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Music, Institutionalized

The New York Times takes on the New York City Opera's current dire straits (something I've mentioned before).

In a possibly related note, insofar as it's about large classical music institutions trying to negotiate the 21st century, I have been thinking over my conversation with Ivan Fischer the other day about the need for orchestras to change. Of course, today's symphony orchestra is essentially a 19th-century phenomenon; as Fischer said, it hasn't fundamentally changed for 100 years. But what does it mean, in concrete terms, to change an orchestra? No one wants to throw the baby out with the bathwater and eliminate artistic standards, quality, the ability to play Mahler symphonies. Yet it does seem that orchestras could play a more vital role in the cultural lives of many communities. Fischer couldn't tell me yet what change looked like in his view, so I'm soliciting ideas: how could, or should, an orchestra adapt and modify to the changing world around it, if at all?

By Anne Midgette  |  June 18, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  news , random musings  
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Anne, I've been thinking about Mo. Fischer's remarks too. And I see so much outreach happening already with the musicians visiting schools and playing in open public venues, for example. It seems to me that each orchestra has some members who make it their life's work to communicate about, and with,discussion music at every opportunity. We are fortunate, I think, to have some of these in the NSO.

I'm from the older generation that didn't grow up in an internet-connected world, so I don't have the inherent mindset that goes with that kind of connection. But it seems clear that the world, especially its youth, uses electronic connection as the norm. So does that mean that the YouTube orchestra is the leading edge of the orchestral future? I don't know, but it sure seems that online is the next frontier for orchestras. The wonderful presentations our NSO musicians give in schools; might those become available online somehow?

Thanks, Anne, for opening the subject for discussion.

Posted by: mcooley | June 18, 2009 7:20 AM | Report abuse

I think that this has to be looked at in a much broader scope. You have to think about what draws young people to things-its full blown entertainment. For instance, movies. Its all of the high tech abilities that make it fresh. Take for instance Star Trek, the new version that just came out not long ago. Star Trek has been around for eons; I grew up watching it. But what made it successful this time? Modernization. Maybe the NSO and other orchestras need to step up their game in infusing some high tech TADAs of today as a background to the beautiful music. I think its hard to think that kids/young adults would sit in a theater or any venue and just listen-they expect more now days. Gone with the Wind wouldnt sell to the young people unless it was stepped up to something more in line and futuristic while still maintain the core of it. If they can provide modern background-maybe in the clothes they wear, maybe in some other artistical visual stimulants that make it well..cooler-just maybe Symphony can be the next cool thing. Its got to be cool and innovative, stimulating not only to the ears but to the eyes as well. Internet and technology has opened those 2 sensories together which 30 years ago was one or the other. Its what sells today. I know for myself, you rarely see any young people coming to symphony and why is that? Well, its boring to just sit there and look at a stage and hear music with people all in black all by itself. Kids/young adults are now used to audio and visual stimulation together. This would require finding someone in this country that can infuse the 2 and take symphony to a whole new level. I doubt it will be cheap, but it may be worth the investment.

Posted by: IGotLotsToSay | June 18, 2009 7:48 AM | Report abuse

Why does the symphony orchestra have to change? The only reason it needs to change is to ensure continued full employment for musicians.Those of us who enjoy the immediacy of music wlithout electronic falsification and constitute the audience for classical music will eventually die off, together with the symphony, and this fundamentally untwitterable music will go down the YouTubes.

There may be another reason for wanting the symphony orchestra (and the opera, and string quartets, and other purveyors of classical music) to live long and prosper, as Spock might say. That reason is that the symphony orchestra et al. are civilizing institutions. However, that does not mean that musicians need to tart themselves up and pretend they are all Ronald McDonald or generate Kill Beethoven or Tubas From Outer Space video games.

What performers and composers of civilized music need to do in order to remain linked to the food chain is to take their civilizing role seriously. That civilizing role would be to partner with other civilizing influences to try to slow down – and, perhaps, some day reverse – the dumbing down of our society to the egalitarian lowest common denominator. There is an enormous range of ways in which one can increase the market share of civilization: think of music camps, of post-school and weekend activities, of computer programs that can translate between hearing and reading music, of posting orchestra recordings and scores before and after concerts.

Here’s an example of how this can work. Not long ago Anne reviewed a concert featuring Jennifer Higdon’s new violin concerto. As much as I love music, I am basically an ignorant audience. I had also never heard of Higdon. Well, a brief web search provided information on Higdon, her other work, selections on iTunes, and other reviews. Among them, information that the BBC had broadcast a performance of that work in Liverpool, and would allow downloading of it for another 7 days. I was able to download the music and save it so I could listen to it several times and develop a better-informed understanding than I could have even if I had been able to attend the one-time performance. This sort of thing should not require a computer-savvy person to work through; it should be part of the standard activity surrounding any musical performance. As a matter of fact, performers could post selections or even a whole concert, well ahead of time, allowing audiences to arrive able to engage in some informed listening.

A lot of this is already going on, of course. But if the symphony orchestra et al. want to remain connected to the food chain, it might be appropriate for them to consider their business plan from the point of view of their possible civilizing role rather than a waning perspective of full employment.

As for sitting in a theater and just listen, welll, of course it would be more fun if they all would be able to run around naked, texting on their cell phones, with war paint on their faces, and have a human sacrifice at the end of the concert, before the orgy. However, part of being civilized is precisely the ability to sit still and listen, in a concert hall, or a classroom, or a church. Without popcorn.

Posted by: gauthier310 | June 18, 2009 9:51 AM | Report abuse

"Yet it does seem that [classical music] orchestras could play a more vital role in the cultural lives of many communities."

This is tail-wagging-the-dog thinking. Classical music orchestras have no chance to "play a more vital role in the cultural lives of ... communities" until what those orchestras are created and organized to do play a more vital role in the cultural lives of communities. As long as classical music resides in the marginalized periphery of our culture, those institutions created and organized to perform that music will reside in that marginalized periphery as well no matter what they do. In short, and to paraphrase, it's the music, stupid!


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | June 18, 2009 10:26 AM | Report abuse

You asked a great question: "how could, or should, an orchestra adapt and modify to the changing world around it, if at all?"

The most important thing, in my view, is to respect the essence of the reason the orchestra exists: "classical" instrumental music for large forces. I think for a variety of reasons, the larger public thinks it doesn't like this music. However, when it's actually experienced, people think it's good. The question is how to get past the barrier.
Not by pandering, for sure. Not classical-lite. If you don't respect your own product, how can you expect anyone else to respect it, and want to use it?
I think what Baltimore Symphony is doing these days is smart. Interesting programs, including high quality accessible music outside what's normally done. I've been to only one BSO performance ever - Bernstein's Mass, up in Baltimore because I couldn't go the day it was done at the KC. I am now on their e-mail list and get info from them on all kinds of good stuff that I'd go to if I lived closer to where they performed.
I think there's high quality contemporary and 20th century orchestral music that the younger audiences would like which the "traditional" orchestral audience resists, or even walks out on. The orchestra could use a business model to develop a separate product for this group and deliver it to them (Itunes?). For example, I know rocker types who are blown away by Stravinsky & Bartok, but have no use for Beethoven.
I wonder if this area would be a good market for something like that club in NYC that has classical musicians performing cool classical music in the club environment. Someplace that's NOT the Kennedy Center.
Getting out there in the community is good, doing more blogging when they're NOT on tour to get folks interested in the people who make up the organization (Like Kim Whitman and some of her colleagues do at Wolf Trap Opera).

Posted by: c-clef | June 18, 2009 10:41 AM | Report abuse

A couple more things:
The best way to learn to love the music the orchestra makes is to experience making the music oneself. Support your local teachers and school orchestral music programs, help them get resources to get their students to perform this music and learn to love it. The more the better.
Do an awards program (like the Cappies for local high school theater) for school instrumental (and maybe even choral) ensembles, with the cermony plus performances at the Kennedy Center.

Posted by: c-clef | June 18, 2009 11:03 AM | Report abuse

This is a great topic. I would be most interested in knowing what you think can be done to have a meaningful rather than marginal impact. What do you think is the role of a critic in helping arts groups change? Also, I'd be curious to know what Greg Sandow thinks can be done. He's been writing about this topic for years and I believe actually worked for an orchestra as a marketing consultant. Concrete and implementable solutions preferred.

Posted by: newcriticalcritic | June 18, 2009 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Instead of asking how orchestras should change, why not ask how listeners should change. The level of musical ignorance in the U.S. today is astonishing. People do not know how to listen to something longer than five minutes: watch them at concerts, and they soon start flipping through their programs to look at the ads because they're "bored." They arrive late, leave while the orchestra is still taking its bows (to get to that parking garage first so that they don't have to wait in line at the exit) and check their BlackBerries during the performance every quarter hour. They are raised on three-minute pop songs with a thudding beat and blared lyrics and little else. How can they respond to anything that takes involvement and an effort to follow a musical dialogue?

I'm not saying orchestras should only play to music PhDs, but let's face it, you can't "dumb down" Mahler or Beethoven. Yo-Yo Ma thinks he is doing the world a favor by playing his Silk Road pablum, but 50 years from now what will the world be listening to, that, or Casals' Bach? No one asks arts museums to dumb down their paintings of great historical events, or put the Mona Lisa in a g-string. It's unfair to ask classical performers to accommodate the fads of the moment, when these "audiences" will not even be here in five years, having moved on to the next fad. (Maybe table tennis makes you even smarter than Mozart.)

The biggest thing orchestras themselves could do would be to program more *adventurous* music, ironically. Today's audiences can handle Bartok and Stravinsky, and even Ligeti and Piston, a lot more than most of the people who do the programming think. We are drowned in "dissonant" and "angular" music in everything from indie rock to TV and movie and video game soundtracks. Since the Amadeus fad of the 80s so many "cultural" institutions have been catering to the blue-haired, "Moe-zart is deevine" crowd. They have to find something new. Not that I don't love Mozart, but it gives today's young people a very skewed vision of classical music. They think it's all hoity-toity high tea music.

Posted by: johngrabowski08 | June 18, 2009 2:12 PM | Report abuse

To Gauthier,

I had a hard time understanding which platform you stand on and maybe my suggestions came across a bit too Mickey Mouse. The bottom line is, and its a reality, is that the US has evolved in to something that desires more because it can have more. That being said, I dont think anyone wants to see any symphony turn in to Cirque Du Soleil, but I think most agree that there has to be a really innovative way to reach the young people. If the young adults arent being captivated, how does anyone think they would take their children to symphony? There has got to be a way to make it it or not. I dont think You Tube is the way to go nor any internet options, but I do think the live delivery needs changed. You have to lure the hen to the hen house with feed it likes in order for it to want to lay eggs (pretty good huh? Made it up myself!)

Posted by: IGotLotsToSay | June 18, 2009 2:24 PM | Report abuse

To IGotLotsToSay.

I think all comments point to a common point of view, and we all seem to disagree more on the means than on the goal, which is to continue civilization (and the important part of civilization represented by music) as a meaningful component of people's lives. I did enjoy your comparison with the hen, but reasoning by analogy is always tricky. My concern is that, if we regard the non-musical audience as little better than hens, we are going to get them to do little more than lay eggs. (Please don't take this as a putdown -- it is not meant that way.) I believe that johngrabowski08 makes a similar point to mine, warning against the danger of dumbing down the music and the importance of not giving up on demands on the audience. As can be seen from all the postings, there is a lot that can be done to educate the public, especially by using the tools of modern communications to supplement performances and raise musical literacy standards. But ultimately, I do believe that we are going to have to sit down and either make music ourselves or be quiet and listen to music being made for us to hear. Those of us with the means to Esterhazy it may be able to get musicians to play for them while they attack the roasted boar and burp and make loud conversation, but the rest of us, with no recourse but a public musical experience, will just have to behave like civilized people are supposed to behave in class, or in church, or -- pun intended -- in concert. It's like learning to use knife and fork.

Posted by: gauthier310 | June 18, 2009 4:57 PM | Report abuse

As I said before, lower ticket prices would do miracles. Look at the Baltimore Symphony with the $25 subscriptions.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | June 19, 2009 11:35 AM | Report abuse

Thanks so much for posting this! I'm a senior violin performance major in college right now and this question is a very important one for me and all my friends facing the "real" music world.

How can an orchestra adapt? Marketing to a different audience, perhaps via television commercials. Ticket price specials - when it costs $10 to see the latest Bond movie in theaters and $40 to go to the symphony, what is a family going to pick? - especially in the current economic environment. Visiting public and private schools and giving benefit concerts. Sponsoring music education, especially music history so that students can see that the pop music they love wouldn't exist without the strong classical tradition.

Education is also a huge, huge part of this. Students should learn classical music as well as algebra and Shakespeare. Studies have shown that students who are musicians also do better in school, and I can tell you that in my personal experience, my friends who were involved in music in high school were also the ones taking Advanced Placement classes, getting into colleges with merit scholarships, and achieving high scores on standardized tests. I grew up in Arlington, VA and was so privileged to have string quartets from the Army Strings come to my orchestra class and perform for us and do workshops with us. Unfortunately, there are many places around the country where arts programs barely exist at schools or where they have been cut in order to place more emphasis on math and reading. Orchestras - and all musicians and arts supporters - also need to use their voices as citizens and speak up to the local and national governments about making the arts a priority in education and in the budget.

Once upon a time, before television and movie theaters, professional sports and video games, the symphony orchestra and the opera were THE entertainment of a city. They appealed to people of all classes. A night at the symphony was not the stiff, formal affair people often see it as these days. Audience members talked through the performance, applauded between movements (gasp!) or whenever they wanted to express their appreciation for the performers, and food was served during the performance. It was a more casual, more relaxed affair than it is these days. Now, I'm not saying we should install concession stands in the Kennedy Center or let people trash Lincoln Center with food. And the talking, applause, and food weren't signs of disrespect from the 18th and 19th century audiences, not in the least. They obviously loved music - why else would ANYONE sit through a 4 hour concert of Beethoven's 5th and 6th symphonies in a freezing concert hall in Germany? Maybe this more relaxed attitude is what is needed to lure audiences back to the concert hall.

Classical musicians used to be the rock stars, starting with the virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt, who toured and gave concerts that everyone (not just those with the ability to buy expensive tickets and go to the Kennedy Center) could attend. Niccolo Paganini had a wide following of fans when he toured around Europe. I think it's important for today's soloists and great artists to really make themselves accessible to a wider audience. johngrabowski08 mentioned Yo Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble. Maybe you're right, and that music won't be remembered very long, but chances are that if someone goes to hear that ensemble or listens to their cd and decides they really like this Yo Yo Ma and his cello, they'll be more inclined to buy his recording of the Bach Cello Suites.

Okay, I think I've gone on long enough...but this is something I think about a lot, seeing as the career dreams I have depend very strongly on the role of classical music in our world. :-)

Posted by: violinist_forever | June 19, 2009 12:54 PM | Report abuse

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