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Are Orchestras “Better than Ever”? — What Not to Tell a Young Musician

Two summers ago I had occasion to spend a week with gifted high school musicians at the Brevard Music Festival – an idyllic cultural retreat in the mountains of North Carolina.

Jason Posnock, Brevard’s artistic administrator, is not only a superb violinist but a reader and thinker and believer in humanities-infused programing and pedagogy. Thanks to Jason, I was entrusted with a multi-media Bernstein Centenary program that explored Bernstein’s thoughts about the history of American music. The same high school musicians upon whom I was inflicted comprised the orchestra for that concert.

A few weeks ago I was contacted by one of them and invited to talk about my career in music. His name is Aaron Lipsky and he produces the “Forte Podcast” via his chamber music company Clarinet and Friends. 

I remembered meeting Aaron and his mother and was happy to accept his offer. We wound up talking for eighty minutes – all of it recorded by Aaron, and posted on the Forte Podcast.

What ultimately imparts purpose and direction to this rant is that my interlocutor is all of seventeen years old and an aspirant classical musician. So I found myself being asked to offer advice.

Three years ago, in this space, I felt the need to challenge Ricardo Muti’s assertion that “orchestras are better than ever.” My response was a three-hour webcast during which Bill McGlaughlin and I sampled recordings pre-dating 1950: one-of-a-kind readings by Nikisch and Koussevitzky leading the Boston Symphony, by Stokowski leading the Philadelphia Orchestra, by Toscanini leading the New York Philharmonic, by Mitropoulos leading the Minneapolis Symphony, by Bodanzky leading the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra . 

The same topic came up with Aaron – but took a new direction. The following is verbatim from our conversation, beginning 13 minutes from the end.

AARON: Classical music is dying, literally. Almost all audiences are old. How do you get young people to love classical music?

JOE: I’m a parent, I have two kids, and yet I’m very discouraged by young people today. They’re crippled by social media and other factors that impinge on their lives and on their attention spans. I don’t believe in catering to them. I think that an orchestra that’s too invested in pleasing young people may lose its soul. If they come to me [i.e., the concerts I produce in DC and elsewhere], that’s great, nothing could be more gratifying. . . . This is a problem that depresses and perplexes me. 

AARON: You say you don’t believe in catering to young people. And I understand that.  

JOE: Well what about the young people that you know? What about the young people at Brevard? When you were at Brevard I gave five talks – do you have any thoughts about their impact? Because I know a lot of people your age, when they hear me talk, they’re not very interested in what I have to say.

AARON: I obviously remember almost everything you said. I was moved by almost everything you said. But can an orchestra really survive on the select few people who go to the Brevard Music Center?

JOE: I mention Brevard because this is a cross sampling of young musicians. It’s the musicians who have to figure out that orchestras are in trouble, that orchestras need a different footprint, a different identity, a different mission. That American musicians need to curate the American musical past. That they have to do more than rehearse and perform . . . If the musicians don’t figure these things out, nobody will, and that’s why I’m asking you about your cohort at Brevard . . . Because they’re already there, responding to the music. They already love it. So you don’t have to introduce them to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. But do they simply want to be in a great orchestra and play Beethoven’s Seventh? If that’s what they think — that’s hopeless. . . . 

Do you think that young musicians in your experience understand the magnitude of the challenge that they’re facing?

AARON: I do not. Because of rhetoric like “Orchestras now are better than ever.”  Because that’s the message that we hear constantly. We feel we’re part of a general ascension.

JOE: Let’s stick with this idea . . . First of all, how do you define an orchestra? Is an orchestra just what transpires Tuesday night at the concert hall? That’s not an orchestra. An orchestra is an institution. A cultural institution. And as such it does more than perform concerts. It functions within a community in a variety of ways. . . . 

“Orchestras are better than ever” – if you mean that, literally, you mean that in terms of the role the institution plays in Minneapolis or Philadelphia or Boston, it has a bigger and more important role than it’s ever had in the past. . . . Anybody who says that – they don’t know what an orchestra is. 

So this is a dangerous thing to tell young musicians. It will breed complacency and insularity. It’s the last thing they need to hear.

AARON: I agree that it’s a bad message. So what would you say to young musicians?

JOE: What I believe in imparting is whatever I managed to impart to you that week at Brevard. I think it’s important to understand something about the institutional history of the orchestra in the United States if you want to become an American orchestral musician. Learning about the context of what you aspire to do. I think that’s the first step – knowledge. Knowledge of history.

The foregoing exchange came at the end of a long discussion in which I had occasion to summarize the “knowledge of history” in question – and also to suggest some of the ways orchestras can most vibrantly behave as cultural institutions today.

As I told Aaron: 

The two most influential figures in the history of American classical music were Theodore Thomas and Henry Higginson. Thomas’s itinerant Thomas Orchestra implanted the notion that “a symphony orchestra shows the culture of the community.” Higginson single-handed founded and operated the Boston Symphony Orchestra; he also built Boston’s Symphony Hall. They are the individuals most responsible for making the concert orchestra an American specialty, versus the pit orchestras of Europe. 

Classical music in America peaked in the decades before World War I; orchestras throughout the Northeast and Midwest truly embodied “the culture of the community.” After that, the popularization of classical music among the “new middle classes” was commercialized by a Eurocentric “music appreciation” movement. Concurrently, modernism furnished a new aesthetic indifferent to new listeners. The net result – unforeseen by Thomas, Higginson, and other visionary pioneers — was a failure to consummate an American symphonic canon.

The exemplary orchestras of Serge Koussevitzky (in Boston), Leopold Stokowski (in Philadelphia), and Dmitri Mitropoulos (in Minneapolis) established singular sonic and institutional identities. But these were exceptions, and American roots for an American classical music were never sufficiently secured. In particular, the Black musical motherlode was squandered. After 1950, symphonic concerts grew increasingly formulaic. Cultural visionaries sought other fields of endeavor.  

Orchestras must find new ways to counteract shrinkage. And they must welcome and engage the participation of their own musicians in this necessary task.


  1. Interesting to read but, you haven’t offered any specific solutions about how to “counteract shrinkage.” It’s not that classical music is “dying.” It’s that the old-fashioned, Saturday night “masterworks” subscription formula is dying. (In most orchestras.) The fact is that millions of people are listening to classical music, just in different ways, in different types of venues, and those ways clash with our traditional professional orchestra format, by which I mean: work rules, collective bargaining agreements, etc.

    To Mr. Lipsky, I would say the following: I talk to young musicians all the time and I tell them this: if you truly love music and want to make it your life’s work, you will most likely be able to find a way but it WON’T be 100% playing your instrument…and that’s OK. It doesn’t mean you’re not talented, doesn’t mean you didn’t work hard. If you have talents in several different areas, along with your musical talent, explore them all.

  2. Dr. Joseph A. DiLuzio says

    Perhaps Maestro Muti was referring to the overall improvement in the level of instrumental execution.

    As with his superlative predecessor Eugene Ormandy (who made similar comments), they were not referring

    to the individual PERSONALITY distinguishing one orchestra from another. As Horowitz implies,

    there is no gainsaying the extraordinary uniqueness of the “Big Three” under their respective conductors.

    Lest this apply only to Philadelphia, New York and Boston, the Cleveland Orchestra in its heyday had an

    individuality and sharpness of articulation that was easily identifiable. Much as I dislike Szell’s music making

    (cold, devoid of color, perfection for perfection’s sake, little humanity in the playing), there was no mistaking

    its unrivaled character.

    Joseph A. DiLuzio, Ph.D.

  3. Dr. Joseph A. DiLuzio says

    I too sorely miss the “personification” inherent in the music-making of orchestras which existed even fifty years

    ago, let’s say. Horowitz mentions, naturally, Toscanini, Stokowski and Koussevitzky. But nearer to us were

    Ormandy in Philadelphia, Munch in Boston and Reiner in Chicago. Now, granted, it’s a personal thing,

    a matter of individual taste, but the absence of those individual sonorities and styles peculiar to those

    magnificent ensembles, well, as a record collector, forgive the slang, it just ain’t the same !

    As a kid, my Mom had a Reiner disc with Chicago playing Glinka (do I have to mention the overture),

    Borodin (the March from Prince Igor), and most intriguing of all, Colas Brugnon of Kabalevsky.

    Man, what virtuosity, YES, but what total identification IDIOMATICALLY with the music more importantly !

    Joseph A. DiLuzio, Ph.D.


  1. […] “Orchestras are better than ever” – if you mean that, literally, you mean that in terms of the role the institution plays in Minneapolis or Philadelphia or Boston, it has a bigger and more important role than it’s ever had in the past. Anybody who says that – they don’t know what an orchestra is. So this is a dangerous thing to tell young musicians. – Joseph Horowitz […]

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