NOTE: This is a repost of an entry from my now-defunct 2007 blog. This subject came up today on Facebook, and the republication seems timely.

A while back, I was commenting on the blog of Kelly Corcoran, an incredibly insightful and talented conductor who was recently named as Assistant Conductor of the Nashville Symphony. Kelly’s blog dealt with the role of the symphony orchestra in the 21st century, and included the question:

“Why shouldn’t one listen to the New York Phil play Mozart next to cutting edge rock bands like Muse or U2, or listen to Renee Fleming followed by Sting?”

My response is below:

Good start, but I would revise the question to read “Why shouldn’t one listen to the New York Phil play PAULUS (or Zwilich, or Asia…) next to cutting edge rock bands like Muse…” The cutting edge bands almost always feature cutting-edge material cut from today’s societal cloth that speaks to today’s audiences. If their repertoire consisted of “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and the like, they would not be cutting-edge, good as those old songs are. While pop artists like Madonna and Christina Aguilera may tip their hat to the classics of the past by recording the occasional “tribute” album to Ella Fitzgerald and the like, their bread and butter depends on being, as you so aptly state, “cutting-edge.”

At one time, before the recording industry came into maturity, the only way to keep the historical repertoire alive was to perform it repeatedly, in large towns and small. This is no longer the case, yet far too many orchestras see themselves primarily as keepers of that historical flame. In fact, a successful conductor once said that in a 40+ year career he had not yet been faced with conducting any work that was not already old when he began his college studies! This smacks more of preservation than it does of a growing and vibrant art. Another conductor stated that he would be delighted to play music by living composers if he ever encountered any as good as Mozart. Aside from the ignorance and prejudice this statement displays, the standard is hardly fair. Can you imagine if every conducting candidate had to convince the board that he or she was a better conductor than Solti or Bernstein? Good as those guys were, they died and someone quite rightly had to replace them. However, in the world of orchestral repertoire the pieces never die. They enjoy almost a holy status – even some really bad ones – and too many decision-makers don’t feel the need to replace them.

Make no mistake – I’m a huge fan of the past masters. It’s been my pleasure to perform and sometimes conduct their music for much of my career. I firmly believe historical music still has the power to enthrall and uplift audiences, but this power is greatly leveraged when they are performed alongside an equal number of contemporary and vital works by today’s concert music composers. Failing this approach, today’s audiences soon learn that despite the big screen monitors, clever pre-concert events and flashy four-color brochures, what they being offered is in its essence a purely historical product. And, forced to choose between repackaged Dickens and even a moderately good contemporary suspense novel, most will pick the modern novel every time.

So, my question is – why not give them both? A 50-50 split is a good start. I’m not suggesting that pop elements or pop songs or even jazz become part of symphony concerts – these genres are valid on their own and don’t feel the need to incorporate concert works into their shows – but how about finding a local or regional composer of concert music with a good track record and program that composer, along with an established historical work? Play the composer up as being “one of our own” and capitalize on that civic pride, just like you do with the orchestra. Become a one-stop shop for concert music, providing something old and something new with every concert, and maybe those seats will start to fill!

-DPS

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