The Orchestra in Contemporary American Musical Life


Frank J. Oteri, Editor and Publisher
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Melissa Richard

Is the orchestra a viable contemporary American institution? That’s a question that’s been on a lot of people’s minds both within and outside the orchestral music community as well as within the new music community which all too frequently has been treated like an opposition political party.

There are two schools of thought about the function that the orchestra should serve in a community. One camp contends that the orchestra is a sonic museum that preserves the timeless classics of our musical heritage, presenting them again and again in a live setting so new audiences can discover them and that audiences already familiar with them can gain new insights with each rehearing. The other camp contends that the orchestra must take a pro-active role in our society, performing and commissioning new works, doing extensive community outreach and being at the cutting edge of new technologies. Opponents of the museum approach say the orchestra is outmoded and irrelevant to contemporary society, a throwback to the old boy system, a torchbearer of “Dead White European Male” culture to the exclusion of the achievements of all other people. Opponents of the pro-active model contend that orchestras should do what they do best, which is to play great music, and might rightly point to such horrific models as the expunging of “degenerate art” in Nazi regime’s rewriting of the canon or the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China as proof that dictating artistic choices based on so-called “politically correct” grounds yields a tepidly satisfying aesthetic experience at best.

Much can be gained by looking at both sides of this argument and seeing how to preserve the great legacy of orchestral music of the past while at the same time building a new and vibrant orchestral experience which may indeed be tomorrow’s great legacy. We invited you to take a stand in this great debate in our interactive forum

This month, we have chosen to enter the NewMusicBoxing ring with four members of the staff of the Philadelphia Orchestra: artistic administrator Simon Woods, president Joseph H. Kluger, marketing director Ed Cambron and assistant communications director Brian Atwood. The Philadelphia Orchestra, considered by most music aficionados to be one of our greatest orchestras but rarely perceived of as a maverick in the orchestral music community, has taken an unusual step for their 1999-2000 season. Every work played in a subscription concert this season was composed in the 20th century. And while contemporary music fans may balk at a “20th century” season filled with Ravel and Rachmaninoff but missing Carter and Messiaen, it’s a more-than-welcome change of pace from the bottomless sea of Basically Beethoven, Totally Tchaikovsky or Masochistically Mozart. Andrew Druckenbrod’s hyper-history surveys the commissioning and premiering legacies of 18 additional American orchestras in an attempt to determine how American and contemporary contemporary American orchestras actually are. We have supplemented both the Philadelphia Orchestra interview and the orchestral hyper-history with a variety of documents ranging from press releases to lists of commissions and premieres spanning the entire century to try to paint as complete a picture as we possibly can. In fact, we have also supplemented our leading news story this month — an announcement of two premieres by the New York Philharmonic financed by the Walt Disney Company — with the complete transcript of the press conference led by Disney CEO Michael Eisner.

We decided to contrast this serious probing by having a little fun with people’s memories of premieres. We’ve asked composers John Corigliano and David Del Tredici, flutist Laurel Ann Maurer, and former music critic Tim Page to tell us their best and worst memories of premieres from the varying viewpoints of composer, performer and audience member. Unfortunately, orchestral music was not the focus of a large percent of either our listings of concerts featuring American repertoire or our online exploration center for new recordings of American music. But there are many fascinating items to be found there nonetheless.

We hope that through presenting all this material we can inspire further dialog and help energize the playing field of American orchestras, a community which, in size and geographic distribution, is on par with America’s other great team sports and which, if the conditions are right, can create an evening as memorable as a shut-out game in a World Series!