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Friday, August 26, 2011

Anybody remember the 20th century?

I posted the original version of this in my personal blog about my life and work as a (primarily orchestral) trombone player and teacher.


The Bard Festival is a great annual event, doing tremendous service to the larger musical community by bringing attention to a single composer, giving a fantastic survey of his (or her…at some point) work and its context. Reading the review of this year’s festival, featuring Jean Sibelius, in The New York Times, I was reminded of a thought that has occurred to me several times over the last couple of years – sometimes in the form of a late-night rant over fine single-malt scotch, complete with my fist pounding on the table (by the way, anybody who would like to see me get past my normal even keel should give me scotch and get me talking about orchestra programming or baseball television rights).

Orchestras are often accused of ignoring today’s composers, slipping into irrelevance by losing touch with contemporary music, but it seems to me that the problem with orchestra programming starts before that. I don’t have any documentary evidence to back up this assertion, but my distinct sense is that when I was in school and then beginning my career as a professional orchestral musician, the orchestras I played in performed a wider range of music by a wider range of composers – particularly from the 20th century – than they do now. I can’t remember the last time I saw a Vaughan Williams symphony programmed anywhere, and anybody who thinks Vaughan Williams is just “The Lark Ascending” and pastoral English folk song settings should take a listen to his fourth symphony.

The Bard Festival does a wonderful job of highlighting the less well-known works of well-known composers, and it should be an example to orchestras all over the world. When was the last time you heard a Sibelius symphony other than 2 or 5? When was the last time you heard a Shostakovich symphony other than 5, 10, or just maybe 7? Anything by Elgar other than the Cello Concerto or the Enigma Variations? Prokofiev wrote 7 symphonies and a number of other spectacularly exciting orchestral works besides the music to Romeo and Juliet. There was a time when the fantastic string concertos of William Walton were in the regular rotations of soloists and orchestras, and I even see much less Bartok and Hindemith than I used to.

Among American composers, Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland have remained in the repertoire, but for a very narrow representation of their output. I have been lucky to play a couple of marvelous symphonies by Roy Harris, and every time I hear a symphonic work by his American contemporaries such as Walter Piston and Howard Hanson, I am impressed with the boldness and muscularity of the mid-20th century American symphonic style.

I don’t think any of this music is neglected because it’s not up to the quality of Tchaikovsky and Brahms; there is a tremendous amount of exciting music that people should have the opportunity to hear, and it’s left off of orchestra seasons simply because it represents a risk. I contend that this kind of risk avoidance has contributed significantly to the perceived irrelevance of orchestras in the United States. Furthermore, we seem to think orchestral audiences are so resistant to anything they don’t know that their attention span for new music can’t extend beyond about 12 minutes. Maybe the breadth of a full-scale symphonic form should be reserved for the most highly accomplished composers, but very few new symphonies are presented, in favor of overtures and other shorter works.

Kudos to the Boston Symphony for programming John Harbison’s fifth symphony again (I was fortunate to play the premiere), along with the premiere of his sixth. Kudos to Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony for their ongoing American Mavericks series. Kudos to the LA Phil for its ongoing relationship with John Adams and the New York Philharmonic for making big, important news by programming such ambitious works as Ligeti’s Le Grande Macabre and Stockhausen’s Gruppen. Kudos to the David Alan Miller and the Albany (NY) Symphony – where I am privileged to play often – for continually putting new music in front of their audience and playing it with such conviction and excitement.

It’s time for more of the smaller orchestras to get on board and be just as relevant to the larger musical culture and their own communities – not by pandering or guessing what will keep the audiences coming in the door based on surveys and focus groups, but by taking leadership roles in our ongoing cultural conversation.


The Times’ follow-up article on the Bard Festival makes the point even more strongly that music has context, and smart programming makes it that much more enjoyable. And furthermore, that WHAT you play is even more important than HOW you play.

Also, I was reminded, during an online discussion of this subject, that another barrier to programming is rental fees from music publishers, which can add up to quite a lot for an orchestra with a smaller budget. Music that is in the public domain is much less expensive to program for this reason. Nobody is served particularly well by the current system, and it has to change.

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