What’s The Big Idea?



Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Jeffrey Herman

When I first started to think seriously about being a composer, I thought that the best thing I could do was write for the orchestra. And, as a listener first truly plunging in to “classical music” as a teenager, I thought that orchestral music was the ultimate medium.

Nowadays I’m not so sure…

While every seven years or so, I’ll feel the itch to compose for orchestra, I rarely follow that muse and to this day nothing I’ve written for orchestra has ever been given a performance. I have no sour grapes about this; I’ve never submitted a score to an orchestra so, technically, I’ve never been rejected. As a listener, while I turn to orchestral recordings now and then, I’m usually drawn to works for smaller forces. As a concertgoer, I rarely attend orchestral concerts since the only concerts that excite me enough to make me forget my crazy schedule and attend are concerts featuring new works, which are rarely orchestra gigs. Sadly, many listeners and composers of my generation share this view.

I say sadly because, despite my own personal aesthetic and creative ambivalence toward the orchestra at this point in my life, I know intellectually that the concept of an “orchestra” is one of mankind’s greatest artistic expressions. It is music’s version of landscape architecture; beyond the arts, it is the closest music comes to being a metaphor for a society, and therefore could be the best way for a composer to address larger socio-political issues. I can think of few musical experiences that are more moving than the late large-scale number pieces of John Cage that require the coordination of sometimes up to 100 musicians scattered all over the place, which is perhaps a closer analogy to our own society than the almost Brave New World-esque division of the standard symphony orchestra where the strings are the alphas and the percussionists the epsilons…

But no matter what the make-up of an “orchestra”, orchestral music can only be successful when an entire group of people comes together and therein lies its greatest sociological implications. But, since so many people are required to make orchestral music, it is often difficult to get a consensus.

Frequently the composer is trapped in the middle between the orchestra’s administration and the unions representing the players, an often-adversarial tug-of-war that results in a misunderstanding of the importance of working with living composers, inadequate rehearsal time for new pieces, and, worst of all, composers being denied recordings of their own premieres, the lack of which perpetuates the stillbirth of so-much new music. And, of course, given the lack of new music at orchestral concerts and the generally conservative nature of much of what little new music there is, a socio-political music is something of a pipe dream.

All that said, one composer who hasn’t given up on the orchestra as it is currently structured and who has even been able to make important statements within it is David Del Tredici, who confesses that, despite the medium’s conservative conventions, “they have the cookies I want to eat!” Of course, in the early 21st century, the Western classical orchestra is just one of many options for composers who “think big”: there’s the jazz big band (jazz’s own orchestra with its own history of conventions), the gamelan (which is attracting more and more American composers), idiosyncratic large ensembles and even MIDI realizations. We asked a group of 8 composers, who create for all different types of orchestras, to explain their methods of orchestration.

A discussion of the relevance of the orchestra right now seems particularly timely given all the recent gloom-and-doom reports of orchestras going out of business all over the country. I’m sure it is something that will be on the minds of everyone attending the American Symphony Orchestra League Conference this month in San Francisco as well as the conference of the Music Critics Association of North America (also, as luck would have it, in San Francisco). Greg Sandow, who last month addressed the seeming lack of new orchestral music programming, this month suggests that the impending “death of classical music” should be at the top of the music critics’ agenda. But, the success of Minnesota Public Radio’s new American Mavericks series, which Dean Suzuki profiles this month, suggests a slightly different scenario. This exciting radio series and even more exciting website, which celebrates great American composers whom most orchestras would never perform, should be required listening and surfing for the staff and players of every orchestra in America. John Kennedy wonders if the preservation of the orchestra in 21st century America will require us to completely rethink its role in our musical culture. What do you think?

At this pivotal moment in our society, which is also a pivotal moment for our musical history, perhaps it is more important now than ever to remember Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous comment from his first inaugural address is 1933: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Just as the fear of dissenting opinions can destroy a democracy, the fear of new music is destroying classical music.

But, all is not yet lost. Now is the time to make the case for new ideas before it is too late. Perhaps it is time for all the reluctant composers out there, myself included, to reconsider writing for the orchestra!