Evolve or Perish

Dan Albertson

[October 2012.]

[Here is another manifestation of many vain hopes. Gratitude this time goes to Romeo Talento, for the calculated and the haphazard; to Clive Liu, for the consistent frivolity; and to Brendon Fei, wishing his future conquests well. D.A.]

Classical music, if its foes are to be believed, should have been buried already. One may expect me, a musicologist with a great love of the tradition, to provide a rebuttal to the usual figures about its aging, if not dying, populace. Such an expectation would be misplaced, with regard to its pinnacle, the orchestra. I have no desire to tackle the issue of aging; or the funding of the organism by private individuals and not municipalities or states, which makes the orchestra a feudal subject in the fiefdom of the moneyed élite; or the lack of a diversified education, which has massive repercussions now and for decades ahead; or the unions that keep subpar musicians in their jobs long past their primes and thus bring down collective standards; or the antagonism and recidivism of unwieldy administrators and trustees. Such articles would involve much more energy than I presently have.

Instead, I wish to concentrate on the issue of whether the orchestra, the most expensive incarnation of the medium of classical music, is a creature worth saving. In its present form, in this country, my own checkered past with a prominent example aside, my answer is no. My answer becomes yes, however, if the orchestra moves into the current century. I concede that this move is unlikely and I therefore offer solutions freely while advocating for the beast to go extinct, giving way to its nonexistent yet germinal progeny (and Europeans could be imported).

My allegiances in the world of classical music must be clear by now, to the practitioners of early music and to those of contemporary music, weeding out the charlatans in each field. Orchestras here subsist almost entirely on the alms of warhorses from a span of about a century-and-a-half, from c. 1780 to c. 1935. Too many orchestras are parasites, feasting without considering the damage they are causing by encasing themselves in formaldehyde. Why play classical music in a romantic way, or romantic music in a modern way? The modern orchestra is ahistorical and is too inflexible to understand these differences. It thereby undermines the tradition that it seeks to safeguard, presenting a distorted image of how and why music should resound. I have no objection to an institution surviving by preserving the past, if (1) the institution preserves it well, inspiring new generations while enlightening older generations, and (2) it nurtures a living tradition. The modern orchestra in this country fails in each regard, Q.E.D., and should not be supported in this guise. I fail to believe in unconditional support. Rather, support should steadily be reexamined in view of changing circumstances and must be earned.

On the first account, music is best served when its exponents take the time to learn about the musical context of a given time and place. American orchestras have not yet realized that they are outclassed in this repertory by younger, more flexible, more informed ensembles that are both cheaper and more innovative — or they know it and also know that they could depend on their clueless patrons to keep clamoring for the same old music performed in the same old way. American conservatories have been glacial in their acceptance of alternative means of playing and the orchestras reflect this regressive stance. Other than greyhairs who attend symphonic concerts for their prestige, and think that every performance is wonderful, who would disagree that once one hears Beethoven, Mozart or Schumann on period instruments, with a skilled director, an interpretation by a modern orchestra is nil but a weak imitation? The combination of a stagnant economy, stale programming, stale musicianship, and administrative malfeasance is the cause of declines in revenue seen by several orchestras, some quite prominent, leading to various forms of reckoning. Too many “experts” point only to the first and the last.

On the second account, American orchestras are lousy promoters of contemporary music. Even orchestras with a composer-in-residence typically play only one work by this composer in a given season, a piece doubtlessly to be premièred, then plunged into the dustbin of history, where it more than likely belongs. I am unsure if the present culture of premières is a result of insubstantial music being written, or if the music is weak precisely because it will only be heard once. In any case, a repertory of the recent past has not been developed and never will be if orchestras stay with their preoccupations of the moment. Their choices of composers lean indisputably toward the populist camps, composers writing neo-tonal music of one sort or another, with a knack for ill-chosen effects and attempts to be novel; nary a good melody in sight; not a trace of individuality; and poor craftsmanship in spades, but bright colors and no dissonance or dodecaphony to scare the subscribers: empty-headed music for an empty-headed audience aimed only at recruiting new listeners by meeting them at their level. If this music represents the present and future of the Cecilian art, let it die.

Here are five suggestions for American orchestras:

(1) Shrink! One lesson taught by the revival of early music is that a superb sound is achieved through smaller forces. Winds and brass are heard more clearly if the overpowering strings of a modern section are greatly reduced. The dominance of the strings is an invention of the 20th century, alien to most of the repertory. As most orchestras play very little music requiring truly large forces, with the exception of Mahler, extras could be hired as needed. Why keep an orchestra of 75-95 players when one of 40-60 corresponds to the needs of the music in question? The alternative is to keep an orchestra of 75-95 players AND play music written for this size, which would involve a massive amount of music written after c. 1935. Not even I expect orchestras to try that initiative: Dissonances could be lurking around the corner.

(2) Hire a music director under the age of 50 — and keep him / her in town for at least 16 weeks a season. The older a conductor is, the less likely he is to be receptive to new ideas. The more jobs a conductor has, the less likely he will be able to reform any given orchestra. The more star power a young conductor has, the less likely he will know how to conduct and rehearse an orchestra to any meaningful effect. More substance and presence, please, and fewer, but better, guest conductors.

(3) Break the standard mold of overture-concerto-symphony. Such programming is stultifying and the pieces in question tend to have little relation to each other. Think in terms of concepts, demonstrating links between different composers at different times. If the theme would lead to a concert with three symphonies, who would complain? Curiosity draws crowds; more of the usual never will.

(4) Hire fewer soloists. Concerti tend to serve as vehicles for the overpaid demigods of the moment, but their preferred repertory is paltry compared to that for orchestra alone. Other than Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Sibelius or Tchaikovsky for a violinist and Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky for a pianist, what else is one likely to hear? How many times must audiences hear the familiar, played in ways that are either increasingly grotesque or increasingly dull? Put these treadmill soloists out of their misery.

(5) Include one unfamiliar piece at every concert, new or old. The composer could be a familiar one, but the odds are that if the composer wrote ten pieces that are recycled in alternation every few seasons, he also has five other worthy ones waiting to be heard again. If the composer is alive, and if he has abundant talent, a dubious prospect, honor him by playing a piece from his back catalogue. Yes, if he is any good, he is likely to have one.

I am only grazing here and much else needs to be changed, I admit, but if even these basics are too tough, then the marmoreal world of the American orchestra is doomed to continue moving closer and closer to irrelevancy. I will be the principal cheerleader of its demise.