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THE FUTURE OF ORCHESTRAS — Part Six: What’s an Orchestra For?

Back in the 1990s, Harvey Lichtenstein – who recreated the Brooklyn Academy of Music – invited me to lunch and asked me if I wanted to run an orchestra.

Harvey had just read my notorious Jeremiad Understanding Toscanini: How He Became an American Culture-God and Helped Create a New Audience for Old Music. That was published by Knopf when a book about classical music might generate four or five dozen major reviews, including Newsweek and Time.

Understanding Toscanini ends with a diatribe about Lincoln Center. I speculate that if an audience exists for a refreshed, reconsidered presentation of classical music in live performance, it would be the inquisitive and diversified audience Harvey had cultivated at BAM.

BAM had its own orchestra: the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Harvey had some years before decided to jettison traditional programing. He had also jettisoned the orchestra’s remarkable music director, Lukas Foss, in favor of Dennis Russell Davies – a gifted conductor of world stature who better fit BAM’s “Next Wave” identity. In response, audience members flung their subscription renewal forms at the musicians’ feet backstage and the Brooklyn Philharmonic lost over two-thirds of its subscribers. So in offering me the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Harvey had nothing to lose.

I took him up on it on condition that I could experimentally implement thematic, cross-disciplinary programing – and nothing else — in place of the traditional overture/concerto/symphony template. Harvey liked that idea and a wild ride ensued.

The biggest Brooklyn Philharmonic festival, in 1994, was “The Russian Stravinsky,” based on Richard Taruskin’s ground-breaking research into Stravinsky’s Russian roots. Richard came, and so did (at his suggestion) Dmitri Pokrovsky’s revelatory Pokrovsky Folk Ensemble from Moscow. We also had half a dozen interesting scholars at hand. There were three concerts, all exploring new formats. The festival was reviewed all over the place, including scholarly journals. It felt important – it made the orchestra matter.

Some years later, BAM discovered itself deeply in debt and the financial relationship between BAM and the Brooklyn Phil collapsed – which precipitated my departure and foredoomed the orchestra itself (which no longer exists). Nevertheless, the new artistic template worked (we rebuilt an audience) – and I have ever since pursued humanities-infused thematic programing. That’s the nub of the NEH-funded Music Unwound consortium I direct.

The humanities template flourishes in its purest form, however, in DC, where fifteen years ago I co-founded PostClassical Ensemble with the wonderful Spanish conductor Angel Gil-Ordóñez. We just announced our Fifteenth Anniversary Season. The big events are at the Washington National Cathedral, where we’re Ensemble-in-Residence. You won’t find anything like them anywhere else. They furnish an original answer to the question: What’s an orchestra for?

In a recent blog about Leonard Bernstein, I wrote about “curating the past.” That’s something conductors and orchestras should do – and don’t. Next January 23, PCE is curating the past with a program called “Cultural Fusion: The Gamelan Experience.” Its starting point is the observation that gamelan is the non-Western musical genre that (by far) has most influenced the Western classical tradition. This story (which, amazingly, has yet to generate a book) begins with Debussy’s discovery of Javanese musicians and dancers at the 1889 Paris Exposition — the one with the Eiffel Tower. He later wrote:

“But my poor friend! Do you remember the Javanese music, able to express every shade of meaning, even unmentionable shades which make our tonic and dominant seem like ghosts? . . . Their school consists of the eternal rhythm of the sea, the wind in the leaves, and a thousand other tiny noises . . . what force one to admit that our own music is not much more than a barbarous kind of noise more fit for a traveling circus.”

The story continues with Ravel, Poulenc, Messiaen, Britten, and Harrison – as well as lesser known composers of consequence like Colin McPhee. Both Javanese and Balinese gamelan – the first fragrant, the second metallic — cast their spell. For our concert, we’ll transform the cathedral’s Great Nave into an exotic cultural kaleidoscope, with Javanese and Balinese gamelan and dancers, archival film, two pianists, and a chamber orchestra.

The entire exercise is a sequel to the 1996 Brooklyn Philharmonic festival “Orientalism,” which featured two gamelan and a roster of distinguished participants including Steve Reich. It was also at BAM that (thanks to Dennis Russell Davies) I met and fell under the spell of Lou Harrison.

Harrison’s synthesis of Javanese gamelan sounds and techniques with the Western tradition is a profound achievement – and has been a longstanding PCE cause. (Our Harrison Centenary CD has been widely acclaimed abroad [and mainly ignored in the US]; we also produced a Harrison Centennial radio special.) In fact, Lou Harrison is one of three composers PCE has most championed – the other two being Silvestre Revueltas and Bernard Herrmann. With the waning of modernism (whose canons they did not endorse), these are twentieth-century masters whose time will come. And one of the things that orchestras are for is to support missionary work for composers who need and deserve it (cf. Bernstein and Mahler; Bernstein and Ives; Bernstein and Nielsen).

PCE’s month-long Bernard Herrmann festival in 2016 celebrated his versatility as “the most under-rated twentieth century American composer.” Herrmann’s justly famous film scores (Psycho, Vertigo, etc.) were juxtaposed with the inspirational war-time radio dramas he scored for Norman Corwin, and with his neglected concert music (of which his bewitching clarinet quintet is my favorite chamber music by any American).

In the course of all that, we struck gold: the 1944 Corwin/Herrmann radio drama “Whitman”; revisited in live performance, it turned out to be a major American concert work. That was with a student actor as Whitman, at the National Gallery of Art. And so on June 1, at the National Cathedral, our next Herrmann tribute will include “Whitman” with the distinguished American baritone William Sharp in the title role. The performance – celebrating Walt’s 200th birthday — will be broadcast live over the WWFM Classical Network. And we’ll record “Whitman” and two other Herrmann works for Naxos.

Our goal: to instate Bernard Herrmann’s “Whitman” as a concert melodrama (in musical parlance: a work mating music with the spoken word) of high consequence, a significant addition to the American symphonic repertoire.

And we have one more National Cathedral concert, on Nov. 5: “I Sing the Body Electoral.” Another Whitman celebration, it attempts to engage Whitman’s democratic ethos to ignite a musical town meeting on the eve of the crucial mid-term elections. Is that also something orchestras are for? We will find out.

For more on PCE and Bernard Herrmann, click here. For PCE’s two-hour Bernard Herrmann radio special, click here. To access the original 1944 “Whitman” radio play (with Charles Laughton – and terrible sound) click here. To survey PCE’s four 2018-19 events at the Washington National Cathedral, go to













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  1. I wonder if there might be a place here for Gustav Holst. Fascinated by the East, he visited it, read its religious texts, and was immensely taken with the Gamelan. His Japanese Suite doesn’t include that instrument, but its orchestration is in parts most surely intended to emulate it. It is possible that it was from Holst, one of the composers he actually liked, that Britten first gained his interest in the Gamelan. A look at Holst in the early years of the last century reveals a surprising portrait — immensely more daring a man than the modest St. Paul’s Girls’ School teacher that is common currency.

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