(Originally published at Orchestra R/Evolution)
In my last post, I encouraged readers to articulate what they liked about orchestras, so we can have a better sense of what it is exactly we are trying to preserve or pass on to new audiences and future generations. I’ll begin this one by sharing my own answer to that question.
I’ve never played in an orchestra, but I’ve seen a few orchestral concerts in my day. One of my early orchestral memories was seeing the Boston Symphony play at Symphony Hall. The red carpets, ornate architecture, and gold trim made a huge impression on me. In other early concerts at Yale University’s Woolsey Hall, I loved watching the cellos move and lean and moan in unison, the conductor dancing on the podium, the battery of percussion toys, the impossibly shiny woodwinds and brass, four risers’ worth of singers standing up as one to prepare for the next entrance. The spectacle, the grandeur, the pomp & circumstance – they were all integral parts of the experience.
I feel like I’m going to make Greg Sandow’s head spin when he reads this, given that I’m a member of the younger generation who isn’t an orchestral insider, but count me firmly in the camp that says orchestras don’t need to try to be less old-fashioned. The penguin suits – keep ‘em on! The ridiculous rituals – love ‘em! Maintaining silence between movements – contributes to a special atmosphere! As I mentioned, I don’t often go to orchestral concerts, but when I do it’s often in part because the environment is not like the rest of my life, not in spite of it.
It’s not that I’m opposed in all circumstances to orchestras reaching out and trying new things – not by any stretch! But I think orchestras are most effective when they put forth their authentic selves. One non-traditional concert I recall enjoying was the Yale Symphony Orchestra’s annual Halloween extravaganza. The show started at 11:59pm and would feature an original film made by members of the orchestra, arrangements of popular theme music by the students, cameo appearances from the Dean and President of the college, and a hall chock-full of raucous, costumed, mostly drunk undergraduates. It was a PARTY. But it was able to be that party because it was a concert by students, for students. I can’t imagine how awkward it would have been to have a professional orchestra (playing past 11pm on those union contracts? Are you kidding?) try to replicate that fun-loving no-holds-barred atmosphere for an audience it wasn’t familiar with. Similarly, many noises have been made about how orchestras need to get out of the concert hall and into clubs. First of all, concert halls were built for a reason. The acoustics, seating arrangement, and optics are far superior to what you’ll find in a club. Secondly, as someone who has actually performed in a lot of clubs, I can assure you: the economics of small-venue performance are murderous for large or even large-ish ensembles. I mean, jazz is basically dying in this country right now because it is so hard for musicians to eke out a living playing these little shoebox closets with a $10 cover – and we’re talking groups of three, four, five players here. Trust me, the long-term structural issues facing orchestral performance are not going to be solved by a change of scenery.
At the end of the day, I’m skeptical that all that much change can come from the large, established institutions. To the extent that a “new kind” of orchestral experience is on tap, I suspect it will come from newer, youth-led outfits like Alarm Will Sound and Metropolis Ensemble rather than from the big guns. And, honestly, I think the big guns will be all right. People are still going to come to New York and Chicago and San Francisco to hear the symphony. And the experience they’ll be expecting will be the experience currently provided by those organizations: the experience of seeing some of the best musicians on the planet doing what they’ve spent a lifetime training to do. An experience that is tradition-bound and proud of it.
That’s not who I worry about. I worry about the regional symphonies, the semi-professional chamber orchestras, the myriad of youth orchestras. It seems to me that if you’re playing the exact same repertoire as your neighbor across town, just less well, you’re not really giving people much of a reason to come out and see you or support you in any way. I worry that we just have too many mediocre ensembles out there making the same not-very-interesting programming choices. They’re the ones who are most likely to have to decide, in the not too distant future, just what–and who–they’re really about.