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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


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