Friday, November 02, 2007

Is the Oregon Symphony broken?

From Crosscut Seattle comes an interesting article on the current state of the Oregon Symphony.  The article makes a number of claims, one of them being the symphony is no longer the premiere cultural institution in Portland.  The author also laments the orchestra is $2.0 million in the red and apparently is losing its audience.  He doesn't take to Carlos Kalmar and looks fondly at the James DePriest years.  Yet, through all of the pessimism he notes that the orchestra sounds better than ever. 

His solution to strained budgets and waning audience interest?  Program the spikey, unfriendly music of Charles Ives.  Obviously, this a gross simplification.  The full quote from the article is as follows:

"It would be unfair to expect the Oregon Symphony to offer innovative programming ideas and commissioning projects in the way Michael Tilson Thomas has done in San Francisco, or Esa Pekka-Salonen in Los Angeles, or James Levine in Boston. But regional orchestras with budgets much smaller than Oregon's are producing fresh, inventive programs. The South Dakota Symphony regularly programs adventurous new music alongside established classics: a recent concert paired Beethoven's Third Symphony with American composer Lowell Liebermann's Third Piano Concerto, a new work from 2006. The San Antonio Symphony's programs this year include a commissioned world premiere, as well as works from American composers including Charles Ives, John Corigiliano, John Adams, and the young Gabriela Frank."

I personally don't think a dose of "new music" is the cure for the orchestra blues.  When my hometown orchestra picked a music director who championed music by contemporary composers(including at least one new work in every concert): Ives, Tower, Rouse, and others, the audience thinned out considerably.  Contemporary music is certainly of interest to some of us, but by and large, most people like to hear Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms.  I think this is true for people exploring classical music for the very first time as well.   

I can only speak to my own experience, but when I began listening to serious music ten years ago I didn't start out by grabbing the first Stockhausen cd I could get my hands on.  Nope, I stuck with Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Handel, etc.  Ten years on I am still attending concerts and recitals with regularity, and while I am sometimes bored at the thought of hearing Beethoven's fifth symphony yet again, I have to remind myself the Seattle Symphony doesn't exist for me alone.  I take great joy in the normally unheard masterpieces Schwarz programs, but can't bring myself to condemn the orchestra because they aren't hurling all Carter concerts at the audience.  People may disagree with me on this, but there is still a lot left to be heard in Beethoven's nine symphonies.  For me, Beethoven may not be draw, but what about the high school student who stumbles upon Beethoven's seventh symphony and can't help but be drawn to its captivating pulse? 

On the same note, the orchestra deserves credit for programming Adams and MacMillan.  Both are among today's most important living composers.   

Of course, there is also the critique that Kalmar doesn't spend much time in Portland and that fact has resulted in a less prominent orchestra.  Maybe.  I think a music director's charisma, commitment to the city, or lack thereof can only be partially to blame.  There is no doubt, that the right music director can generate considerable interest in an orchestra.  We only need to look at Baltimore and Marin Alsop for that. 

I think an argument can be made that an orchestra can thrive with a music director who is absent from the community.  A good example is Chicago.  Operating without a permanent music director, the orchestra has managed to thrive in the post-Barenboim years with the duo of Haitink and Boulez.

With the good music making that is going on in Seattle, Portland, Chicago, New York, Atlanta and elsewhere its hard for me to lay the success or failure of classical music at the feet of the cultural institutions.  I don't care how much Ives, Adams, or Corigliano is on the program, if children don't know who Beethoven is and adults continue to believe you have to be a musicologist to enjoy classical music, classical music and orchestras will comfortably remain on the fringes.   


Unknown said...

The problem is just randomly mixing contemporary in with the standard rep. It alienates the people who really do just want to hear Beethoven, and many of the people who are excited about contemporary music don't want to pay a lot of money and sit through 2 hours of standard rep to hear 15 minutes of new music which may or may not be good.

So, program a new music concert, and see how it plays. If you can't develop the audience in your big concert hall, do chamber music (cheaper!) in a smaller space.

Jeffrey Biegel said...

I notice the inclusion above of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra programming Lowell Liebermann's Third Concerto, written for me. Before Delta David Gier arrived as Music Director of the South Dakota Symphony, the SDSO did not program as much new music as they do presently. David introduced new music during his first season by including a work by a Pulitzer Prize composer for each concert of the season. This allowed him to bring the South Dakota Symphony into the Liebermann project, and introduced new music to the audiences in a slow progression. We are now exploring having the South Dakota Symphony in the 2010-11 William Bolcom 'Choral Fantasy' project for piano, orchestra and chorus. The Oregon Symphony is one that Mr. Bolcom suggested to me with my project team, and they are indeed aware of the project. They have included new music in concert, and I have heard fine things about their progress under the baton of Maestro Kalmar. I also believe that it is not just the Music Director's presence that makes or breaks an orchestra, but the community support, and the internal groups of people that stir activity and enthusiasm in the organization. Volunteers, Women's Leagues, Visiting Guest Artists throughout the community, etc, are what keep the spirit of the organization in motion. Although I have not yet been a guest artist of the Oregon Symphony, (though hope to be sometime soon), they have a national presence and high reputation and it is the hope of many that they will progress as time moves forward. Of course, one cannot deny that we live in the 21st century, and what was new music 20-30 years ago will inevitably be accepted in the standard repertoire during the course of this century--providing it is accessible and audience-friendly music.

Anonymous said...

The author failed to include the fact that, in addition to the standard rep and a novelty here and there, the absence of world-class soloists (aka stars) with the Oregon (and others) is contributing to the decline. Personally I couldn't get paid to hear an unkown, provincial newbie. Sorry. Where are Anna Netrebko, Renee Fleming, Cheryl Studer, Angela Gheorghiu, for example and to stick with renowned sopranos, in the Oregon programs?