an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:


                                                                     League of American Orchestras logo

— I —

I recently spent the three consecutive weekends speaking at conferences pertinent to the fate of America’s orchestras.

The first, at Grinnell College, was sponsored by the American Association of Liberal Arts Colleges. The topic was reforming music curricula. The second, at the University of South Carolina, was a “summit” sponsored by the College Music Society. The topic was the same. The third, in Baltimore, was the annual conference of the League of American Orchestras.

As the only person to attend even two of these events, let alone all three (a fact in itself significant), I find I have a lot to think about. I foresee a perfect storm moving at high velocity.

Both academic conferences endorsed the same new template. Its advocates are progressive educators – the ones ready for change. I have no doubt that something resembling the changes they endorse will happen. It’s just a question of how soon.

One feature of the new template is removing “Orchestra” from the center of things and repositioning it to the side as an ancillary activity, possibly optional. Instead, students will be encouraged to form their own smaller ensembles. Or they will perform in ensembles practicing non-Western genres. Or they will find other opportunities to perform.

In general, there is a feeling that students today have creative propensities that must be respected and welcomed. The orchestra experience falls outside this purview. Also, Western classical music will no longer be privileged in the teaching and practice of Music. And there is a pervasive move to require improvisation and composition as aspects of instrumental instruction.

Another new area of primary emphasis is music as an agent of social responsibility.

In other words: the young musicians orchestras most need will not gravitate to orchestras. Instead, orchestras will get the blinkered conservatory graduates who don’t care about the institutional life of an orchestra – who will dutifully rehearse and perform. It therefore becomes more than ever incumbent upon orchestras to empower musicians to more fully participate in an expansive institutional mission.

An interesting question is whether orchestral reform can occur at music schools and conservatories. My impression is that “Orchestra” is perceived as a bastion of conservatism and that campus conductors are perceived as unlikely partners in progressive curricular change. They cling to “professional training” – traditional repertoire and formats – for non-existent jobs. Could not the campus orchestra be rethought as a timely experimental laboratory?  “Orchestra” could impart the history of conducting, the history of performance practice, the institutional history of the orchestra. It could generate cross-curricular study of a symphony or composer. It could be all kinds of things that it is not.

— II –

These were the thoughts I brought to the League conference in Baltimore. What I discovered there was the same impressive sense of urgency I had encountered among the educators. But here it was channeled toward a single, focused goal: creating a “pipeline” that would send gifted African-American and Hispanic instrumentalists into scarce and coveted orchestral jobs. The ethnic composition of orchestras – to date, overwhelmingly white – would begin (if barely) to mirror that of the communities they serve. Because this effort is mightily supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (an invaluable and influential bulwark for innovation in the symphonic field), it seems likely to bring results. The urgent question on the table becomes: will there be further change?

The conductor Theodore Thomas, who more than anyone propagated the “symphony orchestra” as an American specialty, prophetically preached: “A symphony orchestra shows the culture of the community, not opera.” By the 1920s, in American cities large and small, the local orchestra had become the bellwether of civic cultural identity. After that, the world changed and orchestras did not; a Boston Symphony concert, ca. 1890 (before radio, before recordings, before tidal social and demographic upheavals), was more or less the same as the symphonic concerts we hear and see today. (I have told this story in detail in my Classical Music in America: A History.) That orchestras no longer “show the culture of the community” rightly preoccupies the League.

There is a schizoid elephant in the room. As everyone in the orchestra business knows, musicians and administrators do not adequately experience joint ownership of the enterprise at hand. The players rehearse and perform at arm’s length from the front office. They submit to the authority of the music director. They guard work rules written to protect their interests; they strive for higher pay and more services. They little participate in the crucial activities that keep any orchestra alive: fund-raising and marketing. Their artistic input is usually negligible at best. Their purview is dangerously skewed.

The tensions between the players and the staff may be strident or subtle, but they are pervasive. Changing the racial composition of a law school makes immediate sense; it will impact the field. Changing the racial composition of an orchestra won’t critically impact unless other changes are ignited. This point circles back to the educators at Grinnell and the University of South Carolina: the most talented young musicians tend to be the most creative. They will not aspire to sit obediently in orchestra seats.

— III –

Nothing is more informative about the caliber of an orchestra than the listening behavior of the musicians when others are playing and they are not. Are they keenly attuned or staring into space?

In my experience, the keenest listeners are to be found in certain European orchestras – such as the Berlin Philharmonic (which picks its conductors; whose principal players rotate). And then there is the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the members of which are picked by its conductor: Ivan Fischer. I have never encountered an orchestra that manifests a more meddlesome active intelligence (unless they are conductorless chamber orchestras like Gidon Kremer’s peerless Kremerata Baltica). Fischer’s players may burst into song in the midst of a Dvorak symphony (I am not making this up). For Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony, Fischer may situate the solo winds around a potted tree. He may choose to begin a rehearsal by having everyone play some Bach for fifteen or twenty minutes. Or the orchestra may learn an Argentine song for use as an encore in Buenos Aires. In fact, Budapest Festival Orchestra encores are often sung. (I cannot imagine a more democratic bonding experience.) The communal intensity of the Budapest Festival Orchestra is instantly tangible.

Fischer’s hiring practices and work rules would be unthinkable in America: the musicians hold two-year contracts and rehearse without a clock. And yet I do not doubt that there are young Americans who would sooner play with Fischer than win a seat in Franz Welser-Most’s Cleveland Orchestra.

I do not know if Ivan Fischer has ever been discussed at League of American Orchestras conference. But a Youth Orchestras session, at the League’s Baltimore conference, brought Fischer’s practices instantly to mind. The discourse was electrifying – here, serving inner-city pre-collegiate instrumentalists, were American orchestras fully in ferment. What I heard connected directly to what progressive music educators are saying: the creative impulse must be seized. A new repertoire, a new sound, a new disposition of instruments, a new concert experience must be countenanced.

I left that room with many questions. What about our nation’s summer orchestral camps? Will they, too, take a lead? Or will they continue to replicate a dying model at odds with present-day realities?

And there is the nagging question of “excellence.” Museums can maintain the canon by simply keeping Rembrandt on the walls. But inspired readings of Brahms symphonies are increasingly hard to come by. Skill is a prerequisite. So is engagement. These are priorities that must be squared with “showing the culture of the community.”

Our orchestras are facing a perfect storm moving at high velocity. How fast can they adapt? The most adaptive orchestra I know is the South Dakota Symphony. Its music director, Delta David Gier, began his tenure by initiating a Lakota Music Project linking to nine Indian reservations; most recently, he took Dvorak’s New World Symphony to Native American audiences in remote Sisseton. With its enterprising nine-member “core,” the South Dakota Symphony is positioned to maximize personal interaction with Sioux Falls residents and institutions.

The Detroit Symphony, energized by a crippling strike, is another orchestra making strides toward showing the culture of the community. That Detroit is the host orchestra for the League’s 2017 conference, next June, is auspicious. The League’s sense of urgency will likely be sustained. Will the conference again identify a single focused goal? How about expanding the role of individual musicians in every facet of orchestral life?

— IV –

The historian in me cannot resist a brief postscript. Here are four vignettes from the early history of the American orchestra:

1.Henry Higginson, who invented, owned, and operated the Boston Symphony, and also built Symphony Hall, was a colossal visionary. After service in the Civil War, he ran a plantation for freedmen in Georgia. Upon inaugurating the BSO in 1881, he insisted that there be twenty-five cent tickets available for all concerts. Even in 1881, this was a sum so small that other Boston orchestras complained that Higginson’s ticket prices (personally subsidized by Higginson, who also paid all salaries) would drive them out of business. Breaking with Brahmin Boston, Higginson was a philo-Semite, ready to hire a Jewish music director (Mahler and Bruno Walter were seriously considered) decades before the trustees of the New York Philharmonic rejected the possibility of a Jewish conductor post-Toscanini (for this incredible story, see my Classical Music in America, pp. 423-424), and the trustees of the Boston Symphony looked askance at Leonard Bernstein’s Jewishness post-Koussevitzky.

2.In Brooklyn, the major presenter of symphonic concerts was a woman: Laura Langford, president of the Seidl Society. There were many more Seidl Society concerts than there were New York Philharmonic concerts across the river. The conductor was the same: Anton Seidl, Richard Wagner’s most intimate protégé. Langford charged as little as fifteen cents for Seidl Society concerts, most of which took place fourteen times a week at Coney Island. She prioritized bringing working women and African-American orphans to the seaside Music Pavilion. Seidl himself loudly championed access for working men and women. Langford and Seidl also prioritized hiring leading female pianists and violinists. And, over the objections of the Seidl Orchestra, they hired a female harpist (whose engagement was made a public cause).

3.In Manhattan, Antonin Dvorak chose an African-American, Harry Burleigh, to be his personal assistant at the National Conservatory of Music. Dvorak conducted his own transcription of Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” at Madison Square Garden in 1894 with an African-American chorus, a racially mixed orchestra, and two African-American soloists: Burleigh and the “Black Patti,” Sissieretta Jones. Burleigh went on to become the person most responsible for turning spirituals into art songs.

4.Henry Krehbiel, the dean of New York music critics and Dvorak’s most important champion in the press, endorsed Dvorak’s conviction that “Negro melodies” would be the fundament of a future American music. He wrote the first book-length study of plantation song. At the 1893 World’s Columbia Exposition in Chicago, he did not gawk at the African “Dahomians,” as others did, but admired the rhythmic sophistication of their songs and dances. He also eagerly promoted study of Native American song.

Higginson, Langford, Seidl, Dvorak, and Krehbiel tirelessly extolled the moral properties of music. They understood art as an instrument for social reform both timely and timeless. The early history of the American orchestra is a history of ceaseless innovation.



  1. Mr. Horowitz,

    In addition to the observations you and those at the conferences have made I would like to add that not only does there need to be a change in the applied music settings in colleges (orchestras, private studios) but in how we teach Music History which is still taught in a very euro-centric, Western-canon-as-privileged manner. It is very possible to situate musical styles in a fairer, more balanced way. Does this mean that the standard two-semester survey needs to be re-considered? Yes, absolutely.

    In addition, and I’ll freely admit that I’m biased as this is my area of research, we do not acknowledge the musical work and energy of those outside of the spotlight. Community music groups are doing exactly what we want people to do with music – continue lifelong engagement. We need to be teaching our future teachers (and even those who are pursuing performance degrees are very likely to become teachers in some way) that community music is a viable goal for our students. Learning the great concertos, or great orchestral works is nice, but ultimately what can someone expect to play outside of the studio? The label “amateur” has gotten a very negative connotation in our field and I think that’s not only a shame, but has worked against us in terms of longevity.

  2. Very well said, Joe. But considering the fact that the “typical” symphony orchestra of today is virtually identical in most every way to the typical orchestra of, say, 1916 — by the way, how many other businesses can you say that about? — change is going to come to classical music in other ways. It already is. Consider bands like The Knights, A Far Cry, Sympho, etc. Consider musicians/ensembles “embedded” in their communities like Music Haven (New Haven CT), and Community MusicWorks (Providence RI.)

    A 95 piece, A.F. of M. symphony orchestra can not turn on a dime. It has to justify its very existence — ie., why it needs to sell tickets and raise money — by playing more and more concerts. There are countless examples of this.

  3. As a pro symphony musician, it all made sense to me once I began to recognize European classical music is really a faith-based industry. We believes find this music promises us spiritual sustenance and the occasional epiphany, as well as reinforces certain social values. So we became used to finding this spirit in concert settings that are church- or chapel-esque. We musicians study to become the priests, serving up the sacred notes (and occasionally the music) in black robes, often directed (orchestras) by a bishop of European authenticity (having an accent). We drank the cool aid that said this music is the BEST music; exceptional music, and that we are exceptional because of it. This paradigm consequently excludes building on the commonality of this or other musics, and so we haven’t begun to create access points that welcome those outside the arts bubble. We keep demanding they meet OUR standards.

    But some of us are following the Pope’s advice; to leave the sanctuary, go where the people are and humbly share this music with how to use it, so outsiders can become marginal insiders. *That’s* accessibility. Everyone deserves beauty.

  4. A lot of good points, but not especially new. I, too, am a huge fan of the Berlin Philharmonic, because when I watch them I find them incredibly engaged in their music-making and get a sense that every player feels a keen sense of ownership in the performance. You can see it in the Digital Concert Hall, with musicians doing the interviews, or players like Sarah Willis practically having second careers as media starts. It’s THEIR orchestra; they’re not just the hired hands.

    I’ve long marveled that in a professional orchestra you have 100 highly-skilled musicians, who won incredibly competitive auditions to get their jobs. People who collectively must have great ideas about selecting repertoire or how to present music in innovative ways, and they are rarely asked to exercise those abilities; instead it gets left to one music director, who may not be nearly as smart about these things as the collective wisdom of the ensemble. As well as most U.S. orchestras play, the failure to exploit these traits of their musicians strikes me as a seriously missed opportunity.

  5. Great article, Joe.

    Larry hits the nail on the head in his comment above. The big behemoths can evolve only very slowly, if at all. (Now that I think about it, this applies as much to academic institutions as it does to symphony orchestras.) The South Dakota Symphony can be flexible because it does not have to fill David Geffen Hall four nights a week 40+ weeks a year and has some very enthusiastic financial supporters. I’m sure it also doesn’t have all the pension and benefits overheard that full-time orchestras do.

    Groups like A Far Cry, in which administrative and artistic work are done by the same people, have a wonderful sense of collective ownership. (I think they just hired their first full-time administrator.) And since they don’t provide a full-time living, the members are working on collaborative and entrepreneurial projects with other musicians as well, which feeds the collective creativity of the group. Members of this sort of ensemble like that it is not full-time and that they not only have a creative say in the orchestra but also are free to have other creative outlets.

    Changing the culture of a large traditional organization in which most of the members are attracted by the clear definition of roles, the lack of major artistic and financial responsibilities, and receive tenure only if they excel at complying with the wishes of conductors and keeping their thoughts to the in some cases–that’s going to be really difficult. Many musicians in these great orchestras (not surprisingly) see themselves as keepers and guardians of a great tradition. As we well know, attempts to change meet with fierce (to put it mildly) resistance. Often the willingness to change comes only after an extended strike or lockout.

    Meanwhile, new and vibrant ensembles keep materializing. It’s a wonderful thing to watch. Classical music in the 21st century does not need to be based on 20th-century models, which were paradoxically over-dependent on wealthy patrons all along.

    Playing great music in a large symphony orchestra with an inspiring conductor is an experience like no other. For more and more young musicians, it is in summer programs and academic institutions that they may will have their most fulfilling adventures in this genre.

  6. HI Joe,

    Thanks for sharing your report on these three conferences. I attended only the CMS Summit on 21st-c. Music School Design, but appreciate the updates from Grinnell and Baltimore. Your assurance that change is possible and coming is encouraging as it would be fantastic if adaptation and innovation can occur to avoid rather then require crisis — we’re trying to do this with the new EXCEL Program at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance. My personal hope is that the world of poly-stylistic, global, and engaged community music making that is being envisioned will allow many more music students to thrive upon graduation.

    It’d be best, I think, if the real driver of change will be the imaginative career goals of music students (and by extension future musicians). If students come to school or develop a broader definition of what success could mean, they will demand an education that leads toward this success–say as experts in community engagement. At this point, we’re in something of a vicious circle where success (say at a traditional orchestral audition) is defined by performance skill alone and thus schools are caught between narrow and broader paradigms. Because auditions are inhumanly competitive, schools focus all educational activities prior to winning an audition on such singular success. This leads to the collegiate orchestra, indeed the whole music school on some level, focusing only on teaching traditional repertoire that will appear on such auditions. The collegiate orchestra as a broad, flexible educational tool that you envision would be a powerful innovation and one that would help its student musicians envision a range of performances that might well create the cross-community engagement that Rick envisions above. Short of a traumatic crisis, it’s hard for me to see change here coming from the top, however. It needs to come from our students. They vote with their applications, their enrollments, and the classes that they choose to take. I hope their courage and openness will allow us all–from professors to professional musicians–to embrace these opportunities. In this sense, the new dynamic musicians in school today who will explore other paths may not be something to fear but something to celebrate.

  7. Thank you, Joe, for addressing this subject with such depth.
    At the University of Maryland, we are attempting a concept that has some commonality with what you are proposing. The intention of the school is to make chamber music the core experience, with large ensemble experience naturally evolving. David Salness oversees a chamber program that includes all instrumentalists, working with faculty and with prominent outside guests and chamber ensembles. Our jazz department, led by Chris Vadala, viwss the small group program in a similar “chamber music” fashion.
    The large ensembles, led by Jim Ross and Michael Votta, have become shining examples of creative innovation. Michael has led programs of “wind orchestra” repertoire from all periods, with imaginative performances of Varese, Florent Schmitt, and current composers with’ the ink barely dry.’ Jim comes from a rich, diverse background which includes being former principal horn with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (he is the solo horn on the Jessye Norman recording of the Strauss Four Last Songs). A handful of years ago he challenged the orchestra to memorize Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun and had them actually perform it while executing a choreography by Liz Lerman – the performance is readily available on youtube and is an inspiring testament, attracting notice world-wide. Several years ago Jim came up with an idea, when he told me this I asked if I could take part, sitting “last chair” trumpet to support my students if needed, but I dearly wanted to be part of something that I knew I would never ever get to do. He programed Bruckner’s 5th Symphony, and asked the orchestra to prepare a Palestrina motet, to be sung right before commencing the Symphony. We rehearsed thoroughly, and at the performance, Jim intoned the Kyrie from the podium, the orchestra sang the Palestrina with instruments on laps, leading right into the Bruckner. I still am inspired by this experience, not least by the commitment of the string, wind, and brass students sitting around me,
    This past season featured a Schumann Rhenish Symphony performance – nothing out of the ordinary in its presentation, but throughout I was struck by the responsiveness of the orchestra, truly moment after moment on stage of a sensibility that could only arise from a deep chamber music background.
    The challenges you outline are faced by all of us.The ideal is always there, ahead of our reach, but as you so clearly articulate,we must all keep reaching.
    Chris Gekker

an ArtsJournal blog