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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Gazing into the Crystal Ball

Catching up on my reading this weekend, I just read the New York Times article "Tested Out Upstate: Classicals's Future," by Zachary Woolfe. The article begins with the demise of the Syracuse Symphony, and a look at what three other upstate New York orchestras, Rochester, Buffalo, and Albany, are doing to remain viable. As the mother of an aspiring orchestra musician, as well as a lifelong classical music lover, the future of classical music is of great interest to me.

The beautiful Eastman Theater, where the Rochester Philharmonic plays
What are these orchestras doing? Much more outreach, more popular music, more themed concerts. The Chicago Symphony is doing all of these things, too, but on a more secure footing financially. The CSO has movie nights, where the orchestra plays the sound track to movies like Casablanca and audiences watch and listen. The Beyond the Score concerts take a multi-media look and one work per concert. There are concerts with receptions after them, aimed at younger concert-goers. The current themed concerts are "Truth to Power," a series on Soviet composers.

Some musicians and music lovers worry that some of the efforts to bring in ticket buyers waters down the mission of classical music. If we're playing and listening to movie music or Disney tunes or a crossover concert, is that destroying the essence of a symphony orchestra? Or is it simply a way to bring in needed ticket revenue? It probably depends on how much time is devoted to these ventures and how the orchestra handles them. Musicians have always had to play some "popular" music, though, along with the standard repertoire.

The Albany Symphony has the most radical solution and now hires its musicians on a per service basis, saving the orchestra money. This is certainly not ideal for the musicians who are now more like freelancers, working a number of jobs without the benefits of full-time employment. This situation is similar to that of "adjunct" teachers at colleges, who make much less than full-time professors and have no job security or benefits, such as health insurance, through work.

European orchestras don't have these problems. Funding for classical music seems to be a priority there. The Vienna Philharmonic has double sections of players because they also play the Vienna Opera, and there is something like a ten year wait for subscriptions to the Philharmonic concert series. I know, there are significant cultural differences between Europe and the U.S.

A comforting thought from Zachary Woolfe is that classical music has pretty much always been in trouble. Every new technology, from the grand piano to the Internet and iTunes, has been seen as a threat. This issue of new technology threatening the valuable aspects of the status quo is not new or limited to music. A wonderful book about about this phenomenon is Hamlet's Blackberry, by William Powers. From the invention of written text, which threatened the oral tradition, to our current struggles with technology, change and the resulting upset are a constant in human existence. The title refers to a new tech tool in the 16th century, called a table in the play. This table was an erasable device, called a table book or writing table. It had coated pages that could be written on and then erased with a sponge quite an innovation in 1590. Hamlet refers to it several times in the play.

What does all this mean for young musicians like my daughter and her friends? They will need to think creatively and be flexible. Musicians are looking for new venues and ways to bring classical music to audiences. Shuffle concert in New York City presents audiences with a list a possible pieces, then randomly calls on audience members to choose the next piece. I recently wrote about 42nd Parallel, the new conductorless orchestra in Chicago. Concerts are being presented in places other than concert halls, including London pubs, and bars and cafes in U.S. cities. Interestingly, in Johann Sebastian Bach's lifetime there were no concerts as we have today, music mostly taking place in the church or the home. But, he did have some secular cantatas performed at coffee shops.

I love going to the symphony and other music performances. I am hopeful that our great symphonies and opera companies will continue and be strong, but I am also hopeful that new ways to connect with audiences will be successful, without "dumbing down" the music.

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