Does the Orchestra Have A Future?

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to have long-term partnerships with several outstanding orchestral conductors who have commissioned, performed and recorded my music. This has had a profound influence on my work. Several of my best pieces are for orchestra. And I think in essentially orchestral colors and textures. Still, lately I’ve been moving away from the orchestra.

I love the orchestra as much as ever. It remains one of the richest and most subtle of musical media. Given unlimited resources, it would be my first choice. But the practical realities of the orchestra are formidable. Performances are hard to come by, and all too often under-rehearsed. So like many other American composers, from Joan Tower and Steve Reich to Lou Harrison, I’m beginning to feel that the heart and soul of my music may be better supported elsewhere.

The symphony orchestra is no longer available to composers as an instrument of change. As a result, much of today’s most exciting music is not being created for it. It’s not that composers have lost interest in the orchestra. It’s just become prohibitively expensive. The economics of the 21st Century U.S.A. are not what they were in 19th Century Europe. New music often requires new performance practices, and the high cost of rehearsal time makes the orchestra available primarily to composers who work within a relatively narrow range of established musical conventions.

Composers who want to expand the limits of the medium have taken a do-it-yourself approach. Robert Ashley has issued a recording of an orchestral work, realized entirely in MIDI with synthetic instruments. Other composers have been driven to invent their own orchestras. Groups such as Present Music (in Milwaukee), the San Francisco Contemporary Chamber Players, the Seattle Creative Orchestra, the Spit Orchestra (in New York) and others around the country have sprung up in response to the changing musical and economic realities of our time. If there is an orchestra of the future, it may well resemble these ensembles more than the symphony orchestra of the past. Composer and performer-founded ensembles can lead this change, since they can adapt more quickly than larger, institutionally cumbersome orchestras.

The symphony orchestra is one of the great musical monuments of 19th Century Europe. As such, it’s a vehicle for the preservation of some of the greatest music of the past. But if the orchestra is to thrive in the 21st Century as more than a museum, it must change. It must deepen and strengthen its active commitment to the music of our time, and to the music of the future.

With notable exceptions, orchestral repertoire has become more conservative over the past 50 years. As younger listeners have turned away from narrow and repetitive programming, orchestra audiences have grown older. At the same time, new music has built dedicated and growing audiences, especially among younger listeners. Orchestras need these listeners. They and the musicians who speak to them are the present and the future of music as a living art.

What do you think: Does the orchestra have a future?