Nov. 8 column called A walk on the web side, Norman Lebrecht described me as "a suit once hired by the Arts Council to abolish London orchestras." Though indeed it is true that I often wear suits, I think it is important to set the record straight on the matter of the Arts Council.
In 1993, I served on the Hoffman Commission that the Arts Council in London assembled, with a mandate for that Commission to recommend which one London orchestra in addition to the London Symphony should continue to receive Arts Council funding and which two orchestras should no longer be funded.
Let me first clarify that I was not "hired." My expenses were paid and, if I remember correctly, I received a small symbolic honorarium. More importantly, as the other four members of Judge Hoffman's Commission could verify for Mr. Lebrecht, I took a leadership position in assembling the 3-2 vote that refused to comply with the mandate, and which concluded that none of the orchestras were sufficiently inferior to the others to merit the loss of Arts Council funds.
Although I have heard many American orchestras in concert (probably somewhere between 80 and 100 - someday I need to sit down and actually calculate the number), it is rare that I have the opportunity to hear one of the country's smaller orchestras over a time span that might demonstrate the presence or lack of artistic growth. That happened to me last weekend when I visited the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra.
I last heard the Pensacola Symphony about twelve years ago (before its current music director, Peter Rubardt, had assumed that position). What I heard last Saturday night was a hugely improved ensemble, an orchestra with a high degree of polish and technical achievement, as well as the ability to play with conviction, color, and intensity over a wide-ranging program including Smetana's The Moldau, Sibelius' Violin Concerto (Karen Gomyo was the superb soloist), Rautawaara's Isle of Bliss (a lovely, post-romantic tone poem that even the most conservative audience would enjoy), and Debussy's La mer. That last was the test - La mer requires an orchestra to play with great attention to intonation (or the wonderful colors become muddy), with delicacy, and with a sense that the musicians are listening to each other. It was the range of color and dynamics, particularly in the Rautawaara and Debussy, that took one by surprise. You don't expect a thoroughly satisfying performance of a work as difficult as La mer from an orchestra in a small community - and when you find it you are once again reminded that the quality of music making in the United States is at a much higher level than most people believe.