What Should Be vs. What Can Be
12 Jan 2012
Inside the Classics

Last weekend, the Minnesota Orchestra stood on our stage alongside six talented young composers and applauded the incredibly diverse, exciting, and new sounds they had brought to the culminating concert of our 11th annual Composer Institute. Members of the audience (which looked to be around 1200 strong) who I spoke to afterwards were almost blissfully excited by what they’d heard, and eager to tell me how much they appreciated the orchestra’s willingness to undertake such an event. There were huge smiles throughout the evening all around the hall, and the audience, which crossed all age levels, was genuinely engaged by both the music and the composers’ personalities as they were each interviewed for Minnesota Public Radio’s live broadcast of the event.

I expect much the same experience for the premiere of Judd’s MicroCommission piece in March, and for that matter, I’m hoping that we manage to extract a similar level of engagement and enthusiasm for our Inside the Classics concerts later this month, which will use the music of John Adams as a jumping off point for a broader discussion of where American concert music has been going over the last half-century or so. Plenty of past experience has suggested to me that, presented in an engaging and entertaining way, new music is anything but audience repellant.


I know. There shouldn’t need to be a “but” in this discussion. That should be the end of it – I’ve just presented a solid case that orchestras should quit shying away from new music, that we need to be engaging with contemporary composers and bringing them the exposure they need to be embraced by the wider world. Hell, I wrote a massive 3-part series of posts last spring outlining exactly how I think we as an industry should start doing this. Why does there need to be a “but” at the end of this?

Well, because of Zachary Woolfe. Woolfe is a talented music writer who has emerged as quite the advocate for new music in the last couple of years. He writes regularly for the New York Times, the New York Observer, and probably a hundred other publications I don’t know about. I like his writing, I follow his Twitter feed, and I agree with a lot of what he has to say about new music.

Having said all that, Woolfe leveled a blistering attack at the New York Philharmonic (and its music director, Alan Gilbert) in the pages of the Times this past week that went seriously off the rails and became a hatchet job when it could have been something far more constructive. Early on in the piece, which was written as a reaction to Gilbert having recently received an award for commitment to new music, Woolfe sounded the usual alarms that have become de rigeur among new music partisans who can’t believe that symphony orchestras in the 21st century still build our seasons around Beethoven and Brahms:

“No one advocates precise allotments of contemporary music. (Maybe people should.) All we want is an orchestra that is genuinely engaged in its city and culture. A sustained, all-out dedication to new music is a necessity to keep the Philharmonic from becoming an exercise in nostalgia.”

Fair enough, I guess, though every one of those sentences is highly debatable if you want to start defining terms like “city and culture,” or discussing just how much of the culture that Americans choose to consume could be defined as “an exercise in nostalgia.” Still, I’m more or less on Woolfe’s side at this point. He goes on to make specific criticisms of a couple of the Phil’s less-daring programming choices that get trumpeted as showcases for “contemporary” music even when they’re plainly not. I’m still with him.

But then, just when I’m waiting to hear Woolfe’s grand solution to the eternal conundrum of how you a) program new music alongside the classics on a regular basis, while b) also maintaining a solid track record of helping younger and perhaps less broad-based composers get their music heard, and c) convince huge numbers of people in your city to support all this with their ticket-buying dollars and donations…

…he cops out. No, that’s too vague a description. He completely, utterly, without the slightest hint of sheepishness, abdicates all responsibility for establishing a real world case for his rant. Here’s one of the final paragraphs:

“I understand what Mr. Gilbert means when he speaks of wanting to avoid a sense of responsibility in an endeavor that should be approached with enthusiasm rather than obligation. And I recognize the myriad difficulties of creating a season and the many constituencies he must try to please.”

He understands nothing of the sort, or he wouldn’t be content to devote all those column inches to a screed on the Phil’s artistic obligations, only to duck out of the argument the moment that his ideas actually have to acquire a grounding in the fundamental fiscal realities of running a symphony orchestra that employs hundreds of actual people. The only attempt he makes to establish that his vision for a new music-heavy orchestral future is even remotely possible is the now-clich├ęd weak feint in the direction of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Look, I’d love to believe that Woolfe’s demands regarding new music could be met by today’s symphony orchestras, and the moment I see a concrete plan for implementing them, I’ll be right behind him, shouting to the rooftops about it. But there is no such plan, and it’s not the New York Phil’s fault that there isn’t. From what I can tell from 1200 miles away, the Phil is making quite an effort to make new music a part of what they do, but I will tell you from personal experience: it is not nearly as easy as those outside the orchestra world love to make it sound.

That Composer Institute concert I wrote about at the top? The one that drew something like 1200 people? We’ve been promoting the hell out of that for five years now, and it still draws around 1200 every year. For a one-off performance on a Friday night, with most tickets selling for way less than we charge for Beethoven, in a hall that seats 2450. Those ItC concerts I mentioned? With 2/3 of our series for the year built around 21st-century music? I couldn’t be more excited about them, but they won’t come close to selling the way our Dvorak/Ravel/Stravinsky season sold last year.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that Zachary Woolfe should stop nagging the NY Phil (or any other orchestra) about deepening their commitment to composers living and working today. I’m not saying that it’s his responsibility to write a business plan for every idea he wants to throw out on the table.

But sometimes, Horatio, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. When you close a generally well-argued treatise by implying that all this would be possible if everyone else in the music world would just work at it a little, you undermine your entire argument. We’re working really hard. I promise you we are. But there are a million little “myriad difficulties” working against us every single day, and no, Mr. Woolfe, you haven’t begun to recognize them.

<February 2020>

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