Elephant in the Room: Everything That’s Wrong With Orchestras?

Musician in the Thai Elephant Orchestra from Lampang, Thailand

So a recent comment by someone at Adaptistration stirred up quite a hornets nest of activity in the blog post regarding recent news about the Louisville Orchestra.  Ever since I’ve started blogging heavily about issues regarding orchestras I’ve come across many of these views regarding what’s wrong with orchestras in our time.  I’ll go ahead and post the comment here for my reader’s convenience:

Stephanie Wilson November 17, 2011 at 1:10 pm #

OK, I’m going to discuss the elephant in the room. Symphony orchestras and conductors are OBSESSED with historical music. Orchestras are “musical museums” that do not have the contemporary connection to society that painting, sculpture, books, plays and film do. In other art forms new creation is welcomed, but in the orchestra world it is met with disdain. Every aspiring conductor and soloist wants primarily to put his or her stamp on the same historical masterpieces that have flooded symphony programs for at least the last 75 years. Yes, there is the occasional commission of a low-hanging big name, but it is telling when an orchestra that “dares” to perform as few as three works by living composers in the same season receives an award for “adventuresome programming.” Ha! Some adventure!

Since all orchestras are performing essentially the same rep, every city no longer needs one. Better performances are available on CD or on iTunes for a fraction of the cost of attending a live performance. Insiders may get their jollies from this year’s crop of hot artists playing the same concerti, but the general public has no more interest in this that they do in seeing different casts perform plays like “Our Town” over and over. If movies were like orchestras, we would be offered mostly vintage films like Citizen Kane and Gone With The Wind. If bookstores were like orchestras, rows of shelves would be dedicated to Dickens, Longfellow and Tolstoy, with a handful of books by Steinbeck in the “Contemporary” section. All of these entities would be sure they were doing “the right thing,” all would insist that what they offer is what their patrons want, and all would spin in circles trying to “raise awareness” while they slowly went broke. There’s loads of fine contemporary concert music available – not pop, or jazz, or rock, but real art music by trained and skilled composers – but orchestras will die before they make any moves toward being culturally relevant. And die they shall!

There are so many things I want to say about what’s wrong (and what’s right) about the above that I just don’t have the time.  I’ve made some comments in that thread, but also at my facebook fanpage here.  But for the most part, I don’t think this post by Drew McManus needed to be the forum for Stephanie Wilson to air her beefs with modern orchestras programming, but there it is–the so-called elephant in the room to her and others who feel like classical music is a dead or dying institution.

What I would like to see, however, is a discussion on how we might bring composers into the CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) since many of them, like orchestral musicians, are also members of the local unions.  Drew hinted at in various places.  And maybe if we can get this discussion on the table, this particular elephant will pack his trunk and we can get on with the actual business of bringing back together the creative and performative forces in classical music.

I think I’m going to have a lot to say about this over the next few days, but I must get back to my other ‘economics of local music’ project first!

But speaking of elephants and orchestras, and since I am Thai, I thought I would point out the Thai Elephant Orchestra which I’ve been a fan of them since I first learned about them in 2001.

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