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December 29, 2006

Peter Sellars Strikes a Chord

People who attended the American Symphony Orchestra League's annual conference in Los Angeles last June were absolutely riveted by the speech given at the opening plenary session by Peter Sellars, the renowned theatrical and opera director, who has also had a long association with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

This talk went to the heart of what music is, and what it means in our society today. Without even knowing it, Sellars also touched on many of the directions that the League is taking in helping orchestras to understand the relevance that they must have to the communities in which they live. His talk was moving, provocative, uplifting while being hard-hitting, everything a keynote speech ought to be.

Our January issue of SYMPHONY Magazine features a printed transcript of Sellars's talk - but I would urge you to actually hear it, which you can do online (click here to listen to the keynote speech). Although it reads well in print, it is significantly more effective when one listens to it because of Sellars's delivery.

Sellars opened with a wonderful line: "If you want to respect your grandparents, take care of your kids." And went on to say "The idea that we do things that are new, and we do them every day, is what it means to be human. Deeply, profoundly human." Sellars spent a good deal of time speaking about education, and what its real nature should be, as opposed to what it often is: "This is a country in deep crisis - deep, deep crisis - and we are setting the stage for a national catastrophe. Part of that stage is the attack on education, No Child Left Behind, in which the next generation simply will not be educated. They are being taught to take multiple-choice tests." This is just the beginning of his take on the real meaning and value of education, what it should be, and what the role of culture should be in the education process. What he has to say is both inspirational and thought-provoking.

I think the most moving part of his talk was his description of going with the Los Angeles Philharmonic to the Seventh Day Adventist churches in South Central Los Angeles.

"We arrived at this church on a Saturday afternoon, and it was in the middle of a full gang funeral. A young man the community valued had been shot in gang crossfire. The church was filled with mourners and with a kind of heaviness over the pointless violence that's going on right now in our cities....The orchestra had programmed the Egmont Overture of Beethoven. Those opening chords in that grief-stricken community were overwhelming. And then this small theme that tries to propose an alternative to violence, which is brutally massacred, comes back as the oboe decides to keep it alive. Gradually, like an underground movement of women in the community, the theme is handed around until finally everyone in the orchestra has tasted it...."

There's more - much more - but I'll let you read it in SYMPHONY, or experience it online. You are unlikely to remain unchanged after doing so. Click here to read the full article.

Posted by hfogel at December 29, 2006 11:02 AM

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Thank you for the sharing the Sellars Keynote speech.

Posted by: Jim Zarnowiecki at December 31, 2006 2:43 PM

The symphony orchestra is inherently 19th century. No matter how many bells and whistles you put on a horse and buggy, it is still a horse and buggy. Righteous orchestral trips to ghettos are novel for a while, but would quickly wear thin with everyone involved. A hip integration of commoditized world music into orchestral works will turn out to be as hollow as it is short lived. Grandfather's corpse cannot be revived; it must be buried - and for the sake of our children. The orchestra cannot be reinvented. We must begin with something entirely new. I hate to sound so mean and cynical, but the ASOL is an advocacy organization for corpses.

William Osborne

Posted by: William Osborne at January 6, 2007 7:30 AM

I don't think Mr. Osborne is mean or cynical - but I do believe he is wrong. The 18th century orchestra was a major adaptation and change from the 17th century ensemble, and the same is true of the 19th and 20th centuries. Similarly the art museum, dance, opera, theatre - all art forms transform themselves to retain meaning in their times. I would be the first to say that orchestras have, in fact, been slower to adapt than almost all other art forms, but they are now doing it in many ways. "A hip integration of commoditized world music," in isolation from any other modifications and changes in the ways in which orchestras relate to their communities and publics, would of course fail. Is such an integration an appropriate part of modification? Only trying it will find out. We are in a period where orchestras are experimenting boldly and interestingly, and I believe that is healthy, and that it will lead to a new vitality. All art forms are a continuum, and that is as true of orchestral music as it is of painting or theater.

Posted by: Henry Fogel at January 6, 2007 2:44 PM

Thanks for posting this Henry!

Having had the incredible experience of hearing Sellars's talk in person myself, I can't agree more as to the power and transformational nature of his presentation.

There is a lot at stake with the educational crisis in this country: music and cultural education, developing inquiring minds and thinking skills are just some of them. Sellars is right on track with this and the other points he made.

Part of the power of his talk is his amazing delivery and part of it is the energy of a group of people together sharing the experience. Its why meditation is more powerful in a group, and why being in the middle of the performance hall hearing the Egmont Overture along with 100 or 1200 others is so profound. Together we have enhanced listening and experiences.

And while nothing really does replace that in-person thing, the group thing is a powerful piece of it... maybe Peter Gelb is onto something with the Met's live hi-def broadcasts of Opera into your local theatre. Think of the possibilities!

Posted by: Rebecca Krause-Hardie at January 10, 2007 3:48 PM