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The Future of Orchestras Part IV: Attention-Span

A colleague in Music History at a major American university reports that it has become difficult to teach sonata form because sonata forms transpire over 15 minutes and more.  This topic – shrinking attention-span — is obviously not irrelevant to the future of orchestras.

My most memorable TV interview took place half a dozen years ago in a Southern city of moderate size. I was producing “Dvorak and America” for the local orchestra, assisted by Kevin Deas. We were roused from our hotel in the wee hours of the morning and conveyed to a studio complex. We found ourselves sitting on a pair of stools in a glare of light, idly watching someone forecast the weather. Quite suddenly I was asked a question by a twenty-something-year-old wearing a frozen smile, a lot of make-up, and a headset. I began to talk about Dvorak and watched her smile fracture. Her stressed features told me that she was being instructed to halt my stream of words – but I was not letting her intervene. I was actually on the verge of saying, “I know you would like me to stop talking now, but there are a few more things about Dvorak that I’d like your audience to know.” I had been speaking for fewer than two minutes.

Another such story: when I produce concerts I invariably ask that there be a post-concert discussion. This is often treated as a kind of concession. The frequent time-limit is thirty minutes. On one occasion, the presenter sat at a desk facing me. He had before him a series of large cards which he displayed for my benefit, one per minute: 30, 29, 28, 27 . . . The time-limit was paramount.

This fear of inducing boredom, pressing for simple thoughts and short sentences, is of course fatal to thoughtful verbal expression. But it is pervasive, and never more than today.

Imagine my surprise, several months ago, when an interviewer arrived at my apartment, sat alongside me on a couch with a small tape recorder, and invited me to speak as much as I pleased. Naturally, such a person – predisposed to actual conversation — asked penetrating questions without obvious answers. And then he turned our conversation into an hour-long radio show with interpolated musical excerpts.

The gentleman in question is David Osenberg and his award-winning radio show, on the WWFM classical network, is “Cadenza.”

Our conversation – which you can listen to here – pursued the question that has long preoccupied my professional life: what is the future of what used to be “classical music,” and what can be done to make it matter?

So David and I talked about my recent series of blogs about the fate of orchestras. I opined that fundamental change is both necessary and unlikely, at least as far as the “major” orchestras are concerned. I talked about better things happening in El Paso (at 15:00) and South Dakota (16:00), and at the Brevard Music Center (19:00) and DePauw University (21:30). Ultimately, I talked about the three DVDs PostClassical Ensemble has produced for Naxos, taking classic films from the 1930s and freshly recording the soundtracks. And David expressed the hope that WWFM could feature PostClassical Ensemble concerts on a regular basis, by way of exploring new ways of doing things.

Meanwhile, I continue to draw inspiration from the subversions of Ivan Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra. Here is Stephen Moss, interviewing Fischer for The Guardian (Aug. 12):

“What Fischer wants to avoid above all is a sense of routine. ‘We work with intensity and in a very personal way. It is more like the way a string quartet works. I don’t say to the principal cellist: “Please a little softer.” I would say: “Come on Peter, what the hell are you doing?” It’s a different communication, much more personal. I immediately notice when their level of focus or concentration is not what it should be. I work much more like a theatre director would work with actors.’ . . .

“The orchestra [Fischer] founded is his lifelong passion; he also sees it as a ‘laboratory’ for orchestras of the future, offering flexibility, openness and a group of players that he encourages to develop as portfolio musicians rather than spending their lives as fixtures with the orchestra.

“’If you are a member of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the great thing is that you are allowed a much more versatile musician’s life,’ he explains. He wants ‘individualists’ rather than ‘obedient, uniform soldiers.’  ‘For the future of music, it is better to develop the symphony orchestra as a more flexible organization that can embrace other musical styles. Now, we have a symphony orchestra that looks more or less like the one in Richard Strauss’s time. It’s already 100 years old. I don’t really think it will stay the same 100 years from now. The idea of a symphony orchestra must develop over time or it will become a museum.’

“He wants his ensemble to be able to play everything. ‘The conventional symphony orchestra leaves baroque repertoire to the period instrument orchestras and contemporary music to the specialized groups,’ he says. ‘Because we encourage the individual interests of musicians, we have a period instrument part of the orchestra, we have a chorus, we have a group playing Transylvanian folk music, another group working on jazz improvisations.’

“The aim is to keep both musicians and audience on their toes. He is known for his innovations: concerts where the audience chooses the pieces, which means they are played without rehearsal; encores in which the orchestra abandon their instruments and sing instead; operas where he does the staging himself . . . Every convention must be challenged.”

Amen to that.

It was my privilege to know Felix Galimir, a peerless chamber musician raised in the Vienna of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. When he came to the United States in the 1940s, Felix was confounded to discover that there was never enough time. In Vienna, there had been plenty of time.

Another distinguished musicians of my acquaintance, Lazar Gosman, played in Yevgeny Mravinsky’s Leningrad Philharmonic before emigrating to the US. He was amazed that, post-concert, symphonic musicians would hop in their cars and drive home. In Leningrad, they would congregate over vodka and talk.

As I previously reported, Ivan Fischer’s Budapest orchestra rehearses without a clock.





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