The Force Is Already With Us

John Williams is one of the most important and influential composers writing new music for orchestras today. In fact, the most exciting and anticipated new music for orchestra this year is John Williams’ new score to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Yet, despite his incontestably successful forty-year career writing new music for orchestra and his music’s continual cross-generational and cultural relevance, when the time comes for American orchestras to present “new music,” composers like Mr. Williams are left out. It makes one wonder, why don’t orchestras also present new music like Star Wars: The Force Awakens?

These days it seems we can all agree that presenting new music is a major part of what it takes to expand the audience and the donor base for American orchestras. Since the question is no longer whether new music is a good idea, but rather what sort of new music, it is helpful to our discussion to talk about what we mean when we speak of “new music” for orchestra.

For orchestras right now, presenting new music means almost exclusively presenting academic music. Academic music is the music from composer/professors working and writing in the experimental music tradition that began a hundred years ago, seemed to have been generally rejected by the public and the composers themselves, and then given new life after 1945. It’s a tradition that began with Schoenberg and his tone rows continuing through Boulez and serial music, to today with composers such as Musical America’s 2016 composer of the year Tod Machover, a professor of Music at the MIT Media Lab and a futurist(!).

There is deeply interesting and expressive music to be found in the academic realm. However, their explorations have also largely rejected the musical languages, like tonality, that the vast majority of the audience might understand and enjoy. Too often these days, the academics are writing for an audience of mostly fellow professors, their graduate students and the post-grad alumni who are our most respected music critics . Over the years, a steady diet of this single school of thought has given many orchestras’ general audiences a pernicious expectation that new music is something to be endured, rather than enjoyed.

Yes it’s an acquired taste to be sure, but music from the academics is a worthy part of the spectrum of new music for orchestra. The big tent of new music for orchestras has a few pillars, and academic music is an important one of them.

But it’s only one of them.

The question then becomes, if academic music is only a part of a spectrum of new music composed for orchestra, why do orchestras present academic music as if it were the only new music worthy of consideration as art? Why do orchestras play new music from John Adams, but not John Williams (except on pops concerts)? Is there really such a consensus as to what exactly constitutes the world’s greatest (orchestral) music?

One simply must be sympathetic to those who run America’s orchestras. Most of these groups have mission statements that promise, in one form or another, that the organization will aspire to bring symphonic music to large and diverse audiences, but they are frozen in an awkward position by the traditional exclusive focus on academic music as art. Orchestras are stuck in a place where they must persuade and please both their existing donors (Boomers), and court their new donors (Millennials) in an environment where proponents of academic-centered thinking still wield disproportionate power over the discussion of new music and the benefits it can offer these public institutions.

Like most people, many of these donors don’t necessarily have nuanced ideas about the development of new orchestra music in America. Naturally, they are strongly influenced by critics. Donors both actual and potential read reviews, and the artistic agendas of the reviewers have profound effects on the music that the industry considers to be art.

The most influential of critics, like The New Yorker’s Alex Ross and his colleagues at the New York Times, collectively approach their criticism of new music from the perspective that academic music is the only and best heir to new music for orchestra in America. This perspective cannot see “Star Wars,” or how it relates to other music in the classical (or academic) tradition — much less the importance of John Williams to our cultural world. The artistic contributions of film music do not fit into the academic-centered world view — and nor do other exciting possible sources such as video game music. This unassailed critical position gives orchestras a too-narrow definition of new music, and this united critical front is in desperate need of some loyal opposition.

Incidentally, the idea of the primacy of academic music is where the incessant accusation of classical elitism is born. The framing of academic music as art, while everything else is dismissed out of hand as commercial crap, is an elitist and offensive view. Very few will publicly engage in the art debate on the side of academic primacy because it’s ultimately an indefensible position.

We are in a transitional time for orchestras, and the world of new art is expanding. New music for orchestras is happening, even without the institution’s support, and although things may not look like the past, that’s okay. Sure, the live-to-picture fad is a gimmick, but it’s the necessary transition we need to help to bridge the gap to the time when orchestras can take this extra-academic music seriously without the crutch of the film playing in the background.

From the very moment the idea of a bigger tent presents itself, one will hear grumblings from the traditionalists about how this will inevitably mean lowering artistic standards, but we mustn’t listen to them. The position of the academics is well-meaning, but it is fundamentally a confusion of wanting to save a tradition, as opposed to wanting to save an art form. And that’s the thing: live orchestra concerts are an art form, and they are developing – as living things do. We need to help orchestras embrace the goal of a broader audience base by recognizing the artistic value of new music from outside academia. This means programming and staff choices that contribute to that goal. Orchestras need active relationships with these new media composers, the same as the relationships they currently develop with the academics. New music will come from new places, like Star Wars, and a broader audience and new donors will follow the new music.

The climate for orchestras in America has shifted, and there is no version of events where things return to the way they once were. A friend of mine kept a little motto on his desk: “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance a lot less.”


Originally published at

The Third Estate

If one wishes to contribute to the conversation about how to expand the audience base for American orchestras, then one must talk about what those orchestras are presenting — and right now that’s a taboo subject. The fact is that the discussion about WHAT exactly orchestras are presenting has never taken place. The arbitrary distinction they make between traditional orchestral classical music and popular orchestral forms has warped the priorities of American orchestras, who they hire, and what they present as art to the public.

Already it’s often difficult to know if what one is attending is a new music concert, or something closer to performance art. It’s time for us all to move on from subscribing to the academic notion that good new music will forever grow more complicated, and more meta. The oversized influence of academic composers on American orchestral programming has led the industry to the point where it cannot accurately be said that American orchestras support new music, rather they support a very particular style of new music. Whether they call it modern, modernist, modernistic, post modern, post modernist, post modernistic, etc. — it all means academic music. The truth is that orchestras support a very specific, and small, subset of composers while actively and passionately ignoring popular composers who fall outside the walled garden of academia.

In a recent New York Times review of the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, Anthony Tommasini asserted that the lusty booing at the conclusion of the premiere performance of Georg Friedrich Haas’s new work, “dark dreams”, was in fact a good thing. He writes, “In my experience, new pieces are not often booed. I hope Mr. Haas feels that he was doing something right to arouse such a reaction.” Presumably, doing something right means Mr. Haas’s music is challenging the audience, à la the premiere of the Rite of Spring. This line of thought is the standard-issue narrative for new orchestral music: it’s usually framed as how the initial audience doesn’t understand or much like good new music on the first hearing, but over the years the audience and the public will catch up with the composers’ genius, and they will come to embrace the work. This old-fashioned (and wrong) idea allows orchestras, critics, and academics to exclusively present academic anti-audience music as the only serious compositional art. Much of it is music that no one likes, and once it’s created press for its premiere, no one wants to hear it ever again.

The fact is that orchestras, and the classical music industry, need to appeal to a larger demographic of people. By avoiding talking about what orchestras are presenting, they are limiting their appeal to the same dwindling pool of traditional donors. The funny thing is, while orchestras wish to appeal to their conservative base they have no trouble at all upsetting that very same base when the new music in question comes from a composer who writes anti-audience music. Any new music that plainly aspires to things like beauty or joy are embarrassing to these traditionalist proponents of academic music, so when it comes to new music premieres it almost doesn’t matter who is writing, so long as they have not committed the sin of being commercially successful and their music avoids aspirations towards beauty or storytelling that might appeal to large groups of people. Thusly orchestras exclusively program new music from composers who have perhaps a different artistic agenda than the orchestra’s audience, and even their donor base.

Would that the traditionalists’ walled garden were filled with compelling examples of new music that have come from this isolated group, but over forty years of commissions we have, at best, a handful of pieces that anyone still plays. These orchestral commissions, concentrating as they do exclusively on academic compositional styles that were already old news forty years ago, continue to inflict on generations of audience members (and musicians) outdated and limiting ideas of the boundaries of the universe of new orchestral music.

After all, in nearly every industry, even in the arts, the best and the brightest coalesce around the highest paid jobs. There is no reason to suspect that composers take exception to this rule, but in American orchestras popular composers are shunned because they make money. Now, that doesn’t mean that every new symphonic video game score necessarily ought to be included as art, but just because a piece or a composer is successful shouldn’t automatically shut them out either — and right now it does.

It would be so helpful to be able to point to the terra firma of actual ticket sales data. An interesting fact that isn’t often discussed is that ticket sales data are not collected by all orchestras, and some orchestras only collect data from classical concerts, ignoring the numbers from other events such as Pops concerts. Would it not inform the discussion to know which concerts are papered, and which concerts can’t even be papered? National ticket sales data could be broken down and could yield insights into sales and membership trends. It could help us all understand what compels people to show up. Yet, unlike Broadway, individual orchestras do not release this valuable data and the League of American Orchestras does not, as yet, even collect it. It would be to everyone’s benefit if all American orchestras agreed to the collection and sharing of a standard set of ticket sales data points.

As a shorthand, I have a name for symphonic music from games, TV & film, Broadway, and other popular forms: Third Estate Music.

In 18th century France, the First Estate were the clergy, and the Second Estate were the nobility. The Third Estate was everyone else. The 99% — you know, the one’s who should eat cake. In major American orchestras, traditional classical music are the First Estate. The second Estate are the academics, A.K.A. “New York Times approved composers”. That’s artists like Christopher Rouse, Nico Muhly, Thomas Adès, John Luther Adams, etc. These two Estates represent the vast majority of what American orchestras present and support. The Third Estate constitutes everything else composed for the orchestra. Symphonic music from games, TV & film, Broadway — the music that people love. The Art that people love.

Unfortunately orchestras and many of the artists on their staff do not yet consider Third Estate music in the context of their institution’s core mission, and so these worthy popular artists are ignored by the only organizations who can actually perform their music live.

Naturally, the free market has found a way — the Pops concert. However, one important artistic distinction between how orchestras program Pops concerts from classical concerts is that they largely do not curate popular music programs themselves, they rent them. The back of this month’s Symphony Magazine is filled with Pops Concert packages, many of them include not only sheet music, lighting, and film, but often even a conductor.

So long as Third Estate music is ghettoized as simply a profit vehicle, separate from the “art”, it remains invisible to major orchestras and unable to help them. Here in New York, the market for Third Estate music covers a vast cross-section of the population, exactly the sorts of people that orchestras espouse to want to bring into their halls. Yet, major American orchestras still avoid this music as much as they dare. This season, for example, Third Estate music will be found in only ten concerts at the New York Philharmonic, and that’s including their summer Pops concerts. It’s no surprise then that they passed on the idea of performing video game music for New York Comic Con.

Still, others are more than happy to have that audience. The Wordless Music Orchestra backing Johnny Greenwood recently performed There Will Be Bloodlive-to-projection at the 3300 seat United Palace Theater, twice. They will play there again in January, this time presenting The Godfather. Next spring, another group will bring the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy to be performed here in New York City. Perhaps the New York Philharmonic passed on this music too, instead a 250-piece orchestra and choir will be flown in from Switzerland to play the six concerts at the Koch Theater, directly across Lincoln Center Plaza from the Philharmonic.

Many in the new music establishment will hasten to point out that there has been progress towards more universally appreciated musical structures and harmonic worlds in new academic music. Good for them. The fact that they are moving towards sounds that are closer to popular forms only serves to illustrate the outrageous discrimination that faces composers who’s music was always popular outside of the castle walls.

The really tricky issue facing popular composers is that classical artists and reviewers will avoid this discussion about expanding what orchestras are programming at all costs. When they can, they will ignore it, and when they cannot ignore it, they dismiss it out of hand. Despite the ink spilled calling for music to “challenge” the audience, most classical critics have for decades avoided this Third Estate music which challenges their own fundamental preconceptions about symphonic music. They only want other people to be challenged.

The most recent example comes from Danny Elfman’s Music from the Films of Tim Burton. Let us compare how these two popular artists’ works are treated by traditional arts institutions. Tim Burton, the successful filmmaker and artist, was presented by MoMA here in New York City in an exhibit of his works from both films and drawings. His exhibit was the third most well attended exhibit in the history of the museum, after Picasso and Matisse, and it continues to be presented by modern art museums all over the world. The exhibit got a number of reviews, including one from the New York Times.

Contrast that to how Danny Elfman’s music is treated by American orchestras. The only difference between his symphonic new music concert, and a “new music” concert, is that Mr. Elfman has had success with a broad section of the population. Here we have a living composer who is playing sold-out evenings of his music for orchestra, and arts critics across the country can’t even be bothered to notice. Why should they? The composer in question is popular and the concert makes money, therefor it cannot possibly be worthy of their time. Classical critics would prefer to support concerts that have the traditional sorts of anti-audience music that allows them to sell the notion of classical exceptionalism, because after all, academic music is worth considering. It’s worth reviewing.

Danny Elfman’s concert has never been reviewed by a classical critic, anywhere. Mr. Elfman’s music, apparently, is not worthy of critical consideration simply because it’s popular.

This is an example of the conversation that’s not taking place. The subject of art, and the exclusion of these serious artists and why, is a non starter in the classical music terrarium. If Alex Ross didn’t mention it, then it’s not an artistic issue that orchestras are prepared to discuss. Too many classical critics do not engage in this debate because their artistic world-view depends on their not understanding the validity of the question. They avoid talking about the art they are choosing to present because even acknowledging that the debate is about art, even more so than commerce, leads to fundamental changes in the industry that traditionalists are not prepared to stomach.

Yet we need to have this debate, and we need the leaders of the classical industry to engage with a broader community of artists. Orchestras have been out of the new music game for decades. It’s time for them to shake off the shackles of the academics who have robbed them of their vitality and their relevance. Orchestras have a beautiful and authentic experience to offer, and that experience will resonate with a much broader range of people if the art they present routinely celebrates the entire range of symphonic music — including the Third Estate.


(Originally published on

Alex Ross asks the rest of American culture to get off his lawn

The following short blog is a response to Alex Ross' article, The Kennedy Center Honors Go Pop. It was published on September 10th, 2014 in The New Yorker Magazine.

How I wish someone would put me on a Q&A panel with Alex Ross — and believe me, I've tried. Alex advocates for some really traditional views about art that are antithetical to the thinking of the new generation of patrons and audience members. Nevertheless, each week classical traditionalists treat these old-fashioned ideas as if they were gospel. His outsized influence limits the thinking within the industry to appealing to the most elitist of intellectuals.

Why do I say that? Because Alex Ross advocates that pop culture has little to nothing at all to offer "serious" art. This week, in speaking about the Kennedy Center Honors, he writes:

"[Successful pop artists] hardly lack for laurels. Why should they add to their shelf a prize that could have gone to a comparatively unsung figure such as Meredith Monk?"

Another way to ask his question is: "Why should we be asked to take seriously any artists who have had real commercial success? Doesn't everyone already know that art can't be both good and popular at the same time? Why can't we just all support the artists that I deem worthy of coverage, like Meredith Monk. Or John Luther Adams."

Alex writes: "It’s not enough for pop culture to dominate the mainstream; it must colonize the spaces occupied by older genres and effectively drive them from the field."

The big pill the classical industry needs to swallow is that their problems stem from their own artistic atrophy. American orchestras rot away the decades by playing the same 60 pieces year after year...along with NYT (and Alex Ross) approved orchestral composers. (Haven't you heard the kids talking about Scheherazade.2? Neither have I). While traditional genres have a place in some concerts, those traditional forms of art can only flourish by being put in contact and context with other modern forms. Sure Nico and the Brooklyn Boys have a place in the compositional playground. But the things that traditionalists like Alex Ross need to appreciate, and they don't, is that for orchestras, it's the Third Estate music — Video Games, Film & TV, and Broadway — that will contextualize the Beethoven and the Mahler. It's that music which, when taken and treated seriously, will allow much more of the public to be seduced by orchestras and other traditional forms. Of course there must be curation, but with an eye to the entire field — not just the people Alex and Tony T deem worthy. By expanding the tent of what we call art, we all will be elevated.

Millennial America

Orchestras need to offer compelling reasons for millennials to make live symphonic music a part of their lives.  After all, millennials are the largest generation in human history, and at nearly 90 million people they will very soon make up the vast majority of our orchestras’ stakeholders, constituents, audience, staff members and supporters – and instrumentalists.  By 2017, they will surpass the buying power of the baby boomer generation.  There is simply no generation in the next forty years that will have the size and potential purchasing power to influence American orchestras more than millennials.  While orchestras aren’t the only institutions that have abandoned the young, they can still be among the first to reclaim them — and in so doing they can begin to reclaim the position of live orchestral music in American culture.

These millennials have very different expectations for nonprofits than baby boomers.  Their expectations that nonprofits be socially conscious institutions goes beyond what is traditionally expected, especially from performing arts organizations.  Being able to trust a nonprofit organization and its mission is very important to compelling millennials to attend and donate.  One telling statistic is that nine out of ten millennials would stop giving to an organization that had lost their trust.

American classical institutions’ stoic reactions to human rights abuses is making that trust difficult to develop.  For example, when Pussy Riot was sentenced to two years in a labor camp for a peaceful political protest, many of those 90 million American millennials along with people like Madonna, Sting, Yoko Ono, Björk, Moby, Peter Gabriel, and more than a dozen international papers as well as the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the New Yorker Magazine all publicly supported Pussy Riot’s human right to peaceful protest.  And yet, even after so many people across a range of musical and intellectual disciplines voiced their support, not one American orchestra dared even a tweet.

Things were no different after Russia enacted Putin’s outrageous anti-gay law.  The Metropolitan Opera attempted to be detached from the controversy while protesters pointed out that two of Putin’s most visible supporters led the Met’s season-opening production.  The famed music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, refuses to speak out against Maduro’s government, even after students were beaten and arrested during his concertizing in Venezuela.

Orchestras can play at being apolitical, but their choices have political resonance whether they like it or not.  In another example, it will be hard for millennials not to notice the disconnect between American orchestras trying to be above the fray of politics while at the same time expanding their influence in Asia.  What’s the message of positive nonprofit societal change given by playing concerts in North Korea while shying away from broaching the subject of human rights?  The baby boomers may not notice or care, but the millennials absolutely do and it is giving them even more reasons not to be involved with orchestras.

After all, selling the idea of an orchestra’s mission to bring symphonic music to as many people as possible has always been a challenge.  And, laying aside the human rights issues, it’s also easy to see that part of the appeal of American orchestras’ desire to expand to China is that it’s an easy solution to the changing demographics in America.  Appealing to the deep pockets in China is the only avenue of expansion for classical traditionalists.  It allows them to teach a whole new generation of musicians that orchestral music means playing Beethoven whilst wearing tuxedos, and bowing to the...king — people who have more power and money than actual kings.  So it’s easy to see how it might seem to millennials that American orchestras are not simply aspiring to achieve artistic ideals, but rather that they will follow the money no matter the human cost.

All these choices are not accidents.  Rather, they fall under the idea that art and politics are separate.  Given how important trust is to millennials’ interactions with nonprofits, the idea that institutions should refrain from voicing widely-held human rights positions is silly and counter-productive.  The worry of upsetting existing donors pales in comparison to the danger posed to orchestras who undervalue the changes brought by the millennial generation.

It also doesn’t hurt that speaking out against human rights abuses is the right thing to do.  The artistic thing.  The human thing.  Of course, all of this only makes sense when one considers the art itself that is being presented by the institution.

American organizations need to embrace the idea that live orchestral music can appeal to and elevate a broader demographic of the population.  Selling live orchestral music is difficult enough without creating new problems simply because we all don’t want to admit that we are getting older and the world is changing.  Even with broad community support, the only leverage the symphony has against all market forces, including wealthy donors, is its artistic mission.

Categories of art in 21st century America are more fluid than they were in the previous century.  The lines between genres have been forever blurred, especially for the millennial audience.  To them there is very little difference between “new” music, classical music, or film and video game music.  The future for people running orchestras is to run them without regard to these old categories.  Too much of the existing orchestral eco-system is based on strict category memberships, or genre-silos.  Categories such as Classical, Pops, Live-to-Projection, and Broadway are common to how orchestras think about themselves, their audience, and their artists.  However, for 21st-century orchestras, genre-silos are a bad thing, and not simply because genre-silos are absurd, but also because millennials don’t see those categories — they only see “orchestra”.

It’s understandable that traditionalists are uncomfortable with the dissolving boundaries between symphonic forms.  Boundaries are comforting.  They can give structure and a sense of control to the challenges of programming a season, and they make choices of repertoire and personnel easier to categorize for the front office.  Presently however, the industry must arrive at a more evolved view — one that is more in line with how the millennial audience views orchestras.  The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Douglas Hofstadter writes this about categories, “The idea that category membership always comes in shades of grey rather than black and white runs strongly against cultural conventions and is therefore disorienting and even disturbing, accordingly it gets swept under the rug most of the time.”

Orchestras cannot afford to sweep these reforms under the rug.  The institution should begin to consider itself and its image in society from the vantage point of a living aspirational artistic endeavor, rather than a museum trying to raise funds for “real” music.  Let it become a beacon of American artistic, and thus human, values.

Also, aside from being demographically dangerous, these genre-silos limit institutional creativity.  They not only hinder interesting cross-genre concerts and series from developing, but surprisingly they even limit the musical possibilities within traditional concerts.

For example, the New York Philharmonic famously ignores music by Philip Glass.  Yet, Philip Glass’s music is as big and important as new symphonic music gets.  His perennial absence at the New York Philharmonic is an annual artistic embarrassment, and it stems from the their genre-silo of “new music” — which, apparently, does not allow for new orchestral music to be both “good” and “popular” at the same time.

Some people view Philip Glass as “only” a film composer, but he’s not alone in having his art ignored here at home.  In fact, American composers of all kinds have been defined out of many orchestras’ genre-silos of new music.  The National Symphony will be playing no American music at all next season, and the new season at the Cleveland Orchestra is so bereft of new American music that it spawned an open letter of protest from local composers.

What about the new American symphonic forms?  The American composers writing idiomatically for Americans?  Why hold on to categories that require that the music of John Williams simply not matter because nobody taught film music at Harvard in the 80′s?  How many other really important American composers’ works are audiences missing out on because of these old fashioned categories?

The tradition of making large-scale music with acoustic instruments is what’s worth saving.  Traditional donors must be persuaded that they are giving to maintain the integrity of the institution, and not to dictate the direction of the development of the art form.  Indeed, orchestras cannot persuade new audiences to value traditional ideas of symphonic music.  That’s a fool’s errand, as anyone who has glanced at history can plainly see.

American orchestras must have a bigger tent for what we call art.  It must become a place that exists for the new, and that happens to sometimes play the old.  A place for live music that programs music taken from all of American symphonic culture, and allows them all to be heard and thought of in context with each other.

The genius of the millennial’s viewpoint is that it can help release orchestras from the too-heavy bonds of history.  This big-tent outlook not only allows orchestras to program and present music from across a spectrum of genres and forms, it gives orchestras a new artistic baseline so that they may grow into the modern era.  When it’s just as valid, artistically, to find genius in a video game score as it is in a commissioned piece, then orchestras will find themselves in a position to use both artistic standards and the market to fulfill their mission to bring symphonic music to as many people as possible.

(originally published on

On Star Wars and the Baby Boomers

It was recently announced that John Williams will compose the music for Star Wars: Episode VII.  This is great news for fans of his music all over the world, and it could be great news for smart orchestras too.  A new Star Wars movie is the sort of cultural event that has largely untapped possibilities for modern orchestras.  Too often orchestras ignore things like movie openings, or video game releases, but these occasions offer them opportunities to both appeal to a broader base of people and to reconnect with corporate giving.  In this example, why not premiere new music from Episode VII at a symphony concert?  The premiere could be at the same time that the movie debuts, or better still, why not premiere the music just before the movie comes out?  The obvious idea is John Williams conducting, but why not Michael Tilson Thomas, Alan Gilbert, or Gustavo Dudamel?  Why not aspire for all these maestro’s to work together and premiere the music on the same night in different cities?

Thoughtful and intelligent people will certainly disagree about their own tastes in the various genres of symphonic music, but there’s no reason for the institution of the symphony orchestra to swim upstream against market forces.  The fact is that the music that traditionalists call “Pops” has to be more of the focus of serious orchestras’ overall seasons.

Traditionalists regard this idea as diminishment, and that’s understandable — Pops programming at too many orchestras seems dictated not by an artistic or musical goal, but rather by whatever is available from the back of Symphony magazine.  These pre-fab “Pops” programs — they often come complete with a conductor — are an easy out for orchestras who are unused to thinking about film or video game music as seriously as they might consider their classical fare.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with pre-fab concerts, but does renting the same Pixar live-to-projection concert that’s showing in every major city in the country really help to distinguish your orchestra artistically?  And that begs the chilling question, if profitable pre-fab concerts can be rented by anyone then why especially does it need to be the local orchestra?

A valid criticism of certain kinds of “Pops” programming is that the orchestra itself can too often be reduced to being a back-up band.  This of course defeats the purpose of getting an audience to a concert in the first place, and it’s often withering and burdensome for players.  Yet, it is important to notice that this situation doesn’t come from playing worthy film and video game music. It comes from programming material that is not part of the symphonic tradition.  An orchestra performing arrangements of rock songs, for example, is a frustrating exercise for everybody.  There is very little connection from the Beatles to Beethoven, or Dylan to Dvorak.  There is even less connecting the symphony with the circus.

Film music such as Star Wars, on the other hand, deeply relates to the symphonic tradition.  It is written specifically for the symphony orchestra by a composer who is part of a tradition that goes back through WaxmanSteinerHerrmann, and Newman.  This music’s DNA comes out of KorngoldMahler, and Wagner.  And just because traditionalists do not support film music as much as other modern forms, such as dodecaphony, this doesn’t make our American tradition of film music any less real or influential on today’s audience.

Performing film music doesn’t require a movie screen, or a lights show.  You can just play the music.

Also, practically speaking, is it any more worthy of an orchestras’ time and capital to seek out and commission music from Adès?  Or Rouse?  Or Lindberg?  Do these composers bring in a new audience or donations?  Are the resulting pieces somehow more worthy as art than new music from Mr. Williams?  OrUematsu?  Or Wintory?  Which composers’ music do you suppose will create buzz and sell tickets next season?  That ought to matter.

Orchestras should aspire to be curators of all genres of symphonic music, and lend their prestige to composers whose work will both enrich the audience and the art form.  They cannot afford to ignore worthy artists from the film and video game genres just because the Baby Boomers have shunned these genres in search of creating orchestras more like those in Europe.  These are, after all, distinctly American symphonic genres and American orchestras should be celebrating them.  They are also, not inconsequentially, relevant and popular.

Of course orchestras could also do nothing, and simply wait for the Star Wars: Episode VII Suite to appear.  But, by waiting they lose the chance to engage with a new and younger audience for whom this music is a cultural benchmark.  That audience will not attend the concert two years later when the orchestra finally buys the suite of excerpts and has a “movie night.”  Our culture moves faster now, and orchestras need to move much faster too.

Sure, there are hurdles to thinking about the now.  Who knows how Mr. Williams (much less Disney) feels about the notion of even a part of a film’s music being played before the film itself is released, but asking these questions is the direction of artistic leadership that orchestras need.  They should be seeking symphonic music that matters to more people, and that means playing and premiering new film and video game music.  And in the end, there is a lot more room for growth exploring these genres than there is in hoping for changes in the educational system, the NEA, and the American culture.

It doesn’t matter if the snobs call it art or kitsch.  The music and its fans don’t need the traditionalists’ approval, but our American orchestras surely need those fans.

(Originally published on

No Time At All

Just like Rip Van Winkle, American orchestras have been asleep for twenty years. Season after season of the same repertoire, played again and again for generations until the idea of an orchestra participating in modern musical life seems outrageous. Last week, the League of American Orchestras focused their annual conference around the idea of “Imagining Orchestras in 2023.” You see, orchestras have at last begun waking up — and they do not know where their audience went. Yet in an industry where many orchestras are already planning their 2018 season, 2023 is not so far away. If American orchestras continue to deem change as something that happens at a pace that can be measured in decades they will lose even more market share, and they will suffer further diminished artistic relevancy. After all, even when an orchestra actually does something new it is perceived as a single event, rather than a new approach to presenting art. Worse, by waiting to change the dogma surrounding their repertoire and presentation they soon will lose an important generation of potential audience members, the Millennials.

That’s a pity, because there is no reason to suspect that the appeal and popularity of orchestras, and large form symphonic music, cannot be increased to considerably larger demographics. After all, we are speaking about an industry where one-thousand unit sales constitutes a major classical record. One-thousand people. And it’s worth noticing that while the share of classical records in the market is perhaps 3%, maybe less, in 1997 the Titanic soundtrack (an orchestral film score) was released as a classical album and that single record amounted to 12% of the total business in the classical sector for that particular year. American orchestras should have rushed to play that music on their regular subscription concerts — perhaps with other music from 1910, or a sea-themed concert, or even simply a James Horner evening with a little Shostakovich. However, predictably all most orchestras learned from the massive popularity of that album of orchestral music was that they must be sure never to program that sort of music, people might come to the concert.

If this were politics, then from a programming perspective American symphony orchestras are run by the Tea Party — the most conservative of musical minds. Yet, the market tells us that orchestras need to program more diverse music, now, and do it from a place of artistic cohesion. After all, people don’t know what they want until you give it to them. Just ask Apple. It has been said that orchestras are like giant ships that can only change direction slowly. That may be, but much of the change needed is simply pragmatically changing the presentation of current repertoire. Orchestras already play a range of genres, but too often they are segregated into various concert series, such as Classical and Pops, that divide and diminish both the development of the art form and the development of new audiences. Orchestras must begin programming all genres of symphonic music together, and in so doing make themselves a much larger part of American culture.

To that end, management cannot be solely responsible for the future of orchestras. A growing part of the solution requires orchestra musicians to expand their minds as artists. Knowing Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Berio is not enough anymore. Ignorance of popular culture is no longer acceptable for 21st century musicians, especially in regard to new orchestral music. It is already crazy that one has to explain Twitter to the proud luddites that populate many orchestras. Despite the existing orchestral culture that celebrates ignorance of technology as a point of honor, that ignorance is in fact a handicap. Everyone in the classical industry, especially orchestras, should embrace new technology just the same as they should embrace all of the new orchestral genres, like video game music. One can’t dream of the future if one only sees the past.

Happily there are examples of some orchestras who are stepping towards the light. The Pacific Symphony has shown itself to be really creative, such as in this Thriller/Rite mashup. The Detroit Symphony continues to blaze a trail for others with online streaming of concerts, including interesting commentary and interviews. The Brooklyn Philharmonic’s latest concert, with Erykah Badu, was so popular that an additional performance had to be added.

Still, most American orchestras lag far behind even these first steps. Had they been more inclusive, and interested in the culture they inhabit, this transition would seem less abrupt. However, the many great orchestras of the U.S. have been asleep for a long time, and the modern audience has higher expectations than ever before. And importantly, orchestras need a larger audience than ever before. So let us not look to 2023 to imagine what orchestras will be like, let’s look at right now. This season. There is no time to wait. In fact, there’s no time at all.

(originally published on

Modern Times

Half of the fun of watching Mad Men is observing how dramatically American society has changed since the 1960’s.  The characters’ constant drinking and homophobia make us blush, and we notice how far attitudes have shifted towards everything from smoking to sexism.  Our lives in America have changed so thoroughly since then that looking back just fifty years seems to be another age.

During those same fifty years, the audience for orchestras have trended towards the geriatric.  Industry leaders have felt little urgency towards appealing to the young — mostly due to an insidious industry myth that the population would “mature” into classical music fans.  It turns out that that idea was based on ignorance.  Ask any orchestra’s development department.

Appealing to the young is no longer optional for orchestras.  The fact is that Millennials are a really big deal, and orchestras must shift their focus to this younger generation.  For those of you playing at home, here is a Millennial named Colleen Dilenschneider succinctly laying down the facts:

Millennials – those roughly between the ages of 21 and 35 – represent the single largest generation in human history.  Come 2015, Millennials will have more buying power than Baby Boomers, and then this massive demographic will have a stronghold on the market for the following forty years at minimum.  Thanks in large part to the web and social media connectivity, we function and think very differently than the generations that came before us.  Nonprofit organizations that are not targeting this population right now in terms of building affinity and creating personal connections may find themselves suddenly irrelevant within the next decade.

Naturally, shifting priorities towards Millennials is a foundational transitional shift, and part of that shift must be managing the expectations of the current Boomer donors.  Current donors love for orchestras and symphonic music is important and valuable, and it is also important that orchestras continue to be strong institutions that can do their work into the future.  After all, the future audience has no advocate, and without that audience there is no future for orchestras in America.  Boomers need to be persuaded that they are giving to orchestras in order to secure the life and legacy of the institution — even if they don’t like the direction that symphonic music has taken in America.

The goal of reform is not as far off as it may seem because most new kinds of symphonic music are already covered in many orchestras existing mission statements.  In fact, many American orchestras do not use the term “classical” at all in their mission statements, and this is good news.  Limiting an orchestra’s mission to “classical” symphonic music stifles its future, and makes it that much more difficult to transition the organization towards relevance to this new generation of Americans.  After all, the market and the internet have already decided (like it or not) that video game music, film music, and Broadway are a large and growing part of what most people think of as “symphonic” music.  If orchestras want a Millennial audience, and their donations, then these genres need to be more a part of what an audience will hear in the concert hall, especially on regular subscription concerts.

Everyone needs classical musicians to embrace these developments, and college and conservatory orchestras can do a lot more to prepare players for the realities of the market.  At the moment, too many schools continue to prepare students as if they will graduate to play in orchestras from the 1950′s.  They are not only doing a disservice to their students, they are also contributing to the marginalization of orchestras by creating generations of musicians who do not yet speak the language of their own culture.

American orchestras can change their focus and have a say in their collective destiny, or they can do nothing and wait to see what the market brings — like in Minneapolis. These are very real trends, and whatever the outcome in Minneapolis, no amount of restructuring can save our orchestras if their focus and their artistic product continue to ignore the culture they inhabit.

(originally published on

Breaking-Up with Beethoven

Go out to hear an orchestra concert tonight and chances are the orchestra will be playing Beethoven.  The most recent Orchestra Repertoire Report, from ’09 – ’10, details that 137 orchestras in America performed Beethoven’s music 457 times that season.  His ninth, seventh, and fifth symphonies were ranked first, second and third respectively among the top-twenty most performed works during that year.  Beethoven’s music also came in at fifth, eighth, eleventh, thirteenth, and twentieth on that list.  That’s a lot of Beethoven.

These days Beethoven’s music is performed so much that it has become the default for orchestras.  The conductor sometimes seem superfluous.  In the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini recently pointed out that “…it hardly takes a major maestro to elicit an excellent performance of Beethoven’s Seventh from the impressive players of the Philharmonic.”  Ta Da!

Over-programing Beethoven’s music dilutes his voice as a composer, and diminishes the public’s artistic expectations of orchestras.

Beethoven is after all one of the last composers that the classical industry has left to offer the free market.  He is among the few orchestral composers whom everyone knows, and I mean everyone.  It has made him into a public domain commodity.  A free brand name for the classical industry.  Need to sell seats to regulars?  Program Beethoven.  Need a festival?  Beethoven is your answer.  Need an ad campaign?  “Obey Thoven.”  Need to open a season?  Close a season?  New Year’s Concert?  TragedyVictory?  Protest?  Gala?  Olympics? — Beethoven is what we’re selling.

Programming Beethoven these days is a budgetary decision.  Oh sure, it also happens to be an artistic choice since he remains one of the greatest composers of all time.  Defining orchestras around Beethoven, however, keeps them from experimenting with creative ideas around repertoire and presentation that might bring in an audience.  It holds them back from performing and exploring composers like Williams, Korngold, Herrmann and Rozsa, as well as the less popular Stockhausen, Adès, and Rouse.

Alex Ross recently wrote that “…though Beethoven may be a monument to Western civilization, he no longer belongs exclusively to the west, nor does he speak for its current values.  At a time when younger generations around the world are saturated with corporate pop culture, Beethoven’s language of endless, restless, variation is alien to all whether in Berlin or Beirut.”  By focusing on Beethoven’s music year after year orchestras are defining themselves by a musical language that has become alien to younger generations.  For too long this kind of artistic mission has left live orchestral music increasingly irrelevant to the public.

Orchestras should take a break from Beethoven.

Taking a break from programming his music opens up space for orchestras to begin to think of themselves as performers of new music – and not just atonal music, by the way.  Imagine a few seasons of having the opportunity to fill that space with new music, as well as music from the last century that has been deemed “not classical enough.”  Imagine the power of presenting Beethoven again after he hasn’t been heard from in a season, or three.  Or five.

Some people will cheer the space created by Beethoven’s absence, and others will call for his return.  We need artistic leaders like conductors, and soloists, to have passionate public discussions about the art they love.  They should trumpet their artistic differences of opinion.  Few people care that we all agree that Beethoven is good stuff, even if we say it on Twitter.

So let’s give them something to talk about.  After all, wouldn’t orchestras enjoy hearing passionate debate about Beethoven’s absence, or my wanting to please hear more Jerry Goldsmith and Alex North?  Is that not better than passionate debate about how much money orchestra players make, and whether they should make more or less of it?

(originally published on


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