View From The East: Why orchestras don’t play new music

Greg Sandow

Well, of course they do play it—and in fact, from what I’ve picked up in the orchestra world, they play more of it than some of their marketing directors might like. Some orchestras even play a lot of it…well, a fair amount anyway, especially if you count as "new music" anything written since 1945 (a long time ago, I know, but still just yesterday in the classical music world). And they play even more if you include some difficult—for the audience, that is—20th-century classics. Next season, for instance, when the Philadelphia Orchestra stresses Messiaen at four concerts, that’ll count as new music, at least to the Philadelphia audience.

But many people, notably including some very vocal music critics, think orchestras should play new music more. They think orchestras should pick music directors who emphasize new works; sometimes they say there’s a new, young audience out there, ready to hear new music, even if the regular audience isn’t.

But in the orchestra world, talk like that doesn’t wash at all and here’s why, though maybe I should note that some of what I’m going to say might strike my new music friends as heresy. Am I siding with conservative orchestras, embracing their reluctance? That’s a pointless question. What we’ve got to do is learn how people who run orchestras think, so we’ll understand why they do what they do. If we can’t manage that, we won’t be able to criticize them in any useful way. Worse, much of what we say will strike them as total, pointless nonsense. And, sad to say, they have some good reasons for new music caution, starting with this one: Their audience might not accept any heavy new music emphasis.

So now some of my friends will surely ask: How can you say that? Haven’t new works been cheered on mainstream orchestral programs? Wasn’t Tan Dun‘s The Map (to give just one recent instance) a huge hit, when the Boston Symphony premiered it not long ago? Didn’t Meredith Monk‘s first orchestra piece, Possible Sky, get a huge ovation at the New World Symphony last month? Didn’t I myself see Henri Dutilleux brought back for several bows after the Boston Symphony played one of his pieces several years ago? (And that was at a Friday afternoon concert in Boston, Friday afternoons being notorious for their conservative subscription audience.)

Sure. All that is true, and all of us could cite many more examples. But while some new works are happily received—and, even more important, the orchestral audience is more at ease with new music than it used to be—a good chunk of that audience still prefers to hear the standard repertoire.

How big is that chunk? Well, in one recent study, 10% of people who go to orchestral concerts say that too much new music might stop them from buying tickets. Now, that might sound like a small number, especially when you add another result of the study, a finding that 6% of the audience would stay away if an orchestra programs too many "overplayed" pieces. That looks pretty good: Add up the people turned away by new music and the people turned away by too much Tchaikovsky, and you’ve got a wash, with a small advantage actually on the new music side.

But that’s misleading. Forget the 6% who don’t want to hear many overplayed masterworks. Any orchestra can easily accommodate them, by playing Beethoven‘s Fourth Symphony instead of his Fifth. Focus instead on the 10% who say new music would keep them away. Imagine a headline: "Orchestra Stresses New Music. 10% Drop In Ticket Sales." For any orchestra—especially now, with everybody hurting from the bad economy—that would be disastrous.

And in fact things are worse than that. Studies also show that among orchestra subscribers—the people who go to concerts most often, and whom orchestras most depend on to buy tickets—fully 36% would rather hear familiar works than anything new. That’s not as strong as saying that they’d stay away, but it’s still pretty strong. It implies, certainly, that even if they didn’t absolutely refuse to go, they’d still be less likely to buy many tickets. So maybe now the headline has to read, "Orchestra Stresses New Music: 36% Sales Drop." Or, if you think that’s exaggerated, just 30%, or 20%, or even 15%—which still would be ghastly news.

And when you go beyond subscribers, the numbers get even worse. 45% of single-ticket buyers say they’d rather hear familiar pieces. Move further outward, into the universe of people who don’t currently go to hear orchestras, but say they might like to, and 54% prefer music they already know. Unfortunately for the new music cause, orchestras need these people. Over the past generation, fewer and fewer people have chosen to subscribe. Orchestras work harder to sell the same number of seats, and have to reach out to new listeners—who, if these studies can be trusted, want comfortable music even more than subscribers do.

Nor is any of this theoretical. A few years ago, when I was writing an article about how new music is marketed, I spoke to the executive directors of three orchestras that played a lot of new music, the Baltimore Symphony (this was when David Zinman still was music director), the San Francisco Symphony, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. All three of these people said that they’d run into concrete opposition from part of their audience—so large a part, in fact, that two of them thought they’d have to arrange special subscription series with no new music at all.


But what about the new audience, that hot young crowd that new music supposedly might attract?

Well, first of all, how large is it? Some New York music critics get excited by the audience at Columbia University‘s Miller Theatre in New York, where George Steel produces terrific new music events. It’s young and eager (though I’m not sure it’s rock-oriented, as one critic supposes; it looks like a standard new music crowd to me). In the ‘70s, for that matter, I saw crowds jam the smaller spaces in BAM to hear Steve Reich, and back in the ‘60s the rug concerts Boulez did with the Philharmonic brought out a young audience.

But how large is this audience? Miller isn’t, to put it mildly, as big as Avery Fisher Hall, where the New York Philharmonic holds court. Nor was the Lepercq Space at BAM (now the Rose Café). And the rug concerts unfurled themselves just a few times each year. Would any of these events draw—even cumulatively, over an entire season—enough people to make up the difference, if the New York Philharmonic replaced any large part of its current programming with new music, and lost subscribers? I doubt it—and even if I might possibly be wrong, could the Philharmonic afford to take that chance?

Plus there’s another question. Suppose, against all apparent odds, that a young, new music audience took the place of current subscribers. Would they donate as much money as the current subscribers do? That’s a crucial part of this problem, even if it lies beneath the surface, below the radar of many people who write about music. Orchestras can’t survive on ticket sales alone. They need people to give them money. Picture, for a moment, the current Philharmonic audience (or, for even greater effect, the orchestral audience in a city smaller than New York). Now picture the new music audience. Weight in your mind the two types of people—their ages, occupations, social position. Who’s likely to give more money? The answer should be obvious.

So if orchestras played a lot more new music, how would they pay for it? Years ago, I made radical suggestions at a conference sponsored by the New York State Council on the Arts. Someone from the Buffalo Philharmonic answered me. Sure, she said, maybe there really was a new audience out there for the kinds of things I was advocating—and while they looked for it, they’d lose some large part of the audience they already have, and with it much of their funding. True or false? And if you think it’s false, can you offer enough concrete evidence for orchestras to bet their survival on what you think?


But still there’s hope. This year, the Indianapolis Symphony embarked on a real adventure. On nearly every one of the 20 concerts on their main classical series, they’ve done (or will be doing) an American work. And while they’ve programmed a very few harmless confections, like the Victor Herbert Cello Concerto, or well-loved chestnuts, like the Adagio for Strings or the Fanfare for the Common Man, mostly they’ve chosen recent pieces by living or recently living composers—Michael Daugherty, Michael Torke, Lou Harrison, Ellen Zwilich, David Diamond, William Bolcom, Stephen Hartke, Philip Glass, John Adams (his Violin Concerto, not an easy piece), Christopher Rouse, Roberto Sierra, Aaron Kernis, John Corigliano, Theodore Shapiro.

How’d they do it? They took their audience seriously—an important point, I think, because studies have shown that people who go to orchestra concerts (including even constant subscribers) don’t think that orchestras care much about them. Indianapolis actually spoke to its audience—they held focus groups, I’m told, and asked people what they’d think if a lot of new music got programmed. We wouldn’t object, the focus groups answered, if you also play the music we all want to hear. So Indianapolis matched Stephen Hartke with Dvorak, Aaron Kernis with the Prokofiev "Classical" Symphony, Michael Torke with the Tchaikovsky Fifth, and so on down the line, though to their credit they didn’t always choose the most obvious warhorses.

And they also did the Philip Glass Fifth Symphony, a very long work, alone on a program by itself, with wonderful success—they played the program twice, on two successive nights, and sold more tickets to the second concert than the first, because word spread in the city that the piece was worth going to hear. When they did Michael Torke’s percussion concerto, Rapture, they brought Michael and the percussion soloist, Colin Currie, into the lobby at intermission to sign CDs. That got the audience excited; they’d heard Michael speak before the concert, liked him, liked his music, and liked the soloist. Both Michael and the symphony’s publicist told me that people didn’t want to go back in the hall to hear Tchaikovsky.

So here’s what I think is one way to sell new music—make it a genuine event. Indianapolis sold this season as "A Celebration of America," invited many of the composers to attend, created special attractions, like the CD signing, and (which couldn’t have hurt) also had a new music director, Mario Venzago, to create some extra excitement.

Next year, alas, the Indianapolis Symphony isn’t doing nearly as much, so maybe the plan works only for a single season. But at least it shows that new music conceivably can work. And it gives us an example to learn from and to present to others, so when we urge more new music, we can speak the same language orchestras speak, and show them we know what we’re talking about.