VNPAC: Into the Future—A composer’s view of orchestral initiative

Three days at the League of American Orchestras conference, and yes, I have not blogged once until now. That may actually be good in the long run.

What’s good is rather than attempting a blow-by-blow account of events, it offers a chance for an overview of six specific events I have attended, and a search for common threads of thought among them which are of value to composers.

It’s certainly not the first time that orchestras have questioned their survival and pondered what to do about it. But a combination of both the wake of major crash in the financial world and simultaneous major social changes brought on, in large part, by the rapid application of digital connectivity technologies, deals a double blow to the assumptions of the past, and a clearly present feeling that orchestras cannot continue to operate in many traditional ways of the past.

It doesn’t mean an abandonment of everything traditional; because a true tradition is a living one, ongoing, constantly refining, redefining, and renewing itself without losing sight of core mission and purpose, and how that applies to the current today. Orchestras, as relatively large non-profit institutions in terms of their ongoing operations where the body of necessary personnel which are not particularly transitory, are not particularly designed for or inclined toward change. I don’t mean that just in terms of repertoire, but in terms of their institutional functionality–how that organization addresses its mission in terms of the community and cultural environment within which it swims. One cannot turn the Queen Mary with the facility of a speedboat.

But the sense of urgency is in the air at this League conference: Jump now, or die.

A common theme has been “relevance.” The two major questions selected to be addressed in the Town Hall segment of Wednesday’s opening “Orchestra R/Evolution” session asked: How do we make orchestras relevant to our communities? And how do we make orchestras relevant in the 21st century? Curiously, for both questions, “involving living composers from our communities” was never brought up by the others at my table as an answer to either or both, though changing how the orchestra reflects the culture and preferences of that community with which they are familiar was. The unanswered response (of mine) to that answer was: What if their culture and preferences do not include or require the existence of an orchestra at all? If composers within the orchestra’s community are not asked to write music for that orchestra, they will, out of necessity, find other avenues of expression for their composing. And the community will follow.

The relevance question carries over into two other areas: The practical one of making hard decisions instead of coasting in accustomed ways (session: “There are No Crises, Only Tough Decisions”), and making the deliberate choice of involving the youngest of defined generations, Gen@, in the decision-making process (session: “Generations: The Challenge of a Lifetime”), and understanding that their decision-making process, as a generation, is different—more inclined to involving their peer group in the decision-making.

The two Atlanta Symphony sessions (“Atlanta Symphony War Room” and “Atlanta School of Composers”) engaged that idea in forms which have been demonstrably implemented for an entire decade—far ahead of the curve—and how collaboration among peers can evolve over time, if investment into to the nurturing and long-term well being of the peer group is addressed. Remarkably, the work of the group evolves, while its core membership remains relatively stable.

“Entrepreneurial Musicians” went back and tapped the question of how large institutions, in the midst of attention-to-peer-group evolution of culture, should not neglect the creative energies of musicians which yearn to find self-expression beyond its own pro-forma needs, beyond involvement in decision-making, beyond performance as a single large peer group. There is diversity of identity and self-expression of the musicians within the orchestra, and those, in small and diverse contexts, push forward the orchestra’s mission.

But let these institutions not neglect that living composers, however, are (or should be) part of the equation of becoming relevant to the times and the community in which the orchestra wishes to reassert its relevance and viability. Anything less might be culturally suicidal.

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5 thoughts on “VNPAC: Into the Future—A composer’s view of orchestral initiative

  1. Johnny Schicchi

    But let these institutions not neglect that living composers, however, are (or should be) part of the equation of becoming relevant to the times and the community in which the orchestra wishes to reassert its relevance and viability.

    This seems to imply that living composers are composing music relevant to the times and yet I really don’t hear that happening. The music relevant to the times (orchestral music that people actually listen to) is film/tv/videogame music and pre-Modernist programming in local and major orchestras. The vast majority of music I hear coming from living (non-film/tv/videogame) composers is generally entrenched in Modernism. If living composers aren’t composing music relevant to their orchestra-listening communities, why should they be part of the equation?

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  2. colin holter

    The music relevant to the times (orchestral music that people actually listen to)

    CONFLATION ALERT

    Music that people “actually listen to” is not necessarily “relevant to the times.”

    Reply
  3. Johnny Schicchi

    You know, if you’re going with the strict definition of “relevant” then “actually listen to” always means “relevant to the times.” It may not so much if you interpret “relevant” as “defining sound of the times” or “music that will later be lauded as genius even though nobody really cares for it now,” but that interpretation requires a future perspective which nobody has at the moment. My implication was “orchestral music people enjoy listening to now,” which I assumed was also the implication of the League of American Orchestras. My further implication was that the majority of orchestral listeners don’t enjoy listening to Modernist or Modernist-wannabe music.

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  4. TJOG

    JS makes a valid point when he suggests that the music being produced by many (certainly not all) contemporary composers is not “relevant” to most communities if by relevance one is referring to widespread fame or popularity within that community. And it also may be true that Mr. Gresham is overstating the case a bit when he suggests that for orchestras to neglect living composers may be “culturally suicidal.” But I think that Mr. Gresham is correct in taking the broader cultural view that musical institutions have an obligation—a historical obligation at the very least—to pay attention to contemporary music, not to just support the composers and artists who produce it, but because it enriches the audience’s experience. For some music directors at least, this may be the best approach to take: consider programming new music not because the audience is clamoring for it, but because there’s a good chance they will enjoy it or at least have their perspectives broadened by it.

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  5. Pingback: VNPAC: Into the Future—A composer’s view of orchestral initiative [NewMusicBox] | EarRelevant

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