Recent expansion and growth of US Orchestras: Latin-American Orchestras

Miguel Castro, Tambora, performing with the Houston Latin American Philharmonic.
Miguel Castro, Tambora, performing with the Houston Latin American Philharmonic.

A few days ago I discovered the Houston Latin American Philharmonic. An orchestra formed by Venezuelan conductor Glenn R. Garrido in 2013, the group is obviously based in Houston, the fourth largest city in the US with a est. population of 2,160,821–nearly one million of which is comprised of Hispanics or Latinos (including White Hispanics).

As you can see from its mission statement:

The Houston Latin American Philharmonic is a professional orchestra created to promote and elevate to the highest artistic level possible Latin American music, musicians and composers.

The group focuses on Latin American music, musicians, and composers.

I’d mentioned the Boston Latin-American Orchestra (formed in 2011) in my post, Classical vs. Pop [vs. the Rest], but hadn’t really spent the time exploring this type of ensemble.  I’ve started a subpage in my Ethnic Orchestras of North America tab for to list Latin-American Orchestras and ensembles which focus to some extent on this repertoire.

I think groups like this highlight the difficulties we have with defining Classical Music. With the other large ethnic ensembles which, while modeled on European styled orchestras, tend to incorporate a significant amount of native or indigenous instruments and repertoire (i.e. Traditional Chinese Orchestras and Arabic Orchestras) the Latin-American composers have some closer ties to Western world, instrumentation, and compositional style while still incorporating many indigenous idioms, rhythms, and other stylistic quirks.

Composers such as Ginastera, Piazzolla, Villa-Lobos, Chávez, Golijov, and Revueltas have regularly been included in programming of Western Orchestras for some time. While most of these composers don’t have the canonical status of many of their German, French, Italian, and Soviet counterparts belies the fact that there are a fair number of composers which are ragularly performed in Meso- and South American countries which rarely get programmed here.

One of my favorite CDs, Musica de la Puebla de Los Angeles: Music by Women of Baroque Mexico, Cuba & Europe, is by one of our resident ensembles at IUS, Ars Femina, an early music group which focuses on compositions by women composers. It’s sometimes difficult for us to understand how classical music traditions morphed when introduced into countries outside of continental Europe which impedes our understanding of the art form as it has developed in those non-European Countries (or even in European countries not considered central to the Classical Music tradition).

What I find interesting about some of the Latin American Orchestras is the focus on Dance and having dance soloists during their concerts.  For example, during the Houston Latin-American Philharmonic concert, “VIVA LATIN AMERICA,” Elizabeth Wingfield and Mauro Marcone danced during the orchestra’s performance of Piazzola’s “Libertango”:

Elizabeth Wingfield and Mauro Marcone dancing to Piazzola's "Libertango" performed by the Houston Latin-American Philharmonic
Elizabeth Wingfield and Mauro Marcone dancing to Piazzola’s “Libertango” performed by the Houston Latin-American Philharmonic

And in 2011, the Pan American Symphony Orchestra (formed in 1990) had a concert with performances by a quartet of Flamencas (Carmela Greco, Maria Juncal, La Truco, and Pepa Molina) from Spain during one of their recent concerts which also featured Composer and Oudist, Marcel Khalifé.

Carmela Greco, Maria Juncal, La Truco, and Pepa Molina
Carmela Greco, Maria Juncal, La Truco, and Pepa Molina with PASO conductor and artistic director, Sergio Alessandro Bušlje

Given the fact that one of the fastest growing populations in the US is the Hispanic and Latino group, and that the NEA SPPA have shown that Latin Music has the second largest number of online participation (after, interestingly, Classical Music) I can only imagine we’ll start seeing more and more of these Orchestras (as well as other types of Latin bands) forming and probably at an accelerated rate as we seem to be seeing with Chinese and Middle Eastern Orchestras here in the US.

How I’m starting to interpret this growth of the Ethnic Orchestras is simply a continuation of the fragmentation of audiences which is leading to specialization of orchestras for their particular niches. While the traditional Orchestras tend to be the default, they are no longer the dominant arts ensembles that they might have been in the middle of the 20th century.

We first saw a rise in Early and New Music Ensembles and Orchestras and groups which was natural since Symphony Orchestras tend to focus on late classical to early modern music with the bulk of the repertoire in the Romantic/Late Romantic. That has only increased. Similarly with non-Western Orchestras–since Symphony Orchestras focus on that Central European tradition, orchestras focusing on Symphonic Works or large ensemble works outside of that region are now filling the gaps at the periphery and are getting to be far less marginal as they increase in size and number.

As I’ve blogged about here in the past, I believe that the ratio of Art Music (and the small and large ensembles which perform it) to population is relatively constant.  What’s changing is the type of Art Music which is just a reflection of the changing ethnic demographics.  Whether we refer to these non-European Orchestras as “Classical Music” or not is irrelevant since many of these cultural institutions co-evolved with the European Classical Music culture, sometimes overlapping and dovetailing it, sometimes diverging significantly from it, but always in tandem with it.

Classical Music, Aging Audiences, and the Emerging Demographic Racial Gap

The San José based Firebird Youth Chinese Orchestra is one of several Chinese Youth Symphonies in the US

I had come across an old (May 17, 2007) New York Times piece by Sam Roberts yesterday while doing some searches for the Aging Audience of Classical Music issue. The piece, titled “New Demographic Racial Gap” is outlining the age gap between the dominant majority in the US and the [still growing] ethnic minorities. To put it in a nutshell the white population in the US is aging faster than the ethnic minority populations which has some implications that the article opens with

That development may portend a nation split between an older, whiter electorate and a younger overall population that is more Hispanic, black and Asian and that presses sometimes competing agendas and priorities.

“The new demographic divide has broader implications for social programs and education spending for youth,” said Mark Mather, deputy director of domestic programs for the Population Reference Bureau, a nonpartisan research group.

“There’s a fairly large homogenous population 60 and older that may not be sympathetic to the needs of a diverse youthful population,” Dr. Mather said.

but has other implications with regards to the Aging Audience in Classical Music debate. See all the current data, especially that compiled by the recent NEA survey as well as other sources is pointing to an audience for Classical Music (as well as other arts institutions) that is aging faster than the population of the US as a whole. And the above piece is claiming that the white population of the US is aging faster than the population of the US as a whole. Think about those last two statements for a bit.

If the implications aren’t entirely apparent for you folks let me state it a bit more bluntly: If the white population in the US is aging at a faster rate than the population of the US as a whole and the Classical Music audience is aging at a faster rate than the population of the US as a whole I’m wondering if the rate of the aging white population is at all correlated to the rate of Classical music audiences.

One of the other things the data states is that ethnic minorities are far less likely than the [white] ethnic majority to attend arts events which lends some more weight to the idea of Classical Music audiences (in the US) being more of a Caucasian Euro-American cultural artifact. Part of the issue is the relative lack of ethnic minorities in Orchestras (roughly 13%) across the country, well below national average (roughly 33%) of ethnic minorities in the US. It’s difficult to show you’re a part of the local community if your musicians don’t reflect the folks in the community. Some organizations and Orchestras are actively trying to bring more blacks and Latinos into the field as I discussed a bit in a previous post, but by far the more interesting thing is the rising number of non-Western Orchestras in the US.

What I’ve been doing lately is looking at how the high density ethnic minority regions in the US also correspond with a relatively high number of non-Western Orchestras and ensembles. For example, I’ve found that the Bay Area, with a Chinese-American population close to half a million, sports nearly 2 dozen active traditional Chinese Orchestras. Same can be found in regions that have a high density of ethnic groups throughout the states. There’s still a demand for “High Art Music” –it’s just that ethnic populations are demanding their High Art Music rather than European High Art Music. Question is, can Western Classical music institutions in this country adapt enough to account for that change in taste or will they continue to appeal to a primarily more rapidly aging white audience? And what happens when that ethnic majority demographic becomes a minority as folks are projecting will happen by 2050?

In the end, there’s far more demand for Orchestras than data focusing on Western styled-orchestras would indicate. It’s just that this demand is going to be filled by Orchestras that play music the growing ethnic minorities in this country want to hear.


Related link:

Portions of this post were adapted from a conversation I’ve been having with Greg Sandow on my facebook page. The full discussion may be found here:

Are Orchestra Musicians Replaceable?

Drew McManus pointed out a piece written by Michaela Boland which had some interesting quotes by Greg Sandow with whom I don’t necessarily agree on many points though he is one of the critics of the current status quo of Classical Music in the US.

Among the orchestras that have shut their doors and dismissed players there are some groups that have survived due to radical restructuring, which is where Sandow sees the future of the industry. Columbus Orchestra, by way of example, staved off closure in 2008 and retained 53 full-time players by reducing salaries by 27 per cent. Detroit Symphony Orchestra is engaged in similar talks with players.

Sandow argues that players in America’s top orchestras have traditionally been well paid, with salaries above $100,000, and the cuts are having an invigorating effect. “It’s interesting to talk to young musicians about this; they don’t see it as a problem, they’d consider themselves lucky to get any of these positions,” he says.

Historically, however, because of the status and the good pay, few of them could secure such jobs.

Sandow says that if the Philadelphia Orchestra were to suddenly discharge all its musicians and replace them with young players on contract, what might be lost in polish could easily be made up for in pizazz.

“I wonder if that wouldn’t be more exciting to hear,” he says. “It might really surprise people.”

This echoes some things said by Eric Edberg during the Detroit Symphony Orchestra debacle

I’m living in New York this semester, and have met a number of young free-lance players, some of whom are graduate students at big conservatories.  Guess what?  Most have little if any sympathy for the DSO players (who have not managed to successfully reframe the conversation and are losing the PR war, even with music students). They love all sorts of music in addition to classical music.  Plenty find traditional symphony (and other) concerts boring.  There are plenty of classical-change advocates, in various stages of self-awareness, among them. Right now, they have little or no work.  Student and, in many cases, instrument loans to pay.  Fantastic players.

Many see the union as the problem (even if they’re not going through one of those college-age Ayn Rand phases).  The players have been successfully characterized to/construed by them as greedy, selfish, and/or out of touch.  A lot of these incredibly-accomplished young players (and I bet there are bunches more in Baltimore, Bloomington, Cincinnati, Cleveland, LA,Miami,  etc.) seem excited at the idea of going to Detroit to work in a “new model” symphony.

While Unions may or may not be the problem (cf. Michael Kaiser’s recent post, Are Unions to Blame?) there is this sense that for good or ill, with younger musicians (many of whom are, as Eric says, struggling as freelancers much less in this economy) who haven’t matured in the Union environment, few are going to have as much sympathy as those musicians who rely on collective bargaining to sustain their livelihood.

On the other hand, a question I’ve been exploring–or rather, I could reframe the title of this blog post in a different way–is, “Are Western Orchestras Replaceable?”

Continue reading “Are Orchestra Musicians Replaceable?”

“66,000 opera companies across America”

A lively discussion is happening at Tony Woodcock’s blog, but what’s intriguing me a bit are some of the things a poster with the username of Digoweli is saying.  In particular, this excerpt from the post linked:

What has happened to us from 1900 when there were 66,000 opera companies across America with 1,300 Opera houses in the farm state of Iowa alone and Opera companies even in the Indian Territory before it was Oklahoma? Opera for Indians, you won’t see that in the movies. You won’t see that the color barrier was broken at the Metropolitan Opera in 1925 by an Osage Indian soprano either. I have a picture on my wall of the opera house in Miami, Indian Territory in 1900. The same place that birthed the great American Indian ballerina Moscelyn Larkin.

I didn’t find these facts in music school. I found them at home in Oklahoma and from non-music historians like Lawrence Levine (“Highbrow/Lowbrow, The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America” Harvard). I found the Iowa figure from an economist for the NYTimes and the WSJournal Robert Cook, in his (“The Winner-Take All Society” Frank and Cook, Free Press) Neither Frank or Levine are musicians but they are not blind to what has happened here. They also knew virgin territory when they saw it.

Music historians Crawford and Dizikes made a start but couldn’t get out of the double bind artistic folks are in. Mentioning a cultural economic virus in the Arts is like mentioning a sexually transmitted disease in polite company. Art is supposed to create health and harmony. It’s supposed to validate systems not prove that they are flawed. So we erase the flaws. There is no real history of America’s arts in performance. The companies, the great performers, the battles, the victories. There is no real history of the legacy of the great pedagogical traditions of Europe and their teachers in American Institutions either. It’s as if everyone was hatched from nothing with no tradition and no awareness of how they got here and no awareness of what has been lost. Except I would exempt violinists who know about Wolfgang’s lessons with Leopold because they still play the exercises and pianists who have a strong historic thread in their teaching in their teaching as well. Who on this list knows who William Thorner was or even Samuel Margolis? People who shaped what we hear in the present and then disappeared. But where did they come from? People without a history are people with ancestors and culture. As a result we don’t know what we’ve lost nor the health of what we have.

But if music historians will not tell the story, others will because the story must be told. From the thousands of Opera Houses in 1900 to the present with 210 professional companies most with no ensemble, pick up orchestras and no repertory, is a measured 98% decline. If that isn’t dying what is? The poor muse is sick and yet everyone is in denial.

Complex Classical Art is dying to most of America except for the upper 2% who consider themselves to have enough for their own needs. It’s time we looked this in the face. You are a young man, I am not. I have no illusions. I don’t have time for illusions and I’ve made my living in the 2% for fifty years and still do. There are answers but there must be discussions beyond blogs and everywhere and most of all there must be an evangelical message about the value of complex Art and what it means if you lose it. Why we are comfortable with an America that is brutish in the world, ignorant of culture and feral? It was David Kay, the U.S. Arms Inspector, who blamed it on American cultural ignorance that we went to war in Iraq. What has the Arts failed at teaching to America’s citizens? First you have to know what you are for and what is your purpose as an Artist in the scheme of things.

I would like to see where he got his numbers, obviously, but what he’s saying isn’t unreasonable (the lack of documentation of phenomena like this in the history books).

Continue reading ““66,000 opera companies across America””