VNPAC: The Orchestra R/Evolution Starts Now

Day 1: June 16, 2010

For me, the professional orchestra has always been somewhat the “holy grail” of ensembles and the most mysterious to penetrate. Many composers simply forego writing for this medium, either because they feel that there seems to be little chance a piece will ever get performed or perhaps because they feel the medium itself is a relic of the past with diminishing relevance the deeper we move into the 21st century. So, given these perceptions, when I was asked to blog about the goings on at the 65th National Conference of the League of American Orchestras, I was anxious to find out what the state of the profession was and what place, if any, contemporary composers held within the institution.


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The first major event I attended was the Opening Keynote: Orchestras R/Evolution. Upon entering the cavernous ballroom (seating close to 1000 attendees), I was immediately struck by the high amount of social media prevalent. Two large screens were running Twitter feeds concerning the upcoming session, which was to be streamed live over the internet, and attendees were encouraged to tweet or contribute text messages to the ongoing discussion and more specifically, to vote on the top two questions that were to be considered at the session. We were told that over 500 internet participants (including many international voices) were chiming in via Twitter.

The title of this year’s conference is “It’s Time To Take On The Future” and to hammer the point home, the first item at the keynote was a performance by the Greenville County Young Artist Orchestra under the direction of Dr. Gary A. Robinson. These high school-aged musicians performed the Concerto No. 1 for Marimba and Orchestra by Ney Rosauro—a work and composer unfamiliar to me. The group was exceedingly well prepared and remarkably self-assured in the performance of the 18-minute, four-movement concerto. The music was energetic and accessible (the buzz word that means “not dissonant” and can either be a wonderful or pejorative description depending upon your aesthetic). The real pleasure for me was to see the genuine joy the performers exuded from the stage and especially the fine performance by soloist Wesley Strasser. The programming of the work was meant to reassure the assembled orchestra professionals that despite the dire current state of the arts, there is a future. This intention, and the fine performance, was not lost upon the attendees who gave the performers a warm round of applause at the conclusion.

However, after the feel-good moment, it was time for reality. After a moment of silence in recognition of the passing of Ernest Fleischmann, the often-described visionary who put the LA Philharmonic on the map and turned the Hollywood Bowl into a phenomenon, Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, introduced the president of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Stanley E. Romanstein. After the perfunctory welcome and a bit of cheerleading about the ASO, noting the orchestra’s staggering 27 Grammy Awards, Romanstein turned to his passion: education. He emphasized the need for sustained arts in K-12 schools and lamented the cutting of school arts programs in these grades. Almost worse than the outright cuts, Romanstein also noted that some schools, in lieu of cutting programs, were opting to make them fee-based extra curricular activities to take place before or after the regular school day. Romanstein worried that this move would create racial and societal divides that will not be bridged in our lifetime.

Romanstein was followed by keynote speaker, Ben Cameron, program director for the arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Cameron’s talk was energetic but very frank. He asserted that the greatest challenges facing orchestras were not financial (despite the current economy) but rather the changes in audience demographics and changes in technology. Cameron described the latter as the orchestra’s biggest competitor for people’s leisure time.

After identifying the challenges, Cameron asked the question, “Why must we exist today?” A provocative and important question that resonated with me. I will say up front that I love the orchestra. I love the repertoire, the instrumentation, and especially orchestral musicians. I know there are other types of groups (especially the world of band music) much friendlier to contemporary music, but I still cannot be dislodged from a deep desire to write orchestral music. I am dismayed when I hear people talk about the orchestra in the past tense or as a dying medium (this sentiment, sadly, even comes from some musical colleagues of mine). So I perked up when Cameron asked what will motivate their continued existence.

Clearly, at a League of American Orchestras Conference, there is a belief that the orchestra should exist. However, Cameron charged orchestras to pose four hard questions to themselves:

  1. What is the value of symphonic music for my community?
  2. What is the value symphonic music brings by itself?
  3. How would my community be damaged if symphonic music disappeared?
  4. How must the orchestra change to become an optimal conduit to the community?

In considering these questions, Cameron noted that audiences for traditional venues are declining but that areas offering some type of audience participation are rising. The bottom line that Cameron left the audience with was a three-tiered approach for meaningful change: essentialize, sacrifice, and innovate. In other words, define what is absolutely essential to the core of what an orchestra is and maintain it. Make hard choices about what should be sacrificed as no longer relevant or sustainable in a given community. Finally, find ways to be innovative.

We then all broke into groups to discuss the two top questions confronting orchestras as determined by the Twitter and text feeds from inside the room and via the internet. The two questions selected by a wide margin were essentially the same: What does the artistically vibrant orchestra need to look like to be essential for its community? What makes an orchestra matter in the 21st century?

At my table, the participants all discussed various topics for increasing the relevance of the orchestra, including how pieces should be presented (use of multimedia vs. traditional presentations), more diverse programming, and making repertoire decisions in part based upon the size of the orchestra and the venue.

Throughout the session, I was amazed at how the progressive use of technology (twitter feeds, internet access, and a room full of iPads and smartphones) played out in stark opposition to more progressive ideas concerning programming. One example: at my table when the talk turned to the use of technology to enhance a performance (i.e., adding visuals to pre-existing music) I asked if instead of retro-fitting older pieces, why not commission a new piece that uses multimedia organically as a holistic part of the music. There was genuine surprise at the table.

My sense is that the assembled participants are not hostile, generally, to new music. However, it still seems that using composers in innovative ways to creatively build programs from the ground up is simply not on the radar. Yet, there is a clear interest in new music and for incorporating living composers into the orchestral repertoire. There is a tacit recognition of this simply by having this conference in Atlanta and featuring the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; an orchestra that regularly commissions and performs works by living (mostly) American composers.

After the lengthy session (clocking in at 2 hours and 15 minutes), it was time to grab a quick dinner and head over to the Woodruff Arts Center for a performance of Verdi’s Requiem by the ASO and ASO Chorus under the baton of Music Director Robert Spano. It was a remarkable performance. The orchestra and vocal soloists were absolutely top notch, but it is always the chorus that, at least for me, steals the show. I’m hard pressed to think of a better large choral group anywhere!

If I had any concerns about the visibility of composers and new music, they were slightly alleviated by the presence of composers Jennifer Higdon, Michael Gandolfi, and Christopher Theofanidis at both the ASO concert and at the Tune-Up Reception that followed in the High Museum of Art. It was wonderful and hopeful to see high-profile composers gliding in and out between high-profile general managers, administrators, and even members of the chorus and orchestra. In the long run, we are all, ultimately, in this together.

The evening was not without a little drama for me, but that is a tale best left to my next blog entry!

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