The Philadelphia Orchestra at 100

5. How To Introduce Audiences To 20th Century Music

FRANK J. OTERI: I want to respond to a comment that was made at the very beginning of this discussion. The Bernstein program that was done recently, you said that the audience reaction was lukewarm. I’d like to explore that a little bit. How does the audience react, in general, to 20th-century music, and how are we turning that around, now that next year is going to be the 21st century and all of this music is going to be old music?

SIMON WOODS: The audience’s reaction to 20th-century music, especially in our city, is very much related to how it’s presented. If you play a work by John Adams and you give people no way into that work, no way of understanding what it’s about and where it comes from, the reaction will be tepid at best. If John stands up in front of the audience, as he did when he came, and explains what the piece is about, his ideas when he wrote it, and gives them a way into it, at least they are prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. And in many cases, that has completely transformed people’s experiences of it. Certainly when you’re talking about living composers, one of the greatest tools we have at our disposal is the composer himself, the living person, who can stand on the stage and say, “When I wrote this work, I was thinking of X, Y, Z.” It can be an incredibly powerful experience and one that we’re using more and more. We are developing programs, residencies, ideas around their appearances to generate interest, to generate connections with all levels of the organization. That means with the public, that means with the press, with the board, with the volunteers. Right across the range. I think you can work composers very well into the fabric of musical life in the city to have a very positive impact.

EDWARD CAMBRON: I couldn’t agree with Simon more. I think that the more we give our audiences ways into the music, the more we talk about it through newsletters, and through the public relations we do and other marketing tools, the more they enjoy it. I think the days of just kind of throwing it out there — take it or leave it — are gone. People want connections to things, and when a composer or soloist or conductor stands up in front of the audience and shares a little bit about the music and what they see in it and how they feel about it, the audience really appreciates that. I think they listen in a different way. And I know we’re doing a lot more of this. As a marketing person, I’m always pushing Simon and our artistic team to do it all the time. It’s not always practical, and it doesn’t always make sense, but it’s the kind of thing the audience really loves. The other thing we’re doing that’s really special for this season is we did a CD sampler—a CD that gives us a few minutes of eight or nine pieces of music with Sawallisch We talk a little bit about the music, why we chose it, how Sawallisch feels about it. I think those kinds of tools gives people a little bit of insight are good for audiences and they listen in a good way.

SIMON WOODS: That CD is also designed to help us get over another of the problems, I think, with the perception of 20th-century music, that it actually somehow is difficult and challenging, where in some places it isn’t at all.

EDWARD CAMBRON: The Lowell Liebermann Flute Concerto, in particular, I think.

Fabulous Philadelphians Sampler -- CD cover

RealPlayer  [95 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Wolfgang Sawallisch talks about the Lowell Liebermann Flute Concerto followed by an excerpt of James Galway’s recording of it for BMG Classics as featured on the Promotional CD – The Fabulous Philadelphians, courtesy The Philadelphia Orchestra

SIMON WOODS: And there are also older examples like the Stenhammar Piano Concerto. There are a number of works on this season which are absolutely unfamiliar to people and yet which are clearly going to be successful with the audience.

FRANK J. OTERI: To get back to John Adams, a second, because he would be somebody I would think most people would agree writes pretty accessible music, in general. There’s a statistic that’s been floating around the country for a number of years now that he’s the most widely played living American composer. It’s interesting because there’s no John Adams on the season next year.

SIMON WOODS: We’ve played an awful lot of John Adams this year. We played Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Harmonium, Century Rolls—his new concerto for Emanuel Ax…

JOSEPH H. KLUGER: … and he conducted for a week.

SIMON WOODS: So he’s by no means under-represented with us.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s good to give other people a chance this coming season. Let’s take it away from American repertoire for a moment. You’re doing the Górecki Third Symphony this season, and it’s a premiere for Philadelphia. You’ve never done the work before. But this is a work that’s been immensely popular and brought a huge new audience to symphonic music. Lots of people bought this who would never buy a recording of a symphony. This was on the best-selling charts on Billboard; it even hit the pop chart in England at some point.

JOSEPH H. KLUGER: We were particularly pleased because after we made a list of works we thought should be on the season, we went to Maestro Sawallisch and asked him which of the works he wanted to conduct, and he chose the Górecki…

SIMON WOODS: …to acknowledge the importance of this work by deciding he wanted to do it himself was very pleasing.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s interesting because the Philadelphia Orchestra has not had a history with Górecki’s Third. It was not a work that the Philadelphia Orchestra gave the world premiere of or even the American premiere of. So what was the justification for programming it?

SIMON WOODS: If you think about the sound of that piece and you think about the sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra, you’ll have your answer.

FRANK J. OTERI: So it was purely aesthetics. Well, we can definitely appreciate that.

SIMON WOODS: Well, I don’t know that it was purely aesthetics. I think having that piece played by this orchestra is kind of a dream, really.

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