I spent most of the day today on an airplane heading to the American Symphony Orchestra League Conference in Los Angeles. The hours flew by quite quickly though thanks to a somewhat schizophrenic reading list. I’ve finally gotten around to reading Joseph Horowitz’s 600-page doomsday tome Classical Music in America: A History of its Rise and Fall (which we’ve previously featured on this site). But, in addition, a colleague on the flight shared with me Allen Kozinn’s contradictorily euphoric assessment that classical music has entered a new golden age, this in the latest New York Times Arts and Leisure section and on the front page of it no less. When’s the last time you read a classical music story on the front page of Arts and Leisure?
So, who’s right here? Is it all over or has the party just started? Agriculturally-based societies have had special festivities marking the first flowering of spring since the beginning of human history. These ceremonies of rebirth and renewal are the inevitable sequel to the mourning of fallen leaves in autumn and the barrenness of winter. Nature’s yearly cycle of death and rebirth, so important to human existence, is also the fuel for human creativity including music.
Indeed, once the ponderous practices of late Medieval polyphony were exhausted, the beautiful clarity of renaissance voice leading took nits place. Similarly, once Renaissance harmonies became overwrought, a new Baroque simplicity filled the inspirational void until it too gradually grew more mannered and ultimately also reached a dead end. What music historians categorize as subsequent epochs in music history—the classical, romantic, and modern periods—blur seamlessly into one another, each building on the legacy of the generation preceding it. (Maybe that’s why we call all of this stuff “classical music.”)
However, during the 20th century, other musical trajectories spawned from cross-cultural contact and the rise of industrialized and post-industrialized economies challenged the hegemony of classical music’s evolutionary trajectory. And it was probably the greatest thing that ever happened. In the present we could and should be experiencing the most generous amount of music from the widest range of composers and performers. And the number of people who have time to listen to music and appreciate it is the largest it has ever been in human history and most diverse. But since music and its listenership are now so diffuse, it has become harder for the places which were once the most obvious places to turn to for it. To many members of a whole generation of potential listeners and possible contributors to this tradition, something like a symphony orchestra can seem a quaint anachronism, albeit an extremely expensive behemoth as well.
Of course, what I’m describing here is hardly an original thought. But here’s one that unfortunately might be…
In some ways, an annual conference is just like a spring celebration. It is a large gathering of people coming together with a common aspiration. So, rather than the unusal summation of past achievements and brainstorming for future survival that a conference such as that of the American Symphony Orchestra League tends to be, why don’t we take the spring analogy to the next level and turn it first and foremost into a celebration of artistic renewal with brand new music for orchestra being the centerpiece? There’s certainly plenty of it which has been recently acknowledged by the annual young composer awards from ASCAP and BMI as well as the readings by the Minnesota Orchestra and the American Composers Orchestra. I’m thrilled that at least some contemporary music will be featured on concerts during the conference and in some of the sessions, but why isn’t any of this even more contemporary, hot-off-the-presses music being featured at this conference where it could get into the ears of people who can guarantee its future?