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Can Orchestras Be Re-Invented?

David Skinner, in his article in the current Humanities Magazine about the NEH-funded Music Unwound consortium that I direct, describes Delta David Gier, the exemplary music director of the South Dakota Symphony, addressing a room of university students and faculty:

“He starts by asking everyone to reimagine an orchestra as a humanities institution – one that brings together symphonic music and the immersive intellectual context you get from a museum. That, he says, is what is going on here, in this room, and tomorrow on stage in the program called ‘Music Unwound: Aaron Copland and Mexico.’“

Later in the piece — “Can Orchestras Be Reinvented as Humanities Institutions? Joseph Horowitz is Asking” – Skinner writes of me:

“Horowitz complains a lot, and one of his bigger, more enveloping criticisms is what brings him to the humanities. ‘Orchestras are not interested in their own history,’ he says. ‘They are not curators of the past.’ This is the moment when Horowitz is most likely to smile his brokenhearted, I-can’t-help-it, I-have-to-tell-the-truth smile. As smiles go it is remarkably sad.

“Theater companies, he points out, have dramaturges. Museums are staffed by scholars. But orchestras, despite their reverence for great music of the past, don’t even care about their own backstories, says Horowitz.”

I also read in Skinner’s piece that in front of a room of people I bring “a very different energy” than others might, “hangdog, brainy, and a little hard to predict.” In fact, he thinks “Horowitz should make a one-man show of his thoughts on classical music and life. He’s an inspired monologist – or, as he puts it, ‘I have a big mouth’ – and it would be very interesting and not a little bit shocking to have him airing his many opinions in a stand-up format.”

Any takers?

Related news: I went to the Metroplitan Museum of Art the other day to see “Thomas’ Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings,” which is up January 30 to May 13. Cole was the teacher of the most prominent, most influential American painter ca. 1860: Frederic Church. You can’t talk about Gilded Age America without referencing Church – but it’s done all the time. The same is true of The Song of Hiawatha and Dvorak’s New World Symphony: essential reference points for understanding how Americans viewed themselves before the turn of the twentieth century.

In a splendid video presentation that introduces the Met exhibit, Cole is called “a torchbearer who created a defining aesthetic” for the New World. Thanks to Cole and Church, landscape became the defining American genre for visual art.

Including major works by Turner and Constable, the exhibit dramatizes how the European landscape masters that Cole revered inspired epic canvases of mountains and plains inhabited not by peasants and farmers, but — a transformational ingredient – by ceremonial Native Americans. This achievement, clinched by Church, parallels the achievements of Mark Twain and Charles Ives, who likewise transformed hallowed Old World genres – the novel, the symphony — into something New.

Created by Elizabeth Kornhauser, the museum’s Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture,  the exhibit links to nine Exhibition Tours, two concerts, and various other presentations – in addition to a major publication: Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings, which “breaks new ground by presenting British-born American painter Thomas Cole as an international figure in direct dialogue with the major landscape painters of the age.”

Personally, I would never call Cole a “great painter.” (Church is another matter; and he’s the painter who most evokes Dvorak’s majestic, elegiac renderings of the American open space.) But he is a great and necessary figure in the history of American painting.

Were an orchestra to do something similar, it might be a contextualized presentation of the symphonies of John Knowles Paine (1875, 1879) – crucial progenitors of the American-sounding Second and Third Symphonies of George Chadwick en route to Ives. Paine was the first American to compose superbly finished symphonies in the Germanic mold. I would not call him a “great composer.” But he is a great and necessary figure in the history of American classical music.

American orchestras do not even know him. (An excellent recording of Paine’s Second may be heard on Naxos – with JoAnn Falletta and the Ulster Orchestra. Avoid the Mehta/NY Phil recording.)

David Skinner’s article was originally published as “Roots Music: Joseph Horowitz Looks to Reinvent Orchestras” in the Spring 2018 issues of Humanities magazine, a publication of the National Endowment for the Humanities



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