EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of the Boston Symphony Orchestra who published it in their program book and retain its copyright.
Last April I had the opportunity to perform Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) at Symphony Hall and on its spring European tour. The ninety-minute symphony is a challenge both for the musicians and audience. Its relentless intensity and extended tonality keep it always outside the edge of our aural comfort zone, especially compared to the facile lyricism of a Tchaikovsky or Dvorák. When the Symphony Hall performance ended and the musicians stood up to take our bows, I looked out into the audience. There usually is enough light in the hall to see the faces of concertgoers applauding, at least near the stage. Their expressions are a good gauge of how much they enjoyed the concert.
What I saw was more than gratifying. Not only was it clear the performance had been deeply appreciated, I was pleasantly surprised to see a fairly evenly balanced demographic division of people in their twenties and thirties, forties and fifties, and sixties and seventies. And it wasn’t just a fluke. It turned out to be the case time and time again – in Vienna, in Leipzig, in Dresden, in Luxembourg – as well as at Symphony Hall. I suppose I was surprised because there has been a drumbeat of naysayers who prophesy the doom of symphony orchestras, telling us in somber tones that only rich, old folks go to concerts these days. I’m sorry, but that’s not how I’ve seen things. Is there a greater preponderance of older people attending symphony concerts than rock concerts? No doubt. But no one seems to worry about Justin Bieber’s future simply because his audience is severely limited to teeny-boppers. And to the notion that symphonies have priced themselves out of the entertainment market: going to a symphony concert is no more expensive than the average ticket for a Red Sox game, and a lot less than a box seat. So if you can afford to sit in the bleachers and polish off a Fenway frank and a Samuel Adams, you can afford the Boston Symphony.
A prevailing narrative, promulgated, amazingly enough, by some symphony orchestras’ own administrations (though fortunately not the BSO’s), runs like this: (A) Symphony orchestras are in dire trouble. (B) The traditional symphonic format – the repertoire, the two-hour concert, the white-tie-and-tails, the formidable concert hall – is no longer relevant to contemporary society. (C) For the concert experience to be meaningful, and therefore in order for orchestras to survive, it has to connect with a more diverse local community and compete more actively in the entertainment arena. The proposed solution: Orchestras need to jettison the “standard” repertoire and create new formats in less formal, more personalized settings that will attract a more contemporary crowd.
In other words, symphony orchestras should cool it with the symphonies. Otherwise, we might as well pack our bags and go home. I admit I’m exaggerating the argument, but not by much. Nevertheless, I find this narrative not only to be frightening, considering that the source of it is often the organization itself, but also flawed. First, I don’t see that orchestras are on the verge of extinction. On the contrary. People who make this argument are myopically fixated on only the top tier of professional symphony orchestras, and even in this regard it’s somewhat of a fiction.
There is no doubt that, as is the case with most nonprofits, raising money is a nonstop challenge. When economic times are tough, orchestras struggle. (Yes, there are some orchestras that continue to struggle regardless of the economy, and some have tragically shut their doors, but in general when times get better, orchestras rebound.) In other words, they’re like any other business. We don’t write off the retail industry when Sears hits the skids. Why would we do that with orchestras? And don’t forget that during the supposed “golden age” of American symphony orchestras in the 1930s and ’40s, when radio stations like NBC supported their own magnificent in-house orchestras and even movie theaters had their own live musicians, there were comparatively few orchestras that provided anything close to a year-round concert schedule and full-time employment for the musicians, let alone health care and retirement benefits.
Going beyond fully professional orchestras, when you look how deeply embedded the culture of symphonic music is in American society, including hundreds of semiprofessional, community, youth, college, festival, and school orchestras, a strong case can be made that symphony orchestras have never been healthier. The same week that I played the Mahler with the Boston Symphony at Symphony Hall, I performed as a soloist with the Long Island Youth Orchestra, which was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary!
The same week I played the Mahler at Tanglewood, I coached the string section of the all-amateur Stockbridge Sinfonia for their well-attended annual concert. Going beyond our own shores, the explosion of symphonic music in Asia and South America over the past half-century has been nothing short of mind-boggling. Even if classical music in the U.S. and Europe were suddenly to cease tomorrow, the future of orchestral music would still shine brightly around the world.
And you know what music everyone’s playing? Mozart and Beethoven, Mahler and Strauss, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy and Ravel. You know why? It’s simple: they composed great music. Musicians love to play it and audiences love to hear it. So far, no one has tired of gawking at the Mona Lisa or the statue of David. Why should listening to Beethoven’s Fifth be any different? Should symphony orchestras program more music of contemporary, ethnically diverse composers? Absolutely! If it’s worthy music, by all means. But it’s ass backwards if the motivation is out of fear that
otherwise symphony orchestras will die.
But what about the format? The presentation? What about those stuffy concert halls where you have to sit quietly for two hours and not use your cell phones? Isn’t there a better way to connect with the community? Outreach and education activities are great, especially considering the dwindling funding of public school music education. The more the better. But how can such activities “save the symphony” if at the same time the raison d’être – playing symphonies – is devalued by the very organizations trying to “save” it? What would the purpose be of such efforts? If a group of symphony musicians playing Piazzolla tangos in a pub floats their boat, that’s great. That would be a lot of fun. Go for it! Getting to know the musicians up close and personal is a wonderful way for the public to connect. And maybe it would eventually attract some people to go to a real symphony concert. (Personally, when I’m at a pub, I’d rather watch a ball game while I’m drinking my Rolling Rock than listen to string quartets. But, hey, that’s just me.)
But here’s the problem. Outreach has its limits. It’s a challenge to play Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony in a bar. I’m not sure how you’d squeeze all those brass players in there. Maybe behind the pool tables. At some point it comes back to concert halls. Symphony orchestras have no choice but to play symphonies in concert halls. And you know what? Some people think it’s very special to go to a concert hall. In fact, a lot of people feel that way. It gives them a sense of being part of something unique and special. Maybe that’s why they’ve kept coming for three hundred years. We are fortunate that the Boston Symphony was founded upon that principle and has steadfastly maintained it to this day.
In this day and age when we’re surrounded by external stimuli 24/7, when our world view is reduced to a two-by-four-inch cell phone screen, when our computerized existence frames us into thinking and feeling and responding in nanoseconds, the appeal of two hours in an impressively expansive and comfortable concert hall, listening to an engaging Rossini overture, a sublime Mozart piano concerto, and a heartwarming Brahms symphony may actually be something that people are more inclined to enjoy more now than ever before. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the death of the symphony orchestra have been greatly exaggerated.