American Symphony Orchestra League Meets in Seattle



Laurie Shulman

Where is the orchestra going in the twenty-first century? We’ve all read plenty of articles and heard numerous discussions on this subject dating back to a couple of years before Y2K. That didn’t stop the American Symphony Orchestra League from tackling the topic at its 56th National Conference in Seattle last week. Overarching themes in conference sessions were change in the orchestra and its community, the impact of technology on change (having Microsoft in your back yard helps put a state-of-the-art spin on this one), and the merging of new music into the mainstream. With the Seattle Symphony as host, ASOL had an apt musical focus for its discourse. Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony have long been champions of new and unusual music, and their performances showcased compositions by several living composers.

Schwarz and the SSO kicked off the conference with an all 20th-century concert in Benaroya Hall, the orchestra’s new home since September 1998. The program comprised Samuel Barber‘s Toccata Festiva (1960), David Diamond‘s Symphony No. 2 (1943), and the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto (1901) with André Watts. The Barber was added to the program to showcase the Watjen Concert Organ, which was just inaugurated eleven months ago. The instrument was built by C.B. Fisk, Inc. of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Its unusual façade emphasizes square wooden pipes rather than lead and alloy ones, and lacks vertical thrust, presumably a result of design elements imposed on Benaroya Hall by its acoustician, Cyril Harris. From orchestra level, the pipes appear flattened, with secondary sets visible in horizontal patterns at the top where they want to soar upward. SSO’s resident organist Carole Terry acquitted herself admirably in the work’s extended pedal cadenza. One wishes that the instrument had been given more room to speak into the large Benaroya room.

Gerard Schwarz has performed all of Diamond’s symphonies and recorded many of them for Delos. Last year he and the SSO presented the premiere of Diamond’s Tenth. For this performance, they dusted off a 58-year-old work that offered a nice change of pace after this past year of Copland celebrations. Diamond speaks in broad romantic paragraphs that sound retro in 2001. His unabashedly tonal music is peppered with workmanlike counterpoint. Other than some rough moments in the SSO brass, the piece received what appeared to be a committed and polished performance. Surprisingly, the orchestra was less successful in the Rachmaninoff. Mr. Watts, who can play fast and loud with the best of them — and did — had some genuinely poetic moments in the slow movement and brought forth an impressive spectrum of colors from the piano. Unfortunately, Schwarz and the orchestra covered him up through most of the climactic moments in the outer movements. Benaroya seats 2700, and has the predictable problems of balance and blend that result from an overly large room. Except when the woodwinds were featured as soloists against reduced orchestra, they could not be heard. The audience was delighted, however, and rewarded Messrs. Watts and Schwarz with several curtain calls.

ASOL conferences in recent years have given admirable time and attention to youth orchestras in conference programming and in performance. The Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Jonathan Shames, presented a brief program at the Thursday morning opening session consisting of Steven Stucky‘s Son et lumière, SSO Composer in Residence Samuel Jones‘s Elegy, and Wagner‘s Overture to The Flying Dutchman. The Stucky is a color piece featured on the ASOL Web site NewMusicNow, which celebrates American music at the millennium, and in the current issue of the ASOL’s Symphony Magazine. Jones wrote his poignant Elegy on the heels of the Kennedy assassination; the SSO has also programmed it in recent seasons. Mr. Shames deserves credit for stretching his young charges with such ambitious programming.

The last of the live performances was in many respects the most compelling. Mr. Schwarz was emcee and host for three works featured in May on the SSO’s pathbreaking Pacific Rim Festival. Korean-born Jacqueline Jeeyoung Kim‘s Longing Under the Moon is an atmospheric, attractive duo for harp and violin casting the two instruments in a dialogue between lovers. Pipa virtuosa Wu Man was the soloist in Tan Dun‘s Concerto for Pipa and String Orchestra, a piece derived from his Ghost Opera that also exists in a version for pipa and string quartet. Alastair Willis conducted. The recital concluded with Australian Carl Vine‘s Defying Gravity, a roof-raising percussion quartet that emphasizes tom-toms and marimbas. Gerard Schwarz chaired a post-concert panel discussion in which Wu Man and Mr. Willis participated. While their comments were helpful, they did not make up for the inexplicable lack of program notes for this unfamiliar and fascinating concert. The venue was Nordstrom Recital Hall, a 540-seat secondary performing space within Benaroya Hall. The seat count and rectangular footprint are just right for chamber music. Unfortunately acoustician Cyril Harris imposed an archaic fan shape and a too-steep seating rake within the space, thereby compromising what might otherwise have been an acoustical jewel.

New music found its niche among the ASOL conference sessions in “New Music: A New Equation,” which explored programming ideas that have worked in various orchestral communities. Each panelist represented an orchestra with an interest in new music and a successful history in presenting it. Brent Assink of the San Francisco Symphony pointed out that “somewhere along the way it became cool to have one’s assumptions challenged at the symphony, to hear a work and not necessarily enjoy it.” He noted that the orchestra’s conductor must believe passionately in the music s/he performs. Paul Gambill, Music Director of the Nashville Chamber Orchestra, has had success with thematic programming that breaks from what he dubbed the “new music as overture syndrome.” “We have to lead taste,” he declared. “If we don’t lead [the audience], we follow them. Stretch them a little.” The Seattle Symphony’s marketing director Sandi Macdonald gave an overview of the orchestra’s Music of Our Time series and its recent Pacific Rim Festival concerts; her watchword was “breaking barriers by building trust.”

Technology and its impact on the orchestra played a key role in ASOL conference session programming; however, the immediacy of live performance and the need to cultivate new audiences also recurred as familiar themes. Three speakers shared the honors for the keynote address. Thomas Morris, Executive Director of the Cleveland Orchestra; John DeJarnatt, an oboist in the Seattle Symphony and chair of its Musicians Committee; and Robert Spano, Music Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic and Music Director Designate of the Atlanta Symphony. Morris discussed change as an organizational buzzword and made suggestions as to how repertoire maintains its hold on an audience. “We are in the business of producing art, not entertainment,” he cautioned, urging that a strongly articulated, deeply felt artistic vision be embedded into the fabric of each institution. De Jarnatt, after assuring the audience that yes, the Seattle musicians love their new concert hall and yes, they’ve thought to ask Bill Gates for money, discussed the dual roles of making a living and making art. He also acknowledged the crucial role of a strong board in shaping an orchestra’s vision. Spano was the only one to mention technology and the role it might play in the future of the orchestra, but not at the expense of the magic that occurs in a live performance, which he called the crux of our tradition.

“Emerging Technologies: Reaching Out” was the first of several colloquia that drew upon personnel from Seattle’s tech-heavy industry and think tanks to complement music professionals on its panels. Much of the presentation was PowerPoint show-and-tell, with the most interesting contribution coming from Curtis Wong, a Vice President with the Next Media Research Group at Microsoft. Mr. Wong has extensive experience with TV and film production, and worked with UCLA‘s Robert Winter in the Multimedia Beethoven software that wrought a minor revolution in music appreciation courses in the 1990s. Wong is currently a technology adviser for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS. His presentation included excerpts from an Itzhak Perlman digital TV interactive remote master class. Eileen Quigley, General Manager of RealNetworksRealImpact division, discussed the growth of streaming media in the current Internet environment. Although she argued that barriers to entry in the medium are significantly lower than they have been in the past, demonstrating with examples of flash animation used for fund-raising and consciousness-raising about issues. Questions from the floor, however, indicated that many of the ASOL delegates still have a steep learning curve in this area, even with respect to basic terminology. Ongoing problems at the Washington State Convention Center with such elementary technology such as microphones lent an element of the ridiculous to this and other technology sessions.

Microsoft was as strong a presence at this ASOL conference as it continues to be in the Seattle community. At a session called “Music on the Web Demystified,” the software giant’s Cassandra Cummings attempted to provide an overview of streaming, downloading, and getting one’s orchestra involved in webcasting. The knowledge gap among the audience was wide, and Cummings herself had only a rudimentary knowledge of music, which made her attempts at topical analogies awkward. Nevertheless, it is apparent that the Internet is facilitating the growth of the next mass medium in our culture. Peter Newman, program director at KING-FM, one of the dwindling classical radio stations in the U.S., suggested that radio stations will be hungry for content that differentiates them from other stations, which in turn can foster partnership with area performing arts organizations.

Chicago Symphony principal trumpet Adolph “Bud” Herseth was the recipient of the League’s 2001 Gold Baton Award at a Benaroya Hall awards ceremony on Friday afternoon, June 22. Retiring this summer after a nearly legendary 53 years with the CSO, Herseth is the first orchestral musician to receive this prestigious award. To commemorate the occasion, members of the SSO performed Samuel Jones’s Aurum Aurorae (in memoriam Morton Gould), a musical tribute for brass, organ, and timpani. Mr. Herseth also played the Jeremiah Clarke Trumpet Voluntary, with organist Carole Terry, for the assembly. His next stop is London, where he will be awarded an honorary doctorate by the Royal College of Music the last week in June.

Also at the Finale Awards Ceremony, Chicago Symphony Executive Director Henry Fogel assumed the ASOL Chairmanship from outgoing chairman Bud Lindstrand. Fogel is a cheerleader for the industry. He focused his remarks on the improved financial situations of many orchestras, and called upon League members to do a better job of publicizing fiscal and other improvements in their orchestras’ conditions. Take the initiative to foster the climate and conditions in which our orchestras can flourish, he suggested. “Nobody ever bought a ticket to see me manage a meeting,” Fogel added. “We exist for our art, and our musicians are central to our mission.”

ASOL’s Member Services VP Jack McAuliffe reported that approximately 1200 delegates attended this year’s meeting. That figure is down from last year (when the meeting took place in Boston), but according to McAuliffe a reduction in attendees is not unusual in years that the conference takes place on the west coast. Those who chose to stay home missed the most glorious weather in Seattle’s recent memory. Mount Rainier, notorious for hiding behind an impenetrable wall of clouds, was visible during all daylight hours. The sun shone brilliantly, making the ASOL delegates’ walks between and among the Washington State Convention Center, Benaroya Hall, Pike Place Market, Starbucks and various headquarters hotels exceptionally pleasant.

The Seattle Symphony’s hospitality included ASOL’s traditional Tune-Up Party in the Benaroya Hall lobbies following the opening concert. The orchestra’s docents provided guided tours of the hall throughout the conference. The hall complex was completed just recently with the opening of Soundbridge, a 2000-square foot interactive exhibit space including an instrumental petting zoo and extensive options at ‘listening bars.’ At the ASOL conference luncheon, Microsoft Executive Vice President Robert Herbold discussed his company’s collaboration with the Seattle Symphony in Soundbridge. “We’ve turned a small space into a giant flexible classroom,” Herbold said. He also gave a whirlwind overview of technological advances in the past fifteen years, touching on the shrinking size of the silicon chip, capacity increases for data storage and transmittal, and global connectivity, along with some dizzying predictions for the devices that lie in our future.

Next year’s ASOL National Conference takes place from June 12-15, 2002, in Philadelphia, six months after the scheduled opening of the Philadelphia Orchestra‘s new home, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.