Blogging the 2011 League Conference: Seeking Transformative Change

Day one! I was booked—eight meetings today with various artistic administrators and executive directors of orchestras of various sizes from around the country. Unfortunately this didn’t allow me much time for sessions; it did, however, give me some insight into what’s been happening in the orchestra world over the last year. But I did make it to the opening session, entitled “Creating an Environment for Innovation.” The session had some interesting speakers, although I walked away feeling that it ultimately tried to bite off more than it could chew, at least in terms of presenting something coherent. There were three speakers: Larry Wending, head of research for 3M corporation; Katie Wyatt, the young founder of an El-Sistema-inspired center in North Carolina; and Deborah Borda, the famed CEO of the LA Phil.

Larry Wending gave a short address comparing science to music in terms of research and innovative thinking. I found it a bit dubious when he compared the lack of a clear beneficial benchmark for scientific research to musicians practicing and playing only for themselves. What about pure research? He did talk much about value, e.g. “innovations creating value for both music and science,” but he also asked whether creating value from music is really the heart of the orchestral mission.

Katie Wyatt, by far the youngest speaker, is a graduate of the Orchestra League fellowship program and a musical entrepreneur who feels strongly about the obligation to use our talents to give back to the community. She has studied “El Sistema” in Venezuela. For those of you not familiar with this, it is the youth orchestra program which puts instruments and lessons in the hands of children of all economic backgrounds in Venezuela and has produced incredible musicians including Gustavo Dudamel, the young music director of the LA Phil. She started a program like this in South Carolina which apparently has been successful. She says that we need to “make room for new ideas” and talked a lot about classical music being used for the social good.

Deborah Borda was the star of the show and gave a dramatic address about innovation. She claims that innovation is “creating an environment for change and recognizing the need for change.” Basically, the gist of her comments was that the fear of the unknown, fear of change, and the inertia of ensconced institutions are all hindrances to transformative change.

All the speakers had interesting things to say, but not much time was allotted to any one of them for this huge topic and I was frankly quite shocked that in all this discussion of “innovation” and “transformative change” for the orchestra world, not one person mentioned the music of our time.

At night we had the Minnesota Orchestra concert and they played a great piece by Aaron Jay Kernis called Concerto with Echoes based on Brandenburg 6, Beethoven 3rd Concerto with a Russian pianist, Yevgeny Sudbin, and ending with Sibelius 2. The Sibelius was really astounding and Osmo Vänskä conducted brilliantly. After, we had a fun tune-up party at the top floor of a hotel (I would say it was about a 7 compared with my top picks from the last few years, in terms of food and atmosphere….) and I had a chance to congratulate Aaron, who seemed pretty happy with the performance. I also had a chance to debate innovation and it’s meaning for orchestras on the way to the party with Ed Harsh, president of Meet the Composer, and John Nuechterlein, president of ACF. I also asked John to say a few works on camera.

As for my meetings, one orchestra manager from a medium sized orchestra in Florida said that one of their richest board members prefers that the orchestra not play anything before Bach or after 1850 and also underwrites a chamber series that he forces to follow this dictum! But another executive director I met from a small, struggling orchestra in California, said that they commission a new work every year! So all hope is not lost… I talked with a few conductors also and will be sending along my music, so hopefully that will lead somewhere.

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