I got a press release by email from the Philadelphia Orchestra, announcing among other things a “Free Neighborhood Concert,” to be given on Dilworth Plaza outside Philadelphia’s City Hall. And to quote the release:
Glinka Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila
Tchaikovsky Excerpts from Swan Lake
Bizet Excerpts from Carmen
Bernstein Overture to Candide
An evening of favorite classics for the whole family!
Which made me wonder what kind of family they had in mind. The one I thought of was a family from the 1950s, the kind that Norman Rockwell might have painted. You know the drill: tall, handsome father, mother looking up at him, and two kids, a boy with freckles and a girl in pigtails. (And a dog.) That seems exactly like the family audience that would enjoy these bright and harmless pieces, without ever thinking that, just maybe, there might be something newer, something with a little edge, something that reflected the world they see around them.
I imagined another family, which I’ll put together from people that I know, or have read about. The father is a magazine writer who plays blues guitar, the mother handles arts funding for a big foundation (and has been giving speeches on how the arts should be contemporary). The son in college has a noise band, and — to honor retro style — records its music only on cassettes. The high-school daughter’s into animé, and has been teaching herself Japanese.
And then there’s a younger son, 11 years old, who’s one of the kids described in a New York Times Magazine piece I linked to in my last post), kids whose middle-school classes are built around playing and discussing and programming videogames.
This family, I think — and, again I’m not making people like this up — would want something more from a concert. At the very least, John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Or Mason Bates’s Warehouse Medicine from B-Sides, as played by the YouTube Symphony at Carnegie Hall, with Mason DJing:
Or something like John King’s Shuffle, a blues-based string quartet. I saw an audience of teens grooving to it, at a concert for teens presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. And if you think, well, fine, maybe that goes over in New York, but only in New York, note that in the audience was a large teen-age chorus, visiting from Alabama. (This was at a concert conceived and presented by teens, who’d chosen Ethel, the terrific new music string quartet, to perform.)
Maybe the Philadelphia Orchestra will draw a family audience. But they’re aiming their artistic guns very low. And dumbing down their cultural profile, to a point where it simply falls off today’s cultural radar.
I understand the problems in presenting the kind of program I’m suggesting. These pieces need rehearsal, which takes effort, and, more than that, costs money. And then you have to pay royalties to the composers. More money. And you have to rent the orchestra parts. Orchestras — this is the reality — like to do community concerts cheaply. I once was hanging out in the office of a big orchestra, and watched an associate conductor and a member of the orchestra’s artistic administration plan a Fourth of July concert. The one rule they absolutely had to follow is that all the music on the program had to be in the orchestra’s library. Which meant that every piece would be old, and would have been played by the orchestra many times. Not a cent was available for anything even slightly off this well-worn path.
But what’s the cost of that reality? Mindless cultural irrelevance. Even if the Philadelphia Orchestra does get an audience in Dilworth Plaza (which I’m sure they will), it won’t be an audience that really gets excited, an audience that decides it wants to follow the orchestra down any artistic path. We’re going to have to do better, if classical music is going to survive.