It is hard for me to read this month’s issue and its consideration of composers thinking big for large ensembles, without the back of my mind drifting to the well-publicized troubles of our symphony orchestras. Certainly, there is a bit of a tired refrain at work, and the latest foldings or cutbacks are nothing we haven’t seen in earlier years and economic cycles, only to see orchestras resurrected and resume their patterns of activity. But perhaps the tired refrain is telling us something, which is that too many of the people involved in orchestras take their mode of operation for granted and seem to struggle with finding the courage and vision for change.
By their very nature, and in spite of the best efforts of Adorno, Cage, Cardew, and others to offer alternative visions to the totalitarian model of orchestra social structure, orchestras function with a top-down leadership dynamic. But in reality, they are one of our most shining models of interdependency, of absolutely vital constituent parts which learn to function as one organism. A stick helps make these parts go, and shape their way through time, but without these parts—these people—the stick is silent. The social problem identified by those aforementioned 20th century thinkers who saw the conductor/orchestra relationship as totalitarian is passé. Rather, the social problem of orchestras in the 21st Century is how this extraordinary model of interdependency, of music-making, can evolve to have a truly vital role in society.
It can happen if we create a climate where the role of orchestra musicians is understood as absolutely vital to the creation of new work. These are people who have dedicated their lives to realizing the work of composers, of playing music someone else has written. Their virtuosity and dedication are cultural resources that will dwindle if we do not advocate for their role in our creative process. It is absolutely tragic that we are seeing orchestral activity in this country decline at the same time that we have a rising talent level of musicians who seek to dedicate their lives to playing in orchestras. While conservatories have long trained people for jobs that are scarce (how much money did you make today composing?), we are at a juncture now where the scarcity of orchestra work and the resulting competition has focused orchestral training to very high levels of virtuosity.
I’m writing this from the Spoleto Festival USA, where I have the pleasure of being one of the people who auditions and conducts the spectacular Festival Orchestra, which is comprised of advanced students and young professionals. It is not hyperbole to say that for the four weeks that this orchestra plays together, it can proudly know it is one of the best anywhere. But it breaks my heart to think that many of these young people may not be able to make this their life’s work.
The long-term issue here is not the oft-repeated aesthetic debate over whether orchestras are obsolete. They will be obsolete only when musicians—when people—become obsolete. Orchestras need to be re-envisioned as flexible ensembles of musicians, rather than monolithic beasts dedicated to a very narrow repertoire. Our American orchestras need to be led by people who when choosing a redemptive work that speaks to the soul of their culture, will pick Copland’s Third Symphony instead of Beethoven’s Ninth. People who will make it their business to see that every sixth grader in their city knows that “Fanfare for the Common Man” is part of this symphony, and that it belongs to them. We need people who know that contemporary music is not scary to audiences, and that scary is having no contemporary music.
The orchestra model of the future is on our doorstep and it is not so very difficult to envision. Musicians, composers, and audiences seem very ready for this, and making it happen doesn’t require waving a magic wand. Perhaps we can help those in charge pick up the tempo. Isn’t that what orchestras have always had to do?