Flying back to New York from Minneapolis, even the taste of airplane coffee is bittersweet. In my laughably biased opinion, last night’s concert at Minneapolis’s Orchestra Hall was a huge success. Close to 800 people, two-thirds of whom were not regular subscription concert-goers, many of whom were under thirty, and at least five of whom sported colorful mohawks and multiple piercings, showed up to hear nine works they had never heard before, enthusiastically stomping and cheering throughout the night. As much as I want to believe that everyone secretly loves new music, that iPods are full of Andriessen, showers reverberate with the sound of Saariaho, and rampant indifference is just a cute way of keeping everyone’s otherwise uncontrollable enthusiasm in check, I accept the fact that programming new music is a risk. It was a risk that paid off (in more ways than one) for the Minnesota Orchestra. Music directors from all over the country came to the concert with the idea of bringing this institute to their own orchestras, but the Minnesota Orchestra has the distinction of being the first to take this long-overdue risk with such successful results. Watching Osmo Vänskä conduct with such passion and precision you would have thought the world depended on every twist of his baton. For some of us, it does.
Hidden within all my unanswerable questions about the orchestra’s relevance is my secret unspeakable fear that the music is the problem. As each successive generation grows more and more distant from the music in the “core repertoire,” it should be no surprise that orchestras often lose meaning for people. As Henry Fogel of the ASOL said so succinctly, “a city’s orchestra must mean at least as much to people as their football team.” Last night’s concert felt relevant and exciting without falling prey to the embarrassing and desperate tricks attempted by other orchestras. There was no remnant of the elitism that has been the corset of the orchestra for years (and which threatens to be the noose). Composers talked to the audience before their pieces, the orchestra traded their tuxedos for casual dress, the conductor made jokes on stage, but most importantly, the audience felt that the music was written for them, about their time and place in the world. Could it be that the behavioral codes that seem to uphold this tradition are the very things holding it back? Could it be that new music is not the enemy but rather the thing that will keep orchestras going? To answer my own questions for once, heck yes.
The week was full of surprises (including Aaron Jay Kernis’s late night run-in with Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider in the hotel elevator) not the least of which was the advice the composers received from just about everyone else at the Institute: “Always be yourself, always write your own music.” After participating in this Institute, I feel that I have permission to do just that, to consider myself part of the tradition I have loved and feared my whole life. The incontestably sweet moments in a composer’s life are admittedly few and far between, but a moment as sweet as this provides enough energy to withstand another year of rejection letters and ramen noodles. Participating in this Institute was the single most important thing I have ever done as a composer, not only for the performance but also for the long love affair with the orchestra this week has inspired. Now the real work begins.
Thank You: I’d like to thank the wonderful and amazing Beth Cowart and Aaron Jay Kernis, co-directors of the institute, for all their hard work this week. You are both models of how to be generous and selfless human beings as well as successful artists. I’d also like to thank Lyn Liston of the American Music Center for her consistent and inspiring energy, John Nuechterlein and Craig Carnahan of the American Composers Forum, Fran Richard (ASCAP), Ralph Jackson (BMI), and of course, Maestro Vänskä and the members of the Minnesota Orchestra. Thank you all for taking a chance to ensure the future of orchestral music.