The Who and Why of Bang On A Can

7. Is the Orchestra Dead?

FRANK J. OTERI: Then here comes the loaded question. . . What happens when you want to write for a big ensemble or an orchestra? Is that form something that we shouldn’t think about anymore? Is the orchestra dead?

MICHAEL GORDON: No, it’s not dead. It’s a museum.

RICHARD KESSLER: What may happen is that all of a sudden the repertoire has ended. And that as an industry, that’s where they’re going nuts. It’s about, has it in fact ended? Is it going to grow to add another piece?

DAVID LANG: I want to jump in here, because I really disagree. I mean, I agree with everything that both of you said, about the audience – I feel that it goes back to what I said earlier. It’s really important to have the audience you want. To create the environment so you get the audience that you need in order to create the opportunity for people to listen to everything openly and to listen to everything constructively. But I don’t think that the orchestra is, by definition, dead, or, by definition, a museum. I think it is a museum now, but I do not believe that that’s the way it has to be.

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, no, it doesn’t have to be and I want to tell you this story. Julia and I are walking down the street and we see posters plastered on the street. There’s this like cool looking guy, about 20 years old, green hair and blue goatee and he’s sitting on the sidewalk, he’s wearing jeans, he’s got this little sign saying “I’m going to the opera.” And I looked at it and said, “Wow, look at that — could that be like an ad for City Opera? That would be so cool.” And Julia goes, “Yeah, that would be so cool. They’re not cool enough to do that ad.” We get closer and closer, and finally we get right up to it and there’s this little tag that says “Levis.” [laughs] And that’s what this ad is for.

FRANK J. OTERI: I was walking to the American Music Center a couple of weeks ago and I was just livid. There was a sign at a bank for retirement plans, and it said, “Do you have a classical IRA? Well, maybe it’s time to rock and roll.” So the implication was that a “classical” was boring and staid and not where it’s at now. And that’s the perception — it’s this word, “classical.” I was really excited when the Ensemble Modern came here a few years ago. Here’s this chamber orchestra playing all new music, big audience, an orchestra version of the Kronos, let’s say. Or, even what Esa Pekka Salonen’s doing in Los Angeles. I heard the new John Adams piece [“Naïve and Sentimental Music”] — the audience loved it. They flipped out. They gave it such a huge ovation. They changed the order of the program, even. The original order of the program was Adams first and Prokofiev after intermission. Usually they’re afraid to put new music on the second half, they’re afraid people will leave at intermission. But even pairing Adams and Prokofiev was atypical; it was an all-20th century program. It wasn’t sold out, but there were lots of people there and the audience was ecstatic. They brought Adams out twice. It can happen. And I would dare say you program this new music with an orchestra, chances are, you’re going to get more of the type of crowd that is interested in otherness in other arenas coming to the orchestra than you would if you were playing a whole program of Mozart symphonies. That is the way to save the orchestra.

MICHAEL GORDON: The type of programming that you’re talking about goes back to what I was trying to say about record companies. Record companies realized five years ago that classical music is dead. They were never going to sell another copy of a Beethoven Symphony; they’re never going to sell another copy of the Brandenburg Concertos. They can’t survive anymore selling classical music. So all of these records now are gimmicks. I am going to sell classical music with, you know, a beautiful tenor that we market, a gimmick, or this or that. There is a label, or there is someone at one label, maybe, or there are certain people who can go, “I know that if I have great performances and I package this right, I can put out a quality product that is even challenging and sellable.” Let’s take the Kronos Quartet for example. But most people at most labels don’t have that kind of vision, or they won’t try new ideas. And my feeling is that the orchestra is going downhill. The audience is going down; they’re running out of money. And ten years from now, the orchestras that survive. . . There will be a San Francisco Symphony, let’s say, that will do daring programs and will have an audience. But more and more, classical music concerts are going to be marketed exactly like these, you know, it’ll be classical music and breakfast, or classical music with the forty tenors, so, like, giveaways at a baseball game, come to this concert and…

RICHARD KESSLER: Lincoln Center has these rush hour concerts…

MICHAEL GORDON: But what they’re not doing is they’re not going: “Look, how can I do innovative programming, do something that’s of quality, and market it in a way that I can get an audience?” And that is possible, you see. But the ingenuity is not there.

RICHARD KESSLER: It’s a cultural issue and it’s an institutional issue. What you were not burdened with, what led you directly to it is in your hearts and your minds – the work. Let’s say you had hired someone to run the operation who knew nothing about music and nothing about what you did. The fact of the matter is in orchestras, the music director is given the music responsibilities, the executive director is given the administrative responsibilities. In the museum field, the executive directors were once curators. In the music business, the executive director had nothing to do with the music. In addition, they have marketing people who may not even know anything about music. So you didn’t have this other side, this other half, this other side of the coin that you would have had to commit, that you would have had to move, to convince to whatever. You were simply able to take a look at, as I said, what was in your hearts and minds and just go in that direction. And you said as much earlier, essentially. With some of these institutions, it’s really complex.

JULIA WOLFE: It’s harder.

DAVID LANG: I’d just like to add one thing. It’s not just contemporary music which has the problem in the orchestra world. You shouldn’t expect to hear an orchestra play a subscription series with a Beethoven symphony either. That’s not the right environment to bring to any of those pieces. It’s not just contemporary music that has the problem. I feel like those orchestras are doomed for many more reasons.