Proof of Life

As weeks go, this one has been none too quiet for the symphony orchestra.

Last weekend, Zachary Woolfe made a strong call for more new music by the New York Philharmonic, eloquently calling Alan Gilbert out on his record of performing both contemporary and American composers and echoing an earlier blog post by Christian Carey. For several days we got the chance to follow along with Hannah Lash as she took part in the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute along with several other composers from across the country (you can follow along here, here, here, and here). Finally, just as some concert halls have been contemplating a “Tweeting Section,” a sad example of the power of the marimba ringtone has resonated throughout the land.

What I take away from these various and sundry items is that, for as much as folks like to say otherwise, the symphony orchestra is not going quietly into that good night just yet. Obviously, it would be preferable to have something—anything—having to do with a symphony orchestra other than an interrupted performance be seen as newsworthy by the mainstream media, but luckily the other examples I listed are more encouraging. Hannah’s posts, however, demonstrate not only that there are quality creators who see the orchestra as a viable contemporary vehicle for expression, but also that there are effective models for professional orchestras to encourage and enhance the growth of those creators. Zachary’s heartfelt argument is a great example of the audience (in this case a critic) demanding that the orchestra and its director not allow its repertoire to become ossified.

While I did not ask them specifically about the orchestral genre, there seems to be a wide range of reactions to the orchestra by the composers whom I have interviewed over the past year and a half. Some see it as their primary method of expression and have been lucky enough to be given the opportunity to write for it many times. Others see it as just one of many compositional genres in which they feel comfortable working. Some ignore it outright, feeling perfectly at home within the chamber music world. Still others have expressed that while the orchestra is a wonderful sandbox to play in, the chances of getting a good opportunity to write for one is small enough that they don’t go out of their way for it.

This variety in existing attitudes simply shows that the orchestra, as it probably has always been, is neither the musical apex that every composer should be expected to pursue nor the desiccated museum destined for mothballs. It is just one of many options we as composers have to work with, and the optimist in me sees the aforementioned articles as proof that it remains a strong option at that.

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