Classical Appeal

IN a cubbyhole at the cramped offices of the Oregon Symphony, in Portland, a conductor, an orchestra manager, a fundraiser, and a composer awaited the arrival of a singer from the other side of the musical world -- a former pop star we can call Rock Bottom. It was the beginning of September, just before the symphony season was scheduled to open, with a concert featuring the pianist André Watts. The goal of this meeting was to firm up plans for a December 3 concert designed to bring a new audience to the symphony. It was to be a crossover event, a category that attracts funding these days. A three-concert series, called "Nerve Endings," had been put together by the symphony's resident conductor, Murry Sidlin, with a theme of improvisation. There would be a jazz concert with the pianist Billy Taylor, a concert focusing on flamenco, and a collaboration between the symphony orchestra and Rock Bottom's band, with music to be composed by Bottom and a classical composer -- me. Bottom and I had never met.

Preliminary conversations between Bottom and Tony Beadle, the orchestra's general manager, had raised some red flags. Bottom seemed less interested in improvisation than in showcasing his band. Beadle and Sidlin worried that his approach would imperil the grant from the Knight Foundation, which was underwriting the series. The unwritten agenda of the meeting was to get Bottom on board.

Bottom arrived ten minutes late and entered the room as if he knew he was walking into a booby trap. He looked fortyish and darkly handsome, more presentable than the Afro-haired, gold-necklaced disco idol I had found on the cover of an album from the seventies. Sidlin laid out the theme of the concert and expressed his hope that we could reach a common goal. Beadle explained the terms of the Knight Foundation grant and the limits of the budget. Bottom listened sullenly. "I have a few questions," he began.

Curmudeonly audience

"First of all, I keep hearing this word 'collaboration.'" He glared across the room at me. "How is that supposed to happen?" Sidlin explained that he would like a piece demonstrating improvisation within different styles, including Baroque, Romantic, modern, and rock; I had written an outline for such a piece, he continued, which would alternate sections for the orchestra and the rock band. Bottom looked around the room with an expression of impatient disbelief and then his face lit up. "I know what you want. You want to give a concert of contemporary music. I am a contemporary musician. Let me tell you what you need to do."

I had watched the term "music" become synonymous with "rock," at least in the weekly entertainment section of the Portland paper. But this was the first time I had heard a rock musician claim the present historical moment exclusively for himself. Bottom continued, an emerging mammal addressing dinosaurs.

"An audience today does not want to hear acoustic music. They are used to THX. They want the sound to come at them from every direction. They want it loud. An acoustic orchestra has no impact. To play contemporary music you have to mike every player in the orchestra and you need a sound engineer to control the mix. It's done on a computer. We do this in the studio all the time. I know the best guy in the business. Of course, we'll need extra rehearsal time for this.

"And you can't use your percussion section. Those guys just don't understand contemporary music. We will have to bring in a rock drummer. And a larger rhythm section. I already spoke to my record label, and I think they would be very interested in the project, if we do it right."

Bottom had turned the tables. He had seen the future and (unlike the Oregon Symphony) he had a recording contract. Of course the extra technical rehearsal, let alone a three-hour session for the band on the orchestra's nickel, was out of the question. But the symphony people seemed entranced. Improvisation became a side issue. Sidlin suggested that Bottom and I get together soon to plan our collaboration. Bottom said coldly that he would "think about that." Two days later, for unrelated reasons, the symphony musicians went out on strike. The orchestra canceled its André Watts concert, and the rest of the season was put on hold.

Classical Crisis

IN the sensitive world of classical music a lot of people are convinced that the sky is falling. Newspaper articles describe the classical-music business in apocalyptic terms. Sales of classical CDs have slowed, strikes have closed down orchestras in Philadelphia, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Portland for weeks and months, and the number of music critics has declined (is this bad?). Legendary music managers, those gnomes of 57th Street, have shut their offices, and the public still hates modern music. It's not clear, though, whether classical music has already collided with the iceberg or is still steaming toward a fatal encounter.


The present crisis is actually a convergence of several trends: the supplanting of the old mom-and-pop music managers by big entertainment multinationals; the saturation of the recording market, now that CDs have put all the old wine of vintage recordings in new and cut-price bottles; the anti-high-culture stance affected by younger academics and journalists; and the collapse of music education in the public schools. Taken separately, these developments are no cause for alarm. Downsizing and internationalization are just business as usual in the nineties. The recording industry is resourceful in coming up with new technology that will make listeners buy the same performances again. Academic fads come and go. Even the apparent disappearance of music from the schools really signals a change from the old notion that music is for everyone to a concentration on educating the musically gifted -- today soccer, not the saxophone, is for everyone.

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