on the record: February 2007 Archives
When I began traveling around the United States spending time with orchestras, I found myself surprised with regularity at the high quality of music-making that I found in small city orchestras. These are orchestras that play, perhaps, six or eight or ten concerts a year, and yet still have about them a sense of ensemble and level of execution that would do much larger cities proud.
Now, after three-and-a-half years of listening to orchestras around the nation, it is time to change my vocabulary...
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.
As I sat in the Schuster Performing Arts Center in Dayton, Ohio, on January 13th listening to Mahler's Third Symphony, I couldn't help reflecting on a number of things.
First was the sheer astonishment I felt in simply hearing the piece by the Dayton Philharmonic. I'm old enough to remember when hearing Mahler's Third even at the New York Philharmonic or Chicago Symphony Orchestra was a genuine occasion, and one rarely encountered. For those to whom Mahler has become commonplace, it is worth noting how recent his "arrival" truly is. When I heard the New York Philharmonic perform Mahler's First under Dimitri Mitropoulos (I believe it was in 1959), the shock of the sudden fortissimo that begins the finale, following on the soft ending of the third movement, was enough of a surprise to the audience that virtually everyone (myself included) audibly gasped. That would not happen today. Mahler's Sixth Symphony, to give another example, was composed in 1906, and received its American premiere in 1947 with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Mitropoulos, forty-one years after its completion! And when was its second American performance? In 1955, once again with the New York Philharmonic under Mitropoulos. In other words, between 1906 and 1955, the Mahler Sixth received two sets of American performances, both by the same orchestra and conductor. I cite that simply to show the transformation of Mahler's place in what is called "the canon."
But it was not just the fact of the performance that got to me in Dayton - it was the quality. Taking on a big Mahler symphony was, not that long ago, considered a big risk and big challenge for orchestras in our smaller communities. But now the quality of musicians who make up orchestras throughout America is such that one encounters performances like this one that are completely satisfying - with no apology needed, no explanation like "well, when you consider the budget level of this orchestra, the playing was pretty good." Nope - this was a major league Mahler Third, beautifully shaped by Neal Gittleman and wonderfully executed by the orchestra. It was also helped by its surroundings - which gave way to more reflecting.
An amazing number of new concert halls have sprung up in recent years, and many of them are very, very good. Completed in 2003, Dayton's Schuster Center is one of those - the sound (I have now heard two concerts there) is just about everything you want, at least from the front of the balcony and row Q on the main floor, the two locations in which I've sat. The orchestral sound is rich and warm, while retaining clarity. The bass response is visceral, and you feel enveloped by the orchestra. But relatively new halls that I've encountered in the past few years in Memphis, TN; Nashville, TN; Charleston, WV; Omaha, NE; and Raleigh, NC are all true successes (and I'm doing this from memory, so I may have inadvertently omitted some others). While it is true that some of the halls built in the 1960s and 70s had some real acoustical issues, I have always believed that the problem wasn't that acoustics were unpredictable and unmanageable, but that the normal structure of the building teams in those days was for the acoustical consultant to report to the architect - thus assuring that in any difference of opinion the architect was more likely to prevail. Now most halls give the acoustician equal access to the owner in the construction process, thus giving the acoustician more control over the outcome. It has been very gratifying to encounter so many good new halls - particularly because the acoustical immediacy they create is a crucial part of the musical experience that is central to the mission of orchestras.
Another reflection sparked by the Dayton Mahler Third, and I'll admit that this one is highly subjective: the sheer pride of the orchestra in mastering a score like this was a tangible part of the audience experience. This looked like an orchestra having the time of its life, digging into this 100-minute monster of a piece and acing it. You saw it, you felt it, you heard it - and it was part of that indescribable magic that takes place when a connection is made between stage and audience. And the result was that a piece that was once considered too controversial, or difficult, to program, maintained a rapt, silent audience for its entire duration. The ovation at the end included not only shouts of "bravo" but whistles of approval from the audience. For one who has been going to concerts since the 1950s, it was an amazing experience.