Wednesday, August 17, 2005

"For the orchestra to survive, it must be flexible, true to itself, and of its time and place"

American music critics Mark Swed, in Los Angeles, and Allan Kozinn, in New York City, have offered exceptionally perceptive essays, the past three days, on the subject of the orchestra in America. And as I noted over a week ago elsewhere, America has nothing like the intellectually stimulating London Proms to get American audiences through the often long and hot summer months.

"Orchestras have become big businesses run by high-salaried executives. Star conductors are enticed with multimillion-dollar contracts for three to four months' worth of concerts. The organizations are overseen by bottom-line managerial boards lacking musical sophistication. It costs a fortune just to open the doors for business each morning.

Meanwhile, hustlers abound. Some tout specially programmed PDAs as a way to attract technological multitaskers. You can have music explained to you while it is played by following real-time commentary on the device's small screen. If that's too boring, you can switch over to the video function and see a fuzzy close-up of the conductor. Still bored? Pull out your Palm Pilot and plan your week or play solitaire. No one will know the difference. ...

The once Big Five are still big and could still be great. But big is not necessarily better. Fresh is better. Engaged is better. Rapport between orchestra and audience is better. Leading is better than following.

Times have changed. Capitals shift. Economies swing. The artistic climate is as unsettled as its meteorological counterpart. For the orchestra to survive, it must be flexible, true to itself and of its time and place. Everything else is fair game."

Music critic Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times, August 14, 2005,0,103874.story?coll=cl-calendar


"Where, to put it differently, were the New York Philharmonic, the American Composers Orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke's, the American Symphony Orchestra and all the other orchestras that while away the musical season in a city that regards itself as the center of the musical universe? And what about orchestras elsewhere that might have picked up on the work [the Steven Stucky Pulitzer Prize-winning Second Concerto for Orchestra], then brought it to New York on tour?

If you are an orchestra administrator, and you've just clucked your tongue and muttered, "He knows perfectly well that it doesn't work that way," maybe it's time to think again about how it can work, or should. ...

If orchestras want to make their programming exciting and part of a vibrant cultural dialogue, they might consider ways to boost their metabolism, and one way to do that would be to build scouting and rapid-reaction mechanisms into their operations. When an orchestra is giving a potentially interesting or important premiere, other orchestras should have representatives on the scene. And if the music does prove exciting, their programming departments should kick into action, obtaining the scores and scheduling them quickly - not three years from now but next month. Find a repertory staple and play the new piece instead. ...

I'm not holding my breath. Orchestras seem content to be museums now, even as they wring their hands about dropping subscription sales and graying listeners. But maybe there's someone in a programming department somewhere who sees the percentage in shaking things up, in treating new works as if they not only matter but have the power to breathe life into this sleepy business. It takes only one: if it works, everyone else will follow suit."

Music critic Allan Kozinn, New York Times, August 15, 2005


Thank you, Mssrs Swed and Kozinn.

Stern Grove, San Francisco, California. Lawrence Halprin, Landscape architect.
Photo credit: Alan Geller


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