A Case for Quality

Utah Symphony Orchestra

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.

About the Author

A former violinist with the Boston Symphony and longtime associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony, Gerald Elias has performed on five continents as violinist, conductor, composer, and teacher. Since 2004 he has been music director of the Vivaldi by Candlelight concerts in Salt Lake City, and continues to perform with the Boston Symphony at their Tanglewood summer festival. He was first violin of the Abramyan String Quartet from 1993-2003 and has been a faculty member of the University of Utah School of Music since 1989. An award-winning author, Gerald Elias’s “Daniel Jacobus” mystery series takes place in the dark corners of the classical music world and has won extensive critical praise. His debut novel, “Devil’s Trill,” was a 2009 Barnes & Noble “Discover: Great New Writers” selection and was recently released as a unique audio book, with music performed by Elias, by Alison Larkin Presents, and declared by AudioFile to be “a solid mystery.” His short stories, provocative essays, and reviews have graced a growing number of diverse and distinguished anthologies and online journals, from Ellery Queen Magazine to Opera magazine.
*                *                *


  • A great read. So much to agree with.

    One point worth highlighting comes at the very end, “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.” This alone is perhaps the single biggest growth market for the orchestra: the art of the escape. “The world is high-pressure!” one might say, with “professional commitments, family responsibilities, and so many deadlines! And when I try to take a quick break on Facebook, it’s mostly politics these days!” To be free of mundane monotony is to find the sublime. Two hours listening to Brahms, phone off, is a ticket to paradise. This should be obvious to virtually anyone. We just have to leverage it far better than we are doing. And the best part is, this can coexist alongside “tweet seats” and other tech-forward concepts in the concert hall.

    One thing that deserves more attention, perhaps in the essay, and certainly by all of us, is whither diversity. To what end? It seems clear to me that the reason is simply because there are genius composers of every race, gender, religion and creed, and for reasons of european cultural misdeeds vis-a-vis millennia of rampant white patriarchy, those other voices have been sidelined. We must now, once and for all, set ourselves about making the resources of the orchestra available to brilliant composers of color, female composers, and composers outside of western countries, so that the richness of their musical ideas can, in turn, become a resource to orchestras and audiences. Much progress has been made in this department! Brian Lauritzen recently pointed out the following in a tweet:

    “The New York Philharmonic just announced its 2017-18 season. Music by 41 composers.

    Men: 40
    Women: 1
    Dead: 35
    Alive: 6”

    Source: https://twitter.com/briankusc/status/829471637137354752

    Does this look right to us? And I don’t ask that rhetorically, I genuinely want to know. Even controlling for historical under-representation of the above groups (something we can’t do too much about now), we still see that among the 6 living composers, only 1 is a woman. We can’t go back and criticize Gustav Mahler and ask him to let Alma’s talent be fostered as well. Nor can we the famous Madams Mendelssohn or Schumann. The music of the past will, for better or worse, continue to be dominated by men. But I believe that we can certainly move ahead with something better than what we see in the New York Philharmonic’s stats.

    Here’s the good news: I think it works out that the orchestras will end up playing better music as a result. It’s a win-win that I think we should all commit to pursuing to the highest degree possible.

    • You assume you are writing freely among friends. But I am old and not so easily persuaded.

      Let us revise our libraries, both the (less popular) book sections and the (more popular) video sections. Half the authors and directors will be women. Anything violating this will be trucked to my library.

      Let’s go to the museums. Half the paintings will be by women. Remove to my gallery any paintings by men that exceed the 50/50 portion.

      Let’s got the symphony orchestra. Half, no more, of the strings, must be women. That includes bassists. Half the woodwinds and half the brass must be women. Effective immediately. Any shortfalls will mean affected works will be dropped from the season schedule. Excess women and/or men will be sent to my new orchestra.

      You perhaps are impatient to change the world. Like a soviet commissar. Cheers!

  • It is really good to hear, amidst the rumblings in the field, good news about orchestras, and it seems definitely wise to understand that at the core, the art form is probably tougher than much critique and doom mongering may suggest. Yet, apart from the structural and relatively ‘normal’ dependency of the orchestra upon what happens in the economic field outside the concert hall, for the first time ever (!) there is heard the voices from both the direction of the masses who have no interest in classical music, and from some academic corners where particular postmodern philosophies have become quite popular, claiming that classical music is ‘outdated’ and has become ‘irrelevant’. These claims are meanwhile well-known: classical music, and especially its flagship: the orchestra as an institution, is supposedly no longer compatible with modern times, and that it is elitist, exclusive (in the negative sense of the word), and an unfair drain on the public purse (in Europe). Such critique upon one of Western society’s own cultural institutions from within, so to speak, has never happened before and it is worrying because it appears that in Europe, politicians sometimes lend an ear to such voices, which may offer them political leverage in a climate with a rising populism and indignation about unfair distribution of wealth throughout society.

    Therefore, I would like to advocate confidence in the art form together with vigilance about critique, and an imaginative exploration of refutation of such critique. This problem – since it is, after all, a real problem, which may not as yet be general but potentionally dangerous in the long run – touches deep collective sentiments about culture, identity, fairness and accessibility. We can see all around us today how quickly parameters in society and in politics can shift and suddenly create an entirely new situation…. we better be prepared.

  • I find their is a paradox to almost any situation. There are always opposing perspectives present, and taking one side may be counterproductive to progress (assuming progress is what we want). The music we identify with is certainly deeply emotional for both those who play it and those who avoid it. So as a symphony musician, I want to perform with European excellence for our knowledgeable audiences in our concert sanctuaries. But I ALSO want to connect this same music with those who avoid our concerts, and find it takes a different kind of excellence: let’s call it “Americanizing.” Naturally, it requires a lot more work and strategic compromises. Thinking of this as “right or wrong” depends on our choices, and a choice is not a fact, because we can always change our mind (and often do, if only for a second to weigh our options).

    I accept that one very good reason to hold fast onto a traditional opinion of excellence is to avoid further work: it is hard enough just to maintain and improve our skills for a major orchestra. But there are other stages available, recently opened outside our “church” (thanks to smoking bans), where our artistic skills can make a difference over time. Here the art of compromise (arrangements, noisy clubs, amplification, participation) ALSO serves this music so that it might belong to a broader humanity. This is a “mission” that runs on volunteerism, openness and grants, and is the flip side of the same coin of classical music.

    • Agreed with all of that, but isn’t there the danger that classical music is ‘sold’ as something that it is not? Lowering the treshold is something different from removing the staircase. It often appears that it is not the nature of the music which creates barriers, but the ‘cult’ around it which to many people comes across as unwelcoming. In a time where the ‘casual’ is the new conformism, ‘decorum’ is looked upon as ‘the enemy’. Ony education can prick through such silly projections.

      • Yes John, that can be viewed as the danger, as you and many others choose to see it. My emphasis, my choice, the paradox, is to see that aggressively “selling” classical, and esp. symphonic music (which, almost by definition, cannot be presented intimately, unless “reduced” to chamber music), in such ways that persons who avoid it anyway might discover some value, starting at a SURFACE level. You and I know the “cult” is often neutral, and can be “cold” to newcomers (esp. if they dress subpar). The concert experience– being at once so far removed from a rock concert in some ways (featuring silence, meditative listening, extreme contrasts, rewarding of patience and study), and LIKE a rock concert in other ways (true believers in a large hall full of strangers)– this is paradoxical, for THEM.

        If the harm of creating additional presentation styles (adaptations, abridged versions, adding a beat) is that it devalues classical music even for the veterans and musicians who don’t wish to attend such events, then the concepts of “public domain” and universality are actually FALSE, as was my career, because I’m not of European decent. In this universe of possibilities, I see there is room and time to master both traditional and non-traditional. That there is this regrettable popular “resistance” to lifelong “education”, to me means there is a burning need for artistic teaching that does not SEEM so. “Info-tainment” in classical music asks: What key information (metaphors, non-verbal cues, mentioning “tension and release in a series of waves that climax”) will draw the newcomer instantly into the musicians’ unification INSIDE the music? What bridging elements can we use to establish this connection?

        Getting past “dumbing down” may just be the “smartening up” the American symphony industry desperately needs. When we adapt music for kids, we call it education. Why is it not alright for curious adults? Is this a double standard?

  • I think the early comment about the ‘facile lyricism of a Tchaikovsky or Dvorák’ is unhelpful, and in fact not supported by the rest of the essay. Lyricism need not be facile, and I don’t think it is in those composers. The lyric impulse is profound in its own way and importantly people connect with it. Otherwise, I agree with many of the points above. The concert hall has not yet got to grips with the many and diverse excellent symphonies written in the C20th.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

*                *                *