Separate but Equal
Orchestras should think with a larger artistic world-view — not simply because their very survival depends on their willingness to embrace artistic change, but mostly because that’s what serious artists do.
Traditional classical programming has become de rigueur in American orchestras. It is a symptom of an old-fashioned world-view; one that sees orchestras as museums of so-called “high” culture. Aside from the red-herring of labeling anything “high” culture, this view limits the symphony’s potential as an art form, it’s popularity, and it’s ability to raise funds. Traditional programming invests in traditional donors at the expense of courting new ones. Ultimately, re-imagining symphonic programming is about expanding the expressive choices available to symphonies in every market. This means broadening our definition of what a symphony does and what constitutes good programming.
Programming should be unique in the context of individual markets. Across the country, most orchestras approach programming from the same perspective. They feel trapped in a Faustian programming bargain. They know change is needed to attract a new audience and new donors, but at the same time they worry that accepting change will alienate traditional donors. Still, where is the wisdom in investing exclusively in the tastes of the traditional audience when they increasingly do not meet the orchestra’s financial obligations? If these traditionalists wish to fund the symphony-museum, then they should donate more money.
Prestige still matters, but the artistic mission matters more. Orchestras don't offer a product; they offer an artistic experience. They offer a perspective. Programming choices reflect an artistic perspective, even a nationalistic one. The artistic mission, the aspiration, is what matters most now. Non-traditional programming helps orchestras invest in non-traditional donors, and can reflect a more expansive artistic mission for the entire organization. Many donors these days react to whether an organization is aspiring to positive social change. Organizations like The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Warren Buffet’s The Giving Pledge, or Richard Branson’s Virgin Unite all seek to help people who have aspirations of societal benefit. Corporate giving also seeks to quantify the societal value of their donations.
Obviously, orchestras need to aspire to provide social benefit at the community level. One largely unexplored way to do so is to promote the rich and vast array of American symphonic musical genres, as well as our American conductors and soloists. Orchestras should celebrate America’s artistic contributions to the world — including film, broadway, and video game music. While remaining international in its tastes, the symphony should begin each day with a nationalist perspective. After all, most people are just not interested in a museum of German musical culture.
In programming, the choices available to orchestras are severely limited by the classical industry’s insistence that symphonic genres submit to a caste system. In the caste system bread-and-butter classical symphonic music is naturally the top caste, with places in the middle for New-York-Times-approved composers. At the bottom you will find the untouchables – movie music, Broadway, and video game music. A genre’s caste level is inversely proportional to its popularity in the larger culture — therefore, nothing can be both popular and “good” at the same time. This view reveals minds trapped in an old paradigm: That somehow there exists something called “great” music, then everything else.
The classical caste system largely ignores entire generations of American composers who’ve written for the symphony. It is no wonder the industry is feeling the effects of being cut off from the larger culture. Even though these composers, the untouchables, are among the most uniquely American of symphonic forms and some of the most popular and worthy American art, these artists and their contributions are currently moot in a discussion of programming with classical symphony orchestras.
This is not about adding another pops series or doing more pre-fab movie concerts; that’s old-paradigm thinking. This is about using all the available repertory together, on each and every concert, to make orchestras more vital and relevant artistic entities. Orchestras need to exercise much more flexibility about programming choices, even at the last moment. Choices made two seasons ago are often not as effective or relevant as new and current ideas. Can we imagine a world where the successful landing of the Mars rover Curiosity causes a symphony to change a concert to include a little Holst? Or even some Jerry Goldsmith?
This idea of "great" music is a particularly insidious view, because it allows some to believe that they are already offering "new" music on orchestra concerts. However, despite very honorable intentions, most classical institutions end up not promoting “new music,” but rather very particular styles of new music; New-York-Times-approved composers. This has been going on for so long that the audience doesn’t trust in the artistic decisions of the orchestra. Even when an organization is being truly adventurous, the audience has a Pavlovian response as it braces for the impact of the latest bad programming choice. The symphony has carefully taught its audience to loathe the new.
This caste system also limits whether a symphony can achieve meaningful musical experiences across a broad enough base of people who can fund its existence. With the current system, particular kinds of new music are meant for particular kinds of audiences. Classical subscription concerts are for traditionalists. Modern music concerts are for students and critics. Pops concerts are for other people. It’s as if orchestras do not want the various audiences to be in the same room at the same time.
This tacit snobbery is rotting the foundations of our American orchestras. Separate but equal is not the country that we aspire to be. Anyone from Erich Wolfgang Korngold to Howard Shore are mostly verboten everywhere but pops concerts. No matter that Korngold was thought of by Mahler, Strauss, and Puccini as a prodigy akin to Mendelssohn or Mozart. Or, that Shore's The Lord of the Rings symphony is a cultural touchstone that is routinely selling out concerts in very large venues. Doesn’t the symphony want those people too?
Because of this tacit snobbery, it needs to be said that it takes just as much knowledge of the untouchables as is does of traditional classical music to program these genres together. Too often the untouchables are programmed without regard to the original material. The majority of symphonic music from Broadway, films, and video games is a collaborative effort. Just like when programming classical music, programming untouchable music requires a deep knowledge of the original material. From there one can begin to edit, arrange, and orchestrate for a given concert. Pre-fab pops programming, orchestrations, and arrangements are often terrible. Many of the original works are remarkable, but they need thoughtful and insightful people to bring them to fruition for a symphony. That may mean a new arrangement, or using different sections from the original score, or even re-orchestrating for the available ensemble. Unfortunately for the music, and the audience, pre-fab untouchable music is mostly the norm. Even for many of the staff programming it, whether it is actually any good never enters the equation. They only know that the music often increases ticket sales. Where’s the artistic integrity in that?
Non-traditional programming should be challenging, but also fun to hear. It should challenge all listeners – not only the existing audience, musicians, and critics, but especially the very large audience who knows only that they don’t want to spend their time and money coming to a symphony concert. There are other benefits, like giving the musicians a kind of artistic rebirth. Rather than play the same eighty pieces year after year musicians will make better music (even classical music) because their musical experiences will be broader, requiring them to learn and understand new kinds of music and performance styles. Even before the financial crisis, symphony musicians have had record poor job satisfaction. They should welcome these opportunities that will allow them to be the creative, always learning, thriving artists we know them to be.
Challenging programs could mingle composers one never sees on the same program. Nico Muhly with Kurt Weill and Bernard Herrmann, or Franz Schubert with Adam Guettel and Gabriel Kahane, or Thomas Adés with Nobuo Uematsu and Ludwig van Beethoven. John Williams and Richard Strauss. Stephen Sondheim and Gustav Mahler. Here are two examples of complete programs, the winners of Spring for Music’s Fantasy Programming Contest, Eternal Stories and Too Popular.
By allowing American symphonic music under a bigger tent and dumping the caste system we could not only see the symphony and our place in American culture differently, we can also make the symphony into an engaging cultural entity. It could lead to programming that is interesting, popular, and truly challenging. It could create new corporate and donor possibilities, and give orchestras the inclusive creative energy that's been long absent from the concert hall. That would benefit everyone.
You say you want challenging programming. Try taking all of American symphonic music seriously. The audience already does.