From Peter Sachon: Millennial America

From Greg: 

Peter Sachon is one of many people I’ve met by writing this blog, one of many people doing striking new things in classical music. And having striking new thoughts. He’s also a wonderfully good cellist. 

He sent me a link to a blog post he’d done for the website (see below for more on that), and what he wrote immediately spoke to me. It’s about something I’ve written about, and certainly others have — the gap between classical music and the rest of our culture. Peter also touches on something much talked about recently, at least in classical music circles, the question of whether classical musicians have any duty to take a stand on human rights issues affecting the countries they’re from. 

Peter’s answer to that is forthright: Yes, classical musicians do have that responsibility. But — and this, at least in my experience, is new — he doesn’t make this a moral or even a political issue. To him, it’s a cultural issue affecting classical music’s survival. Because Peter is writing here about the millennial generation, people who’ve come of age in the 21st century, and will, as Peter points out, become the largest generation in human history. They’re also a crucial audience for classical music’s future. 

So if millennials expect classical musicians — and classical music institutions — to take stands on the issues of the day, we’d better pay attention to that. Because otherwise we might seem irrelevant. And that’s the point of Peter’s post. He doesn’t talk in general terms about the culture outside classical music, the culture we’re only just learning to speak to. He talks in very specific ways about people — the millennials — who are central to that culture, and warns that if we fail to understand them, if we fail to reach them, we’re in big trouble. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen this said in quite this way before. 

Orchestras need to offer compelling reasons for millennials to make live symphonic music a part of their lives. After all, millennials are the largest generation in human history, and at nearly 90 million people they will very soon make up the vast majority of our orchestras’ stakeholders, constituents, audience, staff members and supporters — and instrumentalists. By 2017, they will surpass the buying power of the baby boomer generation. There is simply no generation in the next forty years that will have the size and potential purchasing power to influence American orchestras more than millennials. While orchestras aren’t the only institutions that have abandoned the young, they can still be among the first to reclaim them — and in so doing they can begin to reclaim the position of live orchestral music in American culture.

These millennials have very different expectations for nonprofits than baby boomers. Their expectations that nonprofits be socially conscious institutions goes beyond what is traditionally expected, especially from performing arts organizations. Being able to trust a nonprofit organization and its mission is very important to compelling millennials to attend and donate. One telling statistic is that nine out of ten millennials would stop giving to an organization that had lost their trust.

American classical institutions’ stoic reactions to human rights abuses is making that trust difficult to develop. For example, when Pussy Riot was sentenced to two years in a labor camp for a peaceful political protest, many of those 90 million American millennials along with people like Madonna, Sting, Yoko Ono, Björk, Moby, Peter Gabriel, and more than a dozen international papers as well as the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the New Yorker magazine all publicly supported Pussy Riot’s human right to peaceful protest. And yet, even after so many people across a range of musical and intellectual disciplines voiced their support, not one American orchestra dared even a tweet.

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Things were no different after Russia enacted Putin’s outrageous anti-gay law. The Metropolitan Opera attempted to be detached from the controversy while protesters pointed out that two of Putin’s most visible supporters led the Met’s season-opening production. The famed music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, refuses to speak out against Maduro’s government, even after students were beaten and arrested during his concertizing in Venezuela.

Orchestras can play at being apolitical, but their choices have political resonance whether they like it or not. In another example, it will be hard for millennials not to notice the disconnect between American orchestras trying to be above the fray of politics while at the same time expanding their influence in Asia. What’s the message of positive nonprofit societal change given by playing concerts in North Korea while shying away from broaching the subject of human rights? The baby boomers may not notice or care, but the millennials absolutely do and it is giving them even more reasons not to be involved with orchestras.

After all, selling the idea of an orchestra’s mission to bring symphonic music to as many people as possible has always been a challenge. And, laying aside the human rights issues, it’s also easy to see that part of the appeal of American orchestras’ desire to expand to China is that it’s an easy solution to the changing demographics in America. Appealing to the deep pockets in China is the only avenue of expansion for classical traditionalists. It allows them to teach a whole new generation of musicians that orchestral music means playing Beethoven whilst wearing tuxedos, and bowing to the king people who have more power and money than actual kings. So it’s easy to see how it might seem to millennials that American orchestras are not simply aspiring to achieve artistic ideals, but rather that they will follow the money no matter the human cost.

All these choices are not accidents. Rather, they fall under the idea that art and politics are separate. Given how important trust is to millennials’ interactions with nonprofits, the idea that institutions should refrain from voicing widely-held human rights positions is silly and counter-productive. The worry of upsetting existing donors pales in comparison to the danger posed to orchestras who undervalue the changes brought by the millennial generation.

It also doesn’t hurt that speaking out against human rights abuses is the right thing to do. The artistic thing. The human thing. Of course, all of this only makes sense when one considers the art itself that is being presented by the institution.

American organizations need to embrace the idea that live orchestral music can appeal to and elevate a broader demographic of the population. Selling live orchestral music is difficult enough without creating new problems simply because we all don’t want to admit that we are getting older and the world is changing. Even with broad community support, the only leverage the symphony has against all market forces, including wealthy donors, is its artistic mission.

Categories of art in 21st century America are more fluid than they were in the previous century. The lines between genres have been forever blurred, especially for the millennial audience. To them there is very little difference between “new” music, classical music, or film and videogame music. The future for people running orchestras is to run them without regard to these old categories. Too much of the existing orchestral eco-system is based on strict category memberships, or genre-silos. Categories such as Classical, Pops, Live-to-Projection, and Broadway are common to how orchestras think about themselves, their audience, and their artists. However, for 21st-century orchestras, genre-silos are a bad thing, and not simply because genre-silos are absurd, but also because millennials don’t see those categories — they only see “orchestra.”

It’s understandable that traditionalists are uncomfortable with the dissolving boundaries between symphonic forms. Boundaries are comforting. They can give structure and a sense of control to the challenges of programming a season, and they make choices of repertoire and personnel easier to categorize for the front office. Presently however, the industry must arrive at a more evolved view — one that is more in line with how the millennial audience views orchestras. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Douglas Hofstadter writes this about categories:

The idea that category membership always comes in shades of grey rather than black and white runs strongly against cultural conventions and is therefore disorienting and even disturbing, accordingly it gets swept under the rug most of the time.

Orchestras cannot afford to sweep these reforms under the rug. The institution should begin to consider itself and its image in society from the vantage point of a living aspirational artistic endeavor, rather than a museum trying to raise funds for “real” music. Let it become a beacon of American artistic, and thus human, values.

Also, aside from being demographically dangerous, these genre-silos limit institutional creativity. They not only hinder interesting cross-genre concerts and series from developing, but surprisingly they even limit the musical possibilities within traditional concerts.

For example, the New York Philharmonic famously ignores music by Philip Glass. Yet, Philip Glass’s music is as big and important as new symphonic music gets. His perennial absence at the New York Philharmonic is an annual artistic embarrassment, and it stems from the their genre-silo of “new music” — which, apparently, does not allow for new orchestral music to be both “good” and “popular” at the same time.

Some people view Philip Glass as “only” a film composer, but he’s not alone in having his art ignored here at home. In fact, American composers of all kinds have been defined out of many orchestras’ genre-silos of new music. The National Symphony will be playing no American music at all next season, and the new season at the Cleveland Orchestra is so bereft of new American music that it spawned an open letter of protest from local composers.

What about the new American symphonic forms? The American composers writing idiomatically for Americans? Why hold on to categories that require that the music of John Williams simply not matter because nobody taught film music at Harvard in the 80’s? How many other really important American composers’ works are audiences missing out on because of these old fashioned categories?

The tradition of making large-scale music with acoustic instruments is what’s worth saving. Traditional donors must be persuaded that they are giving to maintain the integrity of the institution, and not to dictate the direction of the development of the art form. Indeed, orchestras cannot persuade new audiences to value traditional ideas of symphonic music. That’s a fool’s errand, as anyone who has glanced at history can plainly see.

American orchestras must have a bigger tent for what we call art. It must become a place that exists for the new, and that happens to sometimes play the old. A place for live music that programs music taken from all of American symphonic culture, and allows them all to be heard and thought of in context with each other.

The genius of the millennial’s viewpoint is that it can help release orchestras from the too-heavy bonds of history. This big-tent outlook not only allows orchestras to program and present music from across a spectrum of genres and forms, it gives orchestras a new artistic baseline so that they may grow into the modern era. When it’s just as valid, artistically, to find genius in a videogame score as it is in a commissioned piece, then orchestras will find themselves in a position to use both artistic standards and the market to fulfill their mission to bring symphonic music to as many people as possible.

lmdPeter Sachon is a cellist, blogger, and composer who has performed all over the United States, Europe, and Asia. He has been the principal cellist for the Broadway shows Fiddler on the Roof, The Light in the Piazza, High Fidelity, Legally Blonde, and South Pacific, and currently he plays in Pippin. He also performs with some of the finest freelance orchestras and opera companies in New York City. Touring has brought him to Europe and the U.S. with many eclectic artists including Pink Martini, Cirque du Soliel, and Phillip Phillips. He has also played the cello for an array of artists, from the Donmar Warehouse productions of Twelfth Night and Uncle Vanya at BAM to many individual performers, including Audra McDonald, Victoria Clark, Deborah Voight, Rufus Wainwright, Dee Snider, Judy Kuhn, and Billy Joel. As a part of his concert series, The Cello Project, Peter has premiered more than thirty new works for cello, all written for him by Broadway composers. 

This article was first published on the blog, and is reprinted here with permission from Polyphonic. Many thanks for that! is an important site created and maintained by the Institute for Music Leadership at the Eastman School of Music. There’s a lot on it by, for, and about orchestras and orchestral musicians. It also houses (I hope that’s right) the Paul R. Judy Center for Applied Research, which does studies and gives grants related to classical music’s future. Currently they’re accepting applications for grants involving innovative ensembles. Check it out, if you’re in an ensemble that fits the description, or are doing relevant research. 

For more of Peter’s posts, go here.

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  1. says

    Peter, I understand what you mean about orchestras needing to show some backbone for millennials to support them. Singers and bands do it all the time. Some even write new songs to support their stands. But consider 1) that standing up is also a way for these artists to stand out and might even be a marketing gimmick or a way to sell CDs, and 2) by contrast (by LAW!), non-profit organizations cannot engage in political speech without jeopardizing their non-profit status. I drew these conclusions too when I brought this very point up to Greg a few months ago. Whether we think it cowardly or not, there IS an awful lot riding on institutional neutrality.

    Similarly, I imagine any leader of a non-profit would also need to avoid political speech. Such might even be in their contracts. Individual artists however, depending on their affiliation, might feel less constrained. But then, some artists might pick the wrong side too. I remember a certain cellist defending Apartheid in the 80s South Africa. Did he win any friends doing that? Only conservative ones.

    • says

      Rick, what you’re saying isn’t strictly true. The Heritage Foundation is a 501c(3) nonprpofit. Contributions to it are tax-deductible. And yet it’s one of the strongest advocates in the US for conservative politics. On the other side of the political fence, the Sierra Club isn’t itself a 501c(3) nonprofit, but it receives funding from its partner organization, the Sierra Club Foundation, which _is_ a 501c(3). The Sierra Club can use this money for educational activities, which can include taking stands on issues, and even for litigation, which of course involves taking a stand. What they can’t do — and the Heritage Foundation can’t do — is use their tax-deductible contributions to support political candidates. There’s no legal reason why an orchestra couldn’t take a stand on a pressing social issue, or allow its stakeholders to use the orchestra’s facilities to take a stand. Orchestras in fact have already done this, when a number of them created projects to fight hunger. That might not be a controversial issue, but it’s certainly a socially-oriented stance.

      The difficulty, of course, is that an orchestra might alienate donors, private and corporate, and government funders by taking stands on hot-button issues. But that doesn’t change Peter’s point, which is that a new generation of younger people won’t accept that orchestras don’t do this. They see pop music artists stepping out for political causes, and when they see that classical music institutions don’t do that, they think the classical music institutions are lame.

    • says

      Rick, as one more footnote to this, in an email from the Rock & Rap Confidential newsletter, one of the founders of the Folk Alliance, a folk music group, stated the group’s core values. Among them were these:

      — We are the music of both of authentic communities and cultures and of the left in North America.

      — We stand on the shoulders of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Hedy West, Jean Carignan, Big Bill Broonzy, and Sarah Ogun Gunning. [The first two of these people, of course, being strong advocates for left politics.]

      — We offer an alternative to mainstream, corporate culture

      The Folk Alliance is a 501c(3) nonprofit.

    • Peter Sachon says

      Hi Rick,

      Federal tax law forbids 501(c)(3)’s from conducting political campaign activities in order to intervene in elections to public office. They are free to speak about about international (and even domestic) human rights issues. So, orchestras and their leaders are legally allowed to talk about Putin’s anti-gay law, or Pussy Riot’s peaceful protest, or human rights abuses in China or Venezuela, and they are not in any real danger of breaking the law as it pertains to their not-for-profit status.

      When orchestras and their leaders are silent in the face of these abuses they are doing much more than simply obeying the law — they are hiding behind it.

      • says

        Thank you both for enlightening me. I am surprised and excited that non-profits have that freedom to protest. I can only imagine then that the Folk Alliance has social justice as part of its mission statement… and the Heritage Foundation, conservative positions. Can we really expect any major ARTS non-profits or their leaders to rock their boats? I hardly think so. Perhaps some smaller orgs will try… and it will flavor their future evermore one way or the other. The UNIONS however are a different paradigm. Detroit’s Federation of Musicians local 5 marches in the annual Labor Day parade and stood should-to-shoulder with UAW members during the DSO strike of 2010. We are MANY… but we are not celebrities risking big reputations to call for policy changes.

  2. FCM-NZM says

    I think your example, that not a single US orchestra tweeted about Pussy Riot, fantastically represents how irrelevant they have become as cultural institutions. Now, the first knee-jerk reaction is: well, ok – if they DID tweet or take a position on it, how would it go over? Would it be contrived? Would it appear calculated and insincere? PROBABLY! Because I don’t know anybody in those types of institutions who takes non-classical music seriously (at least out loud). It is hard to overstate the culture of self-censorship that is created by the big-fish donors and the training structure and expenses of our field. And furthermore, because orchestras have so little history, investment, or incentive to go outside of their narrow mission bounds, it would appear very out of place. How about this: If an orchestra took a “stand” and offered some lip-service support to Pussy Riot, my guess is that no-one would care. Our best case scenario of involvement is a moot point.

    Aside from performing institutions, as history remembers Putin’s revival and artistic rejections, it will by Pussy Riot remembered on the musical front, not a modern day Shostakovich. (Again, not because there isn’t a Russian composer going against the grain, but because the world has *other ways* to express and consume dissent through music.) And Russia really is an apt diachronic comparison. Can you imagine if an American pianist won a major Russian competition? Would Americans bother to shrug??

    We’ve become cultural cowards, because we are betting with scared money. We know classical music is hemorrhaging both money and cultural capital. So everybody talks about innovation as a defensive measure, but not as artistic principle. Innovate in Education. Innovate in Marketing. Innovate in Outreach. Make an arrangement of Radio Head. (Wow, taking chances with a Platinum rock band….) But innovation shouldn’t dare slink onto the altar of the Music, though. (Unless it’s Radio Head) It’s window dressing, and taste and thought-leaders know it.

    But why. I think the bigger reason is that when you have millions of dollars riding on a project, you just can’t take chances. This is true on an institutional level and a personal level, throughout classical music.

    On a microcosm, as an individual performer builds her career in music, she most likely has thousands of dollars put into her pre-college training, in addition to thousands of hours of training. This is before undergrad. This is before grad school. This is without accounting for every summer spent not working, but “interning” at a summer festival. She has spends years cultivating mentors and peer relationships. She has very few options to shine, maybe as a last-minute sub on a broadway show, or on a concert, which leads to a spot in an ensemble, which will eventually land her a NYT review. In this scenario, the overriding rule is: do not F- up. Do not rock the boat. Just rock your instrument, be cheerful, show up on time, etc.

    Actual groundswell-level innovation is more rare in the classical world than…. well… choose your metaphor.

    My point is that in a punk band ethos, bands have a level of true artistic freedom that far surpasses anything found in a classical ensemble — even the ones that wear torn clothes, or take pictures in front of graffiti. (YUUUP, newsflash classical world: even graffiti pictures don’t buy street cred, anymore….)

    Not every Girl Punk Band will become famous, but then – not every Girl Punk Band needs to. Punk bands don’t take out college loans to learn their instruments. They don’t bet the whole farm on education, just to get to a point of BASELINE operational function. So they can take chances. And the world admires that.

    Join me for a thought experiment. You are a curious 17 year old who wants to find out what’s the latest going on in the classical music world. You check out some blogs, and discover one of the top issues occupying discussion: A vociferous debate concerning “whether it appropriate to clap between movements.” I mean… really? That’s the scope people. That’s our classical music world, right now.

    I can’t help but think of Allen Ginsberg, upon meeting Bob Dylan, who said “a torch had been passed.” I mean, cultural interests change! They change, Man! Sometimes over decades, sometimes over 100 years!

    I know somebody is going to write back:
    “But, but, but, what about talent? Adorno told me that groovy beats are just the sound of the culture industry! Pussy Riot will never LAST like Shostakovich. I mean, ANYBODY can play punk music (hip hop, house, EDM, blues, rock, folk, etc).”

    Yes. Exactly. Anybody.

    • says

      Reversing your thought experiment, what if I, at 53, was curious about the inner life of a 17 year-old? This year, I heard both Lordes’s “Royals” and a remarkably musical performance, by a 17 year-old cellist, of a late Beethoven cello sonata. I certainly could feel how he felt about the cello and about that piece, but heard nothing about what it is like to be 17 in 2014. “Royals” tells me a lot (and she wrote it when she was 15!) or so I think. How could a performance of a standard rep classical piece communicate something of today to an audience sizable enough to support classical music? (The Glenn Gould Goldberg recording of 1955 seem to be a striking example of how this could be so, but that was in 1955!) (Other young musicians on that program did communicate something other than the notes – they seemed to communicate how much they wanted to get in to Harvard by adding violin playing to their resumes – I am not so interested in hearing that!) Tweeting or not about social issues of the day is irrelevant to me — I want to hear something in the music!

  3. says

    The National Symphony Orchestra is playing pieces by American composers Andy Akiho and George Gershwin. In addition most of the NSO Pops concerts will include music by American composers such as one dedicated to film composer Danny Elfman. The National Symphony Orchestra will be playing a lot of music by American composers.

    The New York Philharmonic also seems like an odd orchestra to single out. Or at least if you do it might make sense to mention their Under 35 discount tickets, the CONTACT! concerts (this season playing NYPO commissioned works by American composers Eric Nathan, Ryan Brown, Michael Hersh and Chris Kapica, though these concerts may no longer be followed by a reception with free beer), the (free) Concerts in the Park, performing a run of Sweeney Todd this season (and Carousel last season) and this coming weekend’s Pixar in Concert. Or that the opening night gala for the 2014-15 season is an evening of Italian film music with major guest stars.

    The neglect of Philip Glass is strange (like the Met Opera’s neglect of Meyerbeer) but there’s likely some banal reason (see: Levine on Meyerbeer) and certainly not a significant factor in attendance (same).

    Though thank you for inspiring me to look this up; I have now realized that March 2015 sees the world premiere of a John Adams work, so I have that to look forward to!

    • says

      Hi John,

      I see that I did overlook the Gershwin/Akiho concert, my mistake. But I can’t agree that presenting less than a half-hour’s worth of American music, and that on their last concert of the season, constitutes the NSO playing “a lot” of American music. It’s great news that the NSO will be playing a concert of Danny Elfman’s terrific music, but that concert is also an example of a genre-silo: When playing film music, the concert is labeled “pops”, and this label then defines the orchestra’s approach to the concert by limiting the institutional focus to “orchestra concert as a show”, rather than the better approach of “orchestra concert as art” — an approach that most of the traditional audience wants anyway!

  4. says

    Reflecting further on this subject of arts institutions and leaders taking up causes, I’m reminded of having this discussion with Greg before. And he brilliantly pointed out that art IS the cause. If we take that even further, as many of our institutions are doing, and shift the mission to include community service, the COMMUNITY becomes the cause. Can this be enough? Could we focus more on that? Because I don’t see arts orgs organizing marches on the Venezuelan embassy. For Dudamel’s part, young musicians and El Sistema are his cause. For Gergiev, I imagine Putin could just ruin him without blinking… he’d have to defect to become a dissident!

    • says

      Rick, I think it could be a problem that we think art is the cause. That makes sense to us, but Peter’s point is that it doesn’t make sense to millennials. Who see lavish (or lavish-looking) classical music organizations, with a lot of money in play, and many wealthy donors. And who then wonder why the organizations don’t do more for society. We think that providing the music is all the social service necessary. Millennials — and others from older generations, used to a different way of thinking — might not agree with that at all. Maybe if they already were passionately committed to the music, they’d think such a thing. But our problem is that they aren’t committed, and Peter is offering data to suggest that they won’t become committed unless we show them a different face.

      • says

        I agree with your point and am glad we can articulate these burning issues. Because Millennials don’t view art as a CAUSE, I think that’s one reason why Classical Revolution chapters around the world, Open Classical DFW and other New Classical musicians, groups and series are having such a profound if local impact. We are NOT glamorous, rather proudly loose and anti-elitist. We are obsessed with connecting people to each other (community-building) thru classical, other music and arts. Our paradigm is audience-centric rather than art-preservation-centric. I’m going to post a soft blog on this tomorrow: Classicism vs. Classism. Maybe it is not cause ENOUGH, but it is what we have the power to do: it is our FIGHT.

        To the extent that large performing institutions might someday seed their own GENUINE community-building efforts thru music… trusting committees of “minorities” and Millennials to regularly drive the bus… they will start to enjoy a REAL relationship with the people who currently walk past the hall. Several orchestras of musicians, thru neighborhood concert initiatives, service exchange programs and volunteerism, are experiencing the surprising joys of truly connecting with people in their communities. A few others connect thru union-supported protests. “World-class” has favored class over the rest of The World. We The World will someday strike a sustainable balance.

  5. Peter Sachon says

    The arts blogger Colleen Dilenschneider has a terrific blog called “Know Your Own Bone”. It is there that I find a many of the most compelling facts about millennials, and links to studies supporting these facts. Particularly, her article “Millennials are Here: 5 facts nonprofits and businesses need to know”. I have quoted her in the past, but I’m embarrassed that I forgot to link her work and her site for this article. Colleen’s blog often focuses on museums, yet many of her findings apply equally well to orchestras and to other nonprofits. Know Your Own Bone a great resource, and I encourage anyone interested in the future of nonprofits in America to pay attention to her insightful work.

  6. says

    Peter – this is a wonderful post I got a lot of ideas from it. I think you don’t account for the enormous cultural, political and economic control big money has over western societies. I know that with the global economic crisis this may be shifting but the fact is that cultural debate across the general population is still manipulated and governed by those with the big money. Just look at election funding in the US for example or our infamous Australian Rupert Murdoch’s control over media in the western world. I don’t see how millenials can be unaffected by this.. The real cultural battle ground as I see it is in taking on those who have wrested control of democracy from the people. Start talking about that and maybe the Millenials might listen. In Australia they won’t because we are still nice and comfy selling our coal and iron ore to China for a tidy profit and the global finical crisis hasn’t hit our shores …. yet.