Return to the Table of Contents.
A U G U S T 1 9 9 7
by David Schiff
Discuss this article in the Arts & Literature forum
An Atlantic Unbound Web citation spotlights Classical Insites, a Web site with a refreshingly fundamental approach to classical music.
Classical-music reviews, recommendations, and information.
N 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.
"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.
N 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.
Put these trends together, though, and they become an iceberg. Crossover between classical and nonclassical music and musicians is the lifeboat of the moment: opera stars like Dawn Upshaw and Bryn Terfel are recording Broadway ballads, Yo-Yo Ma is playing country fiddle, and orchestras are turning to jazz musicians like Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, and Bobby McFerrin to put new life into classical repertory. Lincoln Center, following the success of its jazz program, has launched a program featuring popular song, a genre referred to by the program's director, Jonathan Schwartz, as "American classical music." These days nearly everything is "classical music" except classical music.
Musicians' strikes and crossover concerts are nothing new. Strikes are a perennial part of an infrastructure in which virtually all orchestral players belong to the American Federation of Musicians. Crossover is at least as old as Paul Whiteman's 1924 "Experiment in Modern Music," which launched George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. American orchestras cannot be accused of snubbing popular culture: nearly all of them devote a good part of their season to pops concerts. What is new is the widespread sense of doom. A few years ago orchestras were questioning their mission. Should they be more diverse? More educational? Today the question is simple survival. Political agendas are pursued only if they help balance the budget, and they rarely do.
It is difficult to create demand for an invisible product. Newspaper coverage of classical music is rapidly disappearing. In the Portland Oregonian the music section of the weekend arts-and-entertainment supplement is devoted to rock, blues, and jazz; classical music appears in a back-of-the-book section called "On Stage," where it competes for coverage with dance and theater. An editor told me that the only people who really care about classical reviews are performers and their managers, who use them for publicity. There is no classical music on commercial TV. A few cities still have commercial classical radio stations, but these are fading. An increasing number of National Public Radio stations, moreover, have turned to an all-news format with just an occasional classical-music slot. In Portland the NPR station fills the few hours between news programs with a mixture of classical, jazz, and ethnic tidbits, which I think of as Muzak for people with a college education. There is also a small classical station, which was once supported by the Portland public schools; when the school budget was cut, the station turned to the public for support, and its programs now come with tasteful announcements of sponsorship by local professionals such as dentists and lawyers. It's a very low-budget operation, yet it is the only local outlet for the broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera and the Chicago Symphony. Our brave little station might be celebrated as a sign of the tenacity of classical music at the grassroots level. But these days it reminds me more of the pauper's grave where they dumped the body of Mozart.
HE Oregon Symphony strike lasted eighteen days. The issues were wages, benefits, and working conditions, but, as in the strikes that would come later in the season around the country, it was really a battle of perceptions. Many people in the community characterized the players as spoiled children with no understanding of the realities of the cultural marketplace. The players, however, saw management as trying to get the most playing for the least money, and as having no interest in artistic standards. Conductors usually leave town during strikes, to avoid being identified with either side.
In Europe many orchestras are cooperatives; the players hire the conductor. But here the players are unionized employees, and their mentality falls somewhere between those of airline pilots and steelworkers. They view themselves as highly skilled professionals who have put in as many years of training as a lawyer or a doctor yet in effect are on an assembly line. The rituals of rehearsal and performance give them little sense of autonomy. Even though the era of the tyrant conductor is long gone, musicians do not choose the music they play, and have little input into musical interpretation. Rehearsals are timed to the second, starting at the stroke of ten in the morning and ending precisely at twelve-thirty, with a fifteen-minute break. In three or four rehearsals musicians must put together a concert program that may contain a work they have never played before. They are all quick studies, but the rigid constraints on rehearsal time create an emergency-room tension and a frustrating sense of artistic compromise. The players devote considerable time to practicing their parts and maintaining their instruments, and additional demands on their time by the orchestra can cut into this necessary preparation. Not even familiar repertory guarantees a more gracious style of music-making, because the season brings a series of guest conductors, each with a distinctive set of preferences, strengths, and weaknesses. Over the years players hone their skills of self-protection. They know that they have to perform well whether the conductor is a genius or a hack -- and they know that the audience will credit a good performance to the conductor.
Players see their lack of power as an artistic problem, and yet the reaction of people outside the profession is that their attitude is somehow unartistic -- and that they aren't taking into account the dwindling demand for their services. In fact musicians in major American orchestras, who number under 3,000, are in a unique position in the arts: they have guaranteed full-time employment and, after a few years, tenure until retirement. No dancer, actor, or visual artist can even aspire to this level of security, and orchestral players get little sympathy from other artists. But the players argue that such security is necessary for artistic reasons: an orchestra is a team, and it takes years of experience with one another and with the acoustics of the concert hall to learn to play as one instrument. Unlike dancers, orchestral players can continue to work throughout their lives without physical deterioration, gaining the benefit of years of experience with the repertory and with conductors. Few orchestral players feel the kind of awe and dependency toward a conductor that dancers feel toward a choreographer -- who will cast them aside when they turn forty. Conductors come and go; the orchestra is for life.
Since the nineteenth century the musical world has been divided into two mutually dependent cultures, which we could label supply and demand. The supply culture defines and nurtures musical talent, and the demand culture connects that talent to a paying audience. The conservatory, the heart of the supply culture, is one of the last institutions to reward individuals strictly on the basis of talent. Most orchestral musicians were scholarship students at these great schools, earning their support not on the basis of need but at annual performances before juries. In this world talent succeeds: walk into a conservatory and ask students who is the best trumpet player, and you will be surprised by the unanimity of the response.
In the conservatory players go far beyond mastering the mechanics of their instruments and learning to play the notes on the page. They learn to find the music in those notes -- to shape a phrase, to color a tone. And they learn to do this in a range of musical styles, from the Baroque to the modern. There are also many things they don't learn. Classical musicians do not study improvisation, and they do not routinely learn to play jazz or pop music or rock. In short, they leave the conservatory knowing nothing about "contemporary music" in the sense Bottom gave the term -- even though their future livelihood may call upon them to play many kinds of music beyond the classical repertory.
Outside is where the world of capitalism begins. A handful of musicians -- the Perlmans and Pavarottis -- can make in one night what the average orchestral player earns in a year. Several thousand others -- either freelancers (known as "gig pigs") putting together a living with pickup groups, teaching, and commercial work, or the musicians in the country's twenty-seven full-time orchestras -- support themselves as musicians, earning incomes that place them in the middle-class professions. For everyone else the choice is between keeping your day job and leaving music as an avocation, and living a monastic existence playing in subways and on street corners. Plenty of dancers, actors, and jazz musicians effectively take vows of poverty, but for classical musicians that would represent an admission of failure.
The music world has its ways of gilding ugly economic realities. The dependence on patrons creates the folie à deux found everywhere in the arts: the rich pretend they are artists, and artists pretend they are rich. Murry Sidlin sprang the invitation to participate in his Knight Foundation project on me over coffee in Aspen, where he teaches conducting at the summer music school -- one of the most prestigious and glorious settings in the music world. Aspiring musicians come to Aspen from all over the world to study with the top teachers in the business and to brush against the greatness of the star soloists and globe-trotting conductors who fly in and out or hole up in the $500-a-night resorts. Everyone dreams of sudden success. Few of the students or teachers can afford the fancy condos and restaurants that cater to a Hollywood clientele during ski season and are still expensive in the summer. As usual in the music world, artists pay for the privilege of perfecting their art in the company of great mentors and peers. Then they go home and figure out how to pay off their credit cards.
Afford Year-Round Concerts
FTER a great deal of public acrimony the Oregon Symphony musicians gained what looked like a Pyrrhic victory and went back to work, though with a large residue of bad feeling. Unlike some of the members of the first-rank orchestras that would strike later in the season, the players in Portland make modest salaries, comparable, in most cases, to those of public school teachers -- and this in a city where the cost of housing has nearly doubled in the past five years. But pay was only one of the issues. The symphony now performs a given concert three times: Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. For years management has wanted to drop the Tuesday concert and begin the series on Saturday night. This would involve changes in the rehearsal schedule, and some of the musicians, who supplement their incomes with teaching and other jobs, opposed the change. They found little sympathy: "Didn't anyone tell them they were in show business?" was a common reaction. The players, who finally accepted the change in schedule, know they are in show business -- all too well. Nearly half their programs are pops concerts, "family" concerts, or miscellaneous "specials" -- single performances allotted even less rehearsal time than the regular programs. I found little trace of snobbery in the players' view of these concerts; they respect many of the pop performers. But backing up a Broadway tunesmith or sight-reading arrangements of golden oldies does little to sustain the skills they mastered in the conservatory. Less qualified musicians and, even worse, synthesizers and computers could do the job just as well.
After the strike ended, Tony Beadle set up the second meeting with Rock Bottom to nail down our collaboration. The concert was now seven weeks away. I had only a vague sense of what form my piece would take. Sidlin had asked me to create some kind of framework -- we would not even call it a composition -- for different styles of improvisation. I had the idea of a theme that could be played in all the different styles, and I wrote a short tune based on the chord changes of "Hit the Road, Jack." When, at our second meeting, I played the tune for Bottom, he rolled his eyes. Steam began to emerge from his ears when Sidlin told him that he thought my piece should be played twice, so that the audience could hear how the improvised sections would differ by performance. "I have to think about it," Bottom said as he made a fast exit. I assumed the project was dead. A week later Beadle called me to say that Bottom had fallen out of the program -- and they had found me a new collaborator, Curtis Salgado, a blues singer and harmonica player with a loyal local following. The concert was less than six weeks away.
The ambitions for the concert were as much financial as artistic. As with most American orchestras, the conductor, or music director, of the Oregon Symphony is responsible for artistic quality, and the board is responsible for fiscal balance. The executive director is the bridge between these two and between the orchestra and its players. He has to build support on the board for the artistic mission while keeping the music director's dreams in line with the board's ability to raise funds. And he must keep expenses as low as possible -- which puts him on a collision course with the musicians, whose wages are the symphony's largest and least flexible budget item.
Until the arrival of the music director James DePreist, in 1980, Portland's orchestra was a part-time operation. It shared the cavernous civic auditorium with the Portland Opera and an array of Broadway road shows, and it rehearsed in the evening. Because evening rehearsals conflicted with other uses of the hall, the orchestra could not rehearse onstage. DePreist insisted that the symphony find its own home, so that it could rehearse during the day on its own stage. The city's grandest movie palace was transformed into the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, with the usual mixed results of such a makeover: glamorous public spaces and mediocre acoustics. The symphony's expansive ambitions were typical of the era; unlike many similar orchestras in middle-sized cities, however, the Oregon Symphony made a successful (or at least an apparently successful) transition from part time to full time.
The switch from evening to day rehearsals changed the relationship between the orchestra and its players. The orchestra now attained "major" status, a prestigious ranking that it knew at the time it could barely afford. The symphony was now the principal employer of its musicians, and had to provide them with a year-round living wage. Financial security seemed insidiously to become a higher priority for the musicians than either artistic accomplishment or the orchestra's fiscal balance, and avoiding risks became an end in itself. The forty-two-week season locked the orchestra and the musicians' union in a costly embrace of mutual dependency -- a marriage that has sunk many orchestras around the country. The alternative to the year-round contract was now no orchestra at all, which has come to pass in Sacramento and San Diego. The idea that every middle-sized American city deserves a "major" orchestra has proved as seductive -- and as untenable -- as the dream that every American city should support a major-league baseball team.
Don Roth, the executive director of the Oregon Symphony, told me late last year that the orchestra is still about 10 percent shy, financially speaking, of being able to shoulder the burden of a forty-two-week season. Its budget rose 40 percent when it went full time. Last year the orchestra's budget was $10.5 million, of which half came from ticket sales and half from private and corporate gifts and grants. "The old wisdom was that the way to improve your reputation was to make recordings and take the orchestra to Carnegie Hall or Europe," Roth told me. "But these are terribly expensive projects that do not build your support at home. If the record critics love you but the city doesn't know what you're doing, you'll go under in no time." The symphony made five well-reviewed records a number of years ago -- and never recouped its expenses for rehearsal time, which a record company never pays. It has not recorded since. "The major reason to make a recording," Roth told me, "is to give the orchestra a chance to work at its highest level, beyond what is possible during the season." And, in fact, many orchestras pay all the expenses, in effect making vanity recordings.
The greatest worry is ticket sales. The core audience for classical music is small and aging. The orchestra has to compete with other cultural institutions for the younger and more marginal audience, and in a city whose artistic preferences are countercultural, it's a hard sell. I was surprised to learn that almost all the pops concerts last season sold out, to an audience even older than the classical subscribers, while the classical series averaged ticket sales of 80 percent -- 300 empty seats per concert. Either the orchestra is giving too many classical concerts or it must do a better job of marketing them. Three years ago the symphony named Sidlin resident conductor to deal with the problem of audience development and to fill a gap in the repertory between classical and pops.
Sidlin's plan for our concert was dizzyingly utopian. Half the program was unfamiliar twentieth-century works -- more than enough to frighten off regular subscribers. The theme was not crossover but improvisation. Sidlin included Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun as an example of a piece that sounds improvised even though it is fully composed, and also Ives's The Unanswered Question, in which the music of three instrumental groups is written out but their coordination is approximate. He also included free-form pieces by R. Murray Schafer and Martin Bresnick alongside numbers by Curtis Salgado's band and my piece, which I had decided to name Bridge City. The only concession to the audience (and to the players, who would have to learn several new scores) was Leonard Bernstein's Overture to Candide, which would get the concert off to a spirited start even if it had nothing to do with improvisation.
A few days after it hired Salgado, the symphony began to advertise the concert on the radio as a blues event. The spots did not mention the classical works. Further to entice jazz and blues fans, the ads said that ticket stubs would permit entry after the concert to a jazz club down the street, where the legendary jazz bass player Leroy Vinegar would be performing. Portland has an abundance of mostly white blues bands that play in bars and clubs, give free concerts in the parks during the summer, and occasionally open for traveling celebrities such as B. B. King and Kenny G. I'm not sure how much the symphony marketers knew about the demographics of the blues audience, other than that it falls into the thirty- to forty-something generation that rarely buys symphony tickets. Blues fans in Portland, a guitarist friend of mine explained, fall into three groups: "Lesbians, yuppies who want to get down and dirty, and blue-collar guys who really are down and dirty."
Whatever the potential might be for symphony sales to these groups, the marketing strategy reflected the conventional wisdom about how to sell crossover: the orchestra crosses down, and the audience crosses up. It's an attitude that insults both players and listeners. The orchestra is made to feel that the kind of music it plays best is unsellable, and the audience soon figures out that the ads are a bait-and-switch ploy. The marketing strategy leaves out many other potential concertgoers: modern-dance performances and several repertory theaters attract audiences that are younger than those at the symphony, though equally well educated and affluent. The Knight concert's improvisatory theme and eclectic works might have piqued their interest.
Marketing is where the tension between supply and demand cultures becomes visible. My own aversion to the ads reflects vanity -- in my dreams the ads gave me top billing -- and also my position as a conservatory-trained composer, a product of the supply culture. Many of the people who come to the Oregon Symphony (as well as most who don't) have little knowledge of the orchestral repertory, or even of the names of the famous soloists, and getting them into the hall requires different, often devious approaches. The symphony sells out an annual "Mozart 'til Midnight" concert on the basis of its title alone, which implies a nice, safe evening out to couples weary of violence-filled movies. (Four hours of under-rehearsed Mozart is a numbing experience, though -- classical in all the worst ways.) The Portland Opera, which sells out almost all its performances, markets nearly every opera as a bodice-ripper: "Enjoy a night of passion and romance." But the audience arriving for a night of romance and passion would more likely be fulfilled by Miss Saigon than by Tristan and Isolde.
ALGADO and his musicians arrived late for the first rehearsal. "The band is in culture shock," the orchestra drummer behind me muttered. A 10:00 A.M. rehearsal is cruel and unusual punishment for musicians who normally begin work at 9:00 P.M., and no one had told them about the stopwatch discipline of rehearsal time. The orchestra's time is tightly structured by the demands of its schedule and the horrifying prospect of running into overtime. A band is used to taking a set or two just to warm up. A larger problem was the alternation of sections for orchestra and band -- a device I had hoped would make the piece easier to perform. But orchestras are used to coming in on cue, and blues bands are not. Sidlin would give the band a downbeat and nothing would happen. We got through the piece twice. "It'll be great," Sidlin assured me. I needed assurance.
The next morning -- the day of the concert -- the orchestra ran through the program in reverse order, Bridge City first. The band arrived on time, but its players settled into a completely different groove from the one of the day before -- a nice groove, actually, but the change was a conductor's nightmare. Salgado played a mournful harmonica solo that just about broke my heart. The piece still didn't flow, but it was beginning to have a mood. The remaining questions were how long the band should be allowed to play and whether the piece should be performed once or twice. If Sidlin limited the performance to fifteen minutes or so, the band might never find its groove; but if he let the band stretch out, the piece could easily last twenty-five minutes. Two such performances would put the orchestra into overtime and wipe out the budget.
"Nerve Endings" had no glitz and no high tech. For two numbers the orchestra tried to use what educators call visual aids, with a slide projector that looked just like the one we had in junior high school. The players dressed down: the women nicely, in colorful dresses, the men awkwardly, mixing their usual tux tops with jeans. A jazz trio played in the upper lobby, and there were free refreshments to make it more like a happy hour than a concert. The program notes had Sidlin's pun-filled addenda (Ives is "Thoreau-ly transcendental") scribbled over the printed text. Before each number Sidlin kibbitzed with the audience and musicians, walking around the orchestra with a mike, Phil Donahue-style.
The audience seemed relieved when the band came onstage to play two numbers by itself. Unlike the orchestra, the band dressed up: "We faked the orchestra out, Salgado announced, and the audience cheered. Despite the warm reception it got," however, the five-piece band seemed ill at ease on the huge, mostly empty stage. It played the way it would in a club, but achieving the intimacy of the blues in the movie-palace setting was hard, and it was harder still to put over Salgado's act of a white man singing like a black -- the particular charm of his singing. Just as Salgado began to figure out how to work the chemistry of the hall, his set was over.
Salgado came back after intermission for our "collaboration" -- a word whose meaning still eluded us. Sidlin gave the work almost no introductory shtick, perhaps because he was worried about time. When the band came in, the groove was different from that of either of the rehearsals; the wonderful harmonica solo of the morning rehearsal must have gotten lost in stage fright. Despite the glitches and a few bumpy transitions, the piece did not fall apart. Sidlin asked the audience if they wanted to hear it again. Fortunately, they clapped. This time the piece was a little more relaxed, with better transitions -- and the concert finished a safe five minutes before overtime.
Some of the blues fans I talked to afterward were disappointed that Salgado had not played more. College students, who get talked at all day, resented the amount of chat between pieces. But audience members in the thirty-to-fifty range, who said they rarely go to the symphony because they find the atmosphere stuffy, told me they loved the informality of the concert and appreciated the way Sidlin lightened the mood and informed them about the music. Several told me that they would go to the symphony more often if concerts followed this format. If their opinion is statistically significant, it's an easy fix for orchestras: just add an opening monologue and the sky won't fall -- at least not this year.
The symphony conducted its own audience survey, and it confirmed my doubts about the marketing campaigns mixed messages. The ads did attract blues fans, many of whom had never attended the symphony before. The people interviewed expressed stereotypical fears about the stuffiness of a classical concert, and evinced no interest at all in the classical pieces on the program -- least of all mine, in which they had assumed the orchestra would simply back up the band. The audience was told to expect a blues concert, and when the band it came to hear played only two numbers, no amount of "outreach" could assuage its understandable disappointment.
S a composer, I remain a creature of the classical music world, like the orchestral players. The orchestra is a special world: why shouldn't it remain so? Crossover may be a dangerous double fantasy. For populists it proves that classical music is dead; for orchestras it feeds the self-defeating notion that they can compete with popular music only by disguising the differences that separate the worlds of classical and popular music.
In a recent article Paul Griffiths, a music critic for The New York Times, claimed that orchestras will become like art museums, attracting audiences to the classics and also to contemporary art. I disagree with the analogy. Contemporary composers often complain that the repertory has been frozen -- and has frozen them out. But they don't notice that the orchestra itself has been frozen in ways that make it irrelevant to most "contemporary" music. In technology and temperament the orchestra does remain a museum, but one for the music of what historians call the long nineteenth century: 1789 to 1914. Orchestras are trained to preserve a great collection of masterpieces from Haydn to Mahler, and the only music written after that to achieve repertory status has been works that remain true to that tradition. To play the technical peaks of this "modern repertory" -- the Strauss tone poems, the orchestral works of Debussy and Ravel -- requires a permanent ensemble of the finest musicians. As even this repertory becomes distant from contemporary life, the question will arise not whether such orchestras should exist but how many the world is willing to pay for.
The "major" orchestra with a forty-week contract was a product of bureaucratic thinking, spawned by the deceptively steady help of the National Endowment for the Arts. From the point of view of a federal agency, full-time status became a measure of cultural progress. Most orchestras turned not into better museums but into department stores just like the ones that have gone out of business in most American cities. In the era of niche marketing specialty stores have replaced the big store, and they provide an alternative musical model that symphonies are considering. Some orchestra managers have floated the idea of an "extended orchestral community, which would include chamber ensembles, contemporary-music specialists," and educational activities. I think this is the wrong direction, and such an approach implies a view of the symphony orchestra as a cross between a public utility and a social-welfare agency. One result of such a mega-orchestra would be more-frequent mega-strikes.
A smaller and less certain future might remind the classical-music world of its first principles. A few years ago I saw a movie of Nadia Boulanger teaching a class. It wasn't a real class but a simulation for some American cultural TV of the fifties. In her terrifying, gaunt way Boulanger looked into her students' very souls and said, "You must take risks! If you don't take risks, you should just stay in your room. You should stay in your bed. You should die!" In the world of classical orchestras taking risks would mean letting go of the security-blanket mentality that constrains negotiations over contracts, rehearsals, and concerts. The riskiest move of all, though, would be the proud defense of the orchestra's own traditions and repertory against forces that view symphony orchestras with neither respect nor understanding. If orchestras do not take that risk, perhaps they deserve to die.
Illustrations by J.C. Suarès
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1997; Classical Appeal; Volume 280, No. 2; pages 70-80.