Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Running a symphony orchestra like a museum

Last week, I wrote about how modern art music is hard to practice and perform, and that in order to get symphony orchestras to program more of it, they would need to rethink their performance model. My solution for this is to have symphony orchestras act more like museums—in other words, the organization’s goal should be to present the art in an educational way, with curated, themed collections and exhibitions mixed with bits of history, context, and interpretation. And as with art, museums don’t have to just program past, as Alex Ross’s article indicated in last week’s post. Pretending that a concert is akin to a religious ceremony, as most symphonies do, is unproductive for having audiences understand avant-garde musical art and possibly even older music, too. However, orchestras don’t want to say that they are presenting relics for fear of being labeled relics themselves.

I don’t think, however, that symphony orchestras should shy away from being museums, which have a prominent place and social function in our society. Why do people go to museums? To see famous things that change the world, or to promote thought, or to learn about expressing emotion. They probably don’t do it be soothed or simply entertained, for the most part. Symphony orchestras should promote themselves similarly.

Much of the symphony orchestra’s music is not from this time period, meaning that today we don’t have the context to understand what is going on—the past is a foreign country (not to mention much of its repertoire is from a foreign country) and even if the music is contemporary, it may not be understandable to today's average concert-goers, especially a the absent young crowd. Why not, along with the music, tell people how audiences reacted to this music when it was presented and give permission for them to do it? How about letting people encore a movement of a Beethoven Sonata, letting them clap between movements, putting girls behind a soloist playing Liszt, or letting people play cards during a Mozart opera? Sometimes the new music, as with modern art, can only be understood with connection to older music, too, so why not play both older and newer? Does art just get displayed in modern art museum? No, the audience is given context or the author’s intent.

Another strategy that symphony orchestra’s can adopt is curated, themed collections and special exhibitions of one artist or a particular topic. By collection, I don’t just mean one concert, but a concert series. How about a  series of musical concerts themed with logical arguments or progression on the same theme? How about a series not just about “the baroque,” or “the 3 Bs,” but built around a theme that matters to modern—global warming, or crimes of passion, or slavery, or prejudice? Symphonies can still keep playing their old workhorses they know, their “permanent collection”, but what if they used Beethoven’s 3rd as the centerpiece of a concert series about deafness, or about overcoming obstacles, or about Europe during the time of Napoleon? And the symphony orchestra could get other smaller musical ensembles or soloists involved, either from the group itself or from the community, like an opera company or chamber music ensemble. And why not have modern ensembles like modern museums of art, that specialize in new music and history?

We need more long-term curation in classical music. This would require a lot more planning, which may not be possible with the current system of hot-shot artistic director/conductors that spend little time in one town. But planning is less expensive than rehearsal time and could have some great results—a musical establishment that has more of a social function than simply to entertain people in suits and ties, but to educate about history, to place art in context, and to be a forum of social issues.

Maybe if my local symphony orchestra did a series like this, I would be more interested in going.

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