Discussing about music in the 21st Century is always provoking, especially with today’s advancement of technology that enable us to create various new possibilities, either in the music making process or in how we present the music to the audience.
However, what if we talk about music as a “Force”, in terms of emotional/spiritual (healing, source of inspiration, etc), or social/politics (social interaction, value alteration, etc) in certain society. Is it already changing? Is it moving toward progression or degression? Talking about it is forbidden or considered as taboo in some communities. In Indonesia for example, many musicians, actors in music industry and the public regard music only as a trade commodity.
Consider for example the case of Opera in the 21st Century. As Alan Gilbert argues eloquently in the article below, the (Classical, Symphonic) Orchestra format is currently facing some significant challenges in today’s Age of Globalized Information Technology. One cannot deny the importance of keeping Western Classical Music alive in its Symphonic format, played by tens, dozens even hundreds of people with multiple instruments under the lead of a Conductor in realtime, coordinated performance. But getting people to keep supporting symphonic orchestras (by the act of regularly attending orchestra performances)—especially of symphonic performances that challenge both the Old and the New, while faced with contemporary high-fidelity sound streamed from YouTube and other places, never mind played in Dolby 5.1 Digital Surround at home theaters—requires hard-thinking and realized-action.
Art is born out of context and culture, responding to a certain community. We also believe that the purpose of becoming an artist is not only to make a living, but they carry a responsibility and have an important role in life, even making an impact in society. So, let’s contribute in art development, for the sake of humanity; as the appreciator, creator or artist.
(FZ, TP, PP)
Orchestras in the 21st Century – a new paradigm
by Alan Gilbert [The Guardian, April 15, 2015]
Music helps to define what it means to be human, and orchestras will continue to do what we have always done: play powerful, intriguing, uplifting, thought-provoking music. But the challenges facing people in today’s world call for something new in the way that music and musicians can touch people’s lives on all levels: emotionally and spiritually, of course, but also socially, psychologically. What orchestras can be for their audiences is changing, and that actually presents a wonderful opportunity for us to grow. The new generation of emerging orchestra musicians and conductors can approach things with an optimism that is unburdened by any sense of historical limitation. Music has an eternal power to move us, and increasingly, schools and professional music groups are embracing the new role that musicians can fill in touching people’s lives both in and out of the concert hall.
The New York Philharmonic recently gave a world premier performance of John Adams’ new symphonic violin concerto with Leila Josephowicz, truly a force of nature on stage. There was a palpable shared concentration in the room —you can tell when an audience of thousands is really with you because there is a wonderful charged quiet that has an inspired power to it. Something that could only happen live.
This kind of transcendent happening is why people go, and have always gone, to concerts. They want to feel a deep connection with the music, and with the performers, as well as with each other in the audience. Increasingly, though, these connections can happen outside of the concert hall, and in fact you don’t need to get anywhere near a live performer to experience an incredibly wide offering of musical treasures. You hear a lot of discussion about the primacy of new ways of delivering ‘live’ music: the importance of internet connectivity, social media, you-tube, live-streamed concerts, Netflix, you name it. No new concert hall is planned these days without thinking about how events could be filmed and captured for digital dissemination.
There is nothing wrong with this. But the reality of this new media landscape has become one of challenge for orchestras and performing arts organizations. Concert tickets are expensive, instant-gratification choices for entertainment are myriad and a click or two away—and again, while no one is calling for an end to live performance, it is feeling more and more necessary to sharpen our sense of purpose and implicitly to define and justify our very existence.
The last few decades have seen orchestras become involved in an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink range of activities, apparently designed to draw people in. Non-traditional programming, casual concerts, film nights, singles events, education, community outreach, open rehearsals – the list could go on and on.
Many of these activities are powerful and very worthwhile. The problem has been that as orchestras are involved in more and more areas, it is often not clear why they are doing what they are doing, When it does not connect to the core of the organization, you start to wonder what the point is.
This has led to an industry-wide existential soul-searching in which at least some forces have pushed back, not wanting to see their beloved old-world musical traditions altered. It’s a seismic shift that has led to two competing choruses: “Things must change” and “things must stay the same”. However it’s also an artificial conflict: the key is how to bring about change without compromising our artistic souls.
The growing challenge of connecting the dots between all aspects of an orchestra’s work, and achieving a clarity of profile and mission is greater than ever. The potential for music and orchestras to be a significant force in education and even social change is now firmly established and the need to be forceful and proactive in areas of education and outreach is no longer a question of if, but how.
What is asked and expected of musicians is constantly evolving. Outstanding musicians in today’s orchestras are only doing their jobs fully when they understand and invest in their expanded portfolio that is demanded by the wider definition of what an orchestra is. I want to see orchestra musicians held up as heroes in their communities – both for their brilliance as musicians, but also for how they use that talent to touch the lives of those around them through music. People must get used to seeing musicians as the crucial agents of change in communities, as teachers, leaders and role-models.
There is, and probably should be, something mythical about what happens on stage and the people who make it happen. But if an audience does not feel the musicians’ humanity, or cannot sense a generous impulse pouring off the stage from the musicians’ open hearts, the invisible veil of the “fourth wall” will remain impenetrable. Trying to avoid this has been one of the primary motivating forces behind several projects we have done in New York.
We are consciously breaking down the traditional buttoned-up image that some people still hold of musicians on stage by giving them new roles to fill. Even such a simple idea as having orchestra musicians speak from the stage to introduce moments in a concert can be an easy way to create a real bond with the audience. This, alongside the quality and passion of the playing, is what maximizes the chance that the audience will come back for more.
For the New York Philharmonic, two productions of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, and Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, staged with the wonderfully inventive director Doug Fitch, have been fundamentally transformative, helping to create a new normal for what musicians expect to do on stage, and galvanizing staff through a different way of working. Our approach has been bold and imaginative. The irony of the Grand Macabre, which we staged in my first season as Music Director at the New York Philharmonic, is that I didn’t talk about its place in my long-range planning at the time, and that even within the Philharmonic very few people knew what they would be getting when we firmed up plans to present it.
In interviews that first year I spoke in innocuous terms about wanting to find the specific chemistry between me and the orchestra, when in fact what I wasn’t saying was that I was already hoping fundamentally to alter the way the musicians think about their jobs and the way the orchestra is perceived from the outside. I felt that I would in the long run be better served by keeping that explicit goal to myself, and by hopefully being able one day down the road simply to say, “look what has happened.”
What a relief that Le Grand Macabre was so well received – naturally I wanted it to be a success in and of itself, but even more importantly I needed it to be a success in order to pave the way for future projects. And it did: a staged Cunning Little Vixen; Magnus Lindberg’s Kraft, with its 10 stations around the hall that musicians must walk to and from in procession as the piece goes on; Philharmonic 360, an evening-long exploration of spatial music including Stockhausen’s Gruppen, that occupied the magnificent Park Avenue Armory, (just one of a number of valuable ties we have created with other New York institutions). Each one of these asked for slightly more from the musicians. In many ways they have redefined the organisation: how we interact with our audience, and the orchestra’s place in New York City’s cultural landscape. What is significant is that we are now able to reach our audiences in a new way in everything we do – even traditional concerts – because of the new lens through which we have been seen.
Of course, sometimes audience members don’t come back, and we all know of orchestras and opera companies that are struggling or have stopped operations. There are myriad reasons for this, but in many cases, there are simply not enough people in the community who care about what the orchestra provides. An alarmingly prevalent argument is to blame what is played – and in particular contemporary repertoire. You don’t hear a lot of people saying straight out that orchestras should do NO contemporary music, but there are many who say that it’s ok as long as they don’t have to hear any of it.
Some dishearteningly describe a steady diet of 19th century music as a panacea for classical music’s current challenges – there is too much music being played that people don’t want to hear.
One model was suggested to me early in my time in NY: approach it like a business and create different products for different audiences. There is some merit to this – it would be absurd to make audiences every week listen to music that clearly has limited appeal just to be perverse – and there are some examples of stand-alone initiatives that are doing extremely well: The San Francisco Symphony’s Soundbox; the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Nightshift series. I sometimes wonder if the New York Philharmonic’s Contact! New Music Series would have invited less critical questioning if it had not been burdened with people’s prejudices that come with its having been clearly branded as a NY Phil offshoot.
Then there’s what I call the “Bolero approach” to programming. In a nod to those same people who think that they don’t want to hear new stuff, go ahead and program it, but wash it down with something so enticing that they take a deep breath and go to the concert anyway. Again, not entirely stupid, but easily backfiring in the long run if the new work is shoehorned into a program that is not organically conceived, in which the not-so-subtle subliminal message is that you can “get away” with new music as long as there is something else on the program that will sell tickets.
The worst thing you can do is to program contemporary music for the wrong reasons, out of a sense of duty or whatever. What’s important is that every piece has its place in creating the maximum resonance for all the music we play and that we build a sense of mutual trust and connection with the audience. The point is never that every piece will necessarily be a masterwork that will go down in the ages, or that every audience member will love every piece we play, but that there is always a compelling motivation behind every piece’s placement, and that what we are doing for Music with a capital M makes the journey of discovery important to share.
For an orchestra such as the New York Philharmonic, well-executed ideas keep the organization in an appropriately prominent place at the center of a cultural dialogue. Each city and community needs to find the specific chemistry and unique way its orchestra can best be of service and for ideas to be brought to life with passion and quality.
It is the job of an orchestra’s leaders—its music director and administration—to identify and articulate this chemistry for the community in an unmistakable way. For these leaders, having inspired vision supported by fresh thinking is basic, but the vision has to be aligned with the actual capacities and needs of the given situation.
In recent press speculation on currently open, or about to be open, music director positions, too few of the commentators adequately consider WHAT the orchestras need. Obviously WHO is primary in importance – musical quality, charisma and artistic magic are still at the top of the list of desirable qualities in a conductor, but I believe that the ability to motivate the wider community is as necessary in order to be a viable music director. Perhaps at the larger more established orchestras it is simply tempting to think that the wider challenges that the industry faces don’t apply in the same way, that the need for forward thinking is not acute.
These historically iconic orchestras may have an aura of impregnable strength, but don’t be fooled. For these orchestras, as well as for others where the challenges have not yet revealed themselves as clearly, leaders and thinkers who bring an ambition to use new ideas and ways to connect their orchestras with their communities are of the essence. Only this will create an air of excitement and currency that invites enthusiasm and support.
I have always felt that orchestras need to position themselves within their communities as central cultural nexus – it seems obvious that meaningful and palpable ties with the communities served will only increase the impression of relevance and the base of support. And, there are wonderful and inspiring examples of orchestras that are getting it right.
In the States, the Detroit Symphony with Leonard Slatkin has done a marvellous job of coming back from the brink, and they have done it by intensely focusing on their local community. The Detroit Symphony Live Streams make all of their concerts available to anyone who has internet, and their trade agreement gives the orchestra great flexibility in what they can ask of the musicians. So, if a musician is not needed for a given concert, he or she might be asked to go into schools of nursing homes to perform.
The Louisville Orchestra is another success story that owes a lot to a dynamic and perceptive leader: the orchestra was in bankruptcy and had a major crisis of identity. Teddy Abrams, a previously unknown 27-year-old has been their Music Director for just over a year now and he has effected an amazing turnaround by introducing cutting-edge innovations informed by tremendous enthusiasm and belief in the power of music and its place in everyone’s life. The orchestra already is running a surplus, and is planning a large-scale American music festival for next season—not the type of programming you would expect from a recently struggling ensemble.
I have been impressed in the UK by the Aurora Orchestra, which has had outreach at the heart of what it does since its inception. The Manchester Camerata, shortlisted for a Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award for its “Music in Mind”, working alongside music therapists in care homes and community settings across the North West of England to conduct pioneering group sessions for Dementia sufferers and their care-givers.
All of these groups have taken honest looks at themselves and have allowed themselves to be redefined in a new way. The music making remains central, and of the utmost importance. The common thread through all of these examples is that the actual musical soul of the organisations is present in all of their initiatives – the new elements are not off to the side and separate from what the musicians bring to the equation. It seems obvious that meaningful and palpable ties with the communities served will only increase the impression of relevance and the base of support.
For an orchestra such as the New York Philharmonic, well-executed ideas keep the organization in an appropriately prominent place at the center of a cultural dialogue and I hope you don’t mind my pointing out how proud I am that what we have been doing in NY has been noticed and is being celebrated in Europe – on this tour alone we have been asked to do the Doug Fitch Petrouchka here in London as well as to give a special presentation of the work for a younger audience. Contact!, our contemporary ensemble, is giving a concert of new works at the Barbican, and in Cologne we are also giving the world-premiere of a new opera – something rarely done on tour. Senza Sangue is a major work by Peter Eötvös that comes as an outgrowth of our Kravis New Music Prize.
As you know, there is a relatively short list of repertoire that you tend to see played by touring orchestras – I always find it a shame that almost as a rule anything innovative and fresh that orchestras attempt at home is considered too risky for local presenters. With the exception of the Eötvös opera and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Nyx, both 21st century compositions, every piece we have programmed on this tour is from the 20th century. I love that we have the chance out on the road to show not a watered-down version of who we are, but rather a real picture of what we have become.
The need for honesty, sincerity and specificity in any given musical situation should drive orchestras and their leaders to follow their musical intuition, to lead with vision, without fear of offending.
Just as Steve Jobs famously avoided focus groups in determining the direction of his company, we in the music world should trust that what moves us, what we truly believe in, will also move others, and can become a meeting point for our common humanity. Le Grand Macabre probably would not have happened if we had run a poll to check its viability, and it ended up being described as “an instant Philharmonic milestone”.
Change is difficult, but possible, as well as necessary. Nobody can possibly know for sure where exactly we are going, or what the answers are. Simply asking the right questions, though, is a huge part of finding those answers.
In his Norton Lectures at Harvard, Leonard Bernstein set out to answer “whither music?” Allow me to add a bold follow-up: “whither orchestras?” What if it has the same answer Lenny gave to his own question: “yes”? A “yes” that is an invitation, a challenge, a possibility? Who knows? But belief that music can be a catalyst for positive change, and that life’s hardships can be ameliorated by bringing people together with a shared musical experience will take us far. How lucky we are to have music as a central feature of our lives.
This is an edited version of Alan Gilbert’s Royal Philharmonic Society Lecture, at Milton Court Concert Hall, London, UK on April 15, 2015. Read the full text at www.philharmonicsociety.uk;
Alan Gilbert is the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Conductor Laureate of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, and Director of Conducting and Orchestral Studies at the Julliard School.