In a recent tweet addressed to orchestra administrators, the American conductor James Gaffigan asked for help “to program more of the great living composers I have recently come to know and love,” and went on to propose a list of composers, aesthetically and demographically diverse, contributing to a vital contemporary music scene.
As both a composer and a recovering orchestra administrator (I served as senior director of artistic planning for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra from 2010 to 2013, followed by an interim stint as artistic advisor for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra from 2013 to 2017, while the equivalent position was vacant), I felt I might have a unique, dual perspective on the question underpinning Maestro Gaffigan’s tweet: how can we all—composers, conductors, administrators, patrons, advocates—help to diversify the programming of American orchestras? And how can we in the new music community help administrators make living composers part of their orchestras’ daily diet?
Every spring, as orchestras announce their upcoming seasons, the engine of social media agita revs back up, as it, alas, inevitably will again in 2019: far too many orchestras will have programmed far too little music (if, indeed, any at all) by composers outside the canon of European men born between 1685 and, maybe, 1882. The new music community will call the industry out en masse for its myopic programming. Rinse, repeat. At best, this perennial shouting match, perhaps, moves the needle infinitesimally from one season to the next. In fact, I suspect it doesn’t much help at all.
In reflecting on what my own various professional experiences have taught me, I keep coming back to one theme: if we all had a better understanding of one another’s priorities, circumstances, concerns, and constraints, we would be in a better position to address the problem constructively. And let’s be clear: the underrepresentation of living composers in orchestral programming is a problem; none of what I’m going to discuss here should be misunderstood as an apologia for homogenous programming. Our orchestras can and must do better.
Many of us fundamentally assume that homogenous programming results from cowardice and/or lack of imagination on the part of our orchestras. The first step in constructively addressing the problem is to challenge this assumption. Certainly, there is always room for more bravery and imagination; that’s true for all of us, not just orchestra administrators. But the artistic planning, marketing, and development departments that I’ve worked with are populated by some of the most passionate and creative people I’ve ever met. They love music. They’re smart, talented people who undoubtedly could pursue a more lucrative career in the for-profit sector, but have chosen this field out of their passion for the art form. Writing them off as soulless charlatans is inaccurate, unfair, and—frankly—lazy. They are charged with synthesizing a dizzying matrix of institutional imperatives and constraints en route to executing the organization’s artistic mission. Many of the people in these positions would otherwise love to fill each season with living composers. Here are a few ways we can all help them succeed.
Become familiar with the orchestra’s work rules. I’m only half serious about this—there’s little reason for the layperson to slog through an orchestra musician’s contract—but it’s important to at least understand that an orchestra’s work rules are regulated by a union-negotiated Collective Bargaining Agreement. These rules govern everything that the orchestra does, from rehearsal schedules and overtime pay to how many miles away from home a run-out concert can be before requiring an overnight hotel stay.
Alexandra Gardner was the Seattle Symphony’s composer-in-residence during the 2017-18 season. Her experience in that role prompted another tweet that caught my attention.
As part of her Seattle residency, Alex led workshops with LGBTQ+ youth that resulted in the creation of Stay Elevated, a collaborative work performed by musicians of the Seattle Symphony. Alex told me about her original vision for the piece: a moveable event that the audience would follow from outside to inside the museum, and that would use the space in creative ways. When the Symphony had previously produced such events, the orchestra musicians participated as volunteers. This year, for the first time, an orchestra service was used (for the civilian reader, a “service” is any rehearsal, performance, or other musician activity governed by the CBA), which meant work rules now applied, and playing outdoors and on the move were off the table.
Understanding the administrative arcana behind decisions can help all of us in the new music community be constructive, rather than reactive, advocates for the repertoire we want to hear.
It’s up to orchestras’ artistic operations departments to manage such administrative arcana. The end result can often seem to reflect an imagination deficit. It’s almost always a little more complicated.
Take, for example, two 20th-century concerti widely regarded as modern masterpieces: the Ligeti Violin Concerto and James MacMillan’s percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. Both are thrilling pieces and very effective soloist vehicles. And when they do manage to get programmed, both have broad audience appeal, not just to new music aficionados. Why aren’t they in heavier rotation with your local orchestra?
In one of the Ligeti Concerto’s most memorable moments, the oboist, clarinetists, and bassoonist play ocarinas. In the climactic ending to Veni, Veni, the orchestra players are asked to play bells “or two pieces of loud clanging metal.” In addition to renting the scores and parts to these concerti, orchestras have to acquire the ocarinas, bells, and pieces of metal, and determine whether, as per the CBA, these passages warrant doubling fees for the musicians. These costs can add up and, for a smaller-budget orchestra, become quite significant expenses. The orchestra committee might agree to hold a vote to waive the doubling fees—but if they negotiate for an extra off-day in return, the guest conductor or soloist might feel she’s left with inadequate rehearsal time and opt for a warhorse like the Mendelssohn Concerto instead.
Rehearsal for the 2016 St. Paul Chamber Orchestra premiere of Mauricio Sotelo’s Red Inner Light Sculpture, for violin, flamenco dancer, and orchestra. Image courtesy SPCO
There are, as Alex told me she witnessed firsthand in Seattle, “a great number of interlocking gears in motion” behind every programming decision. Understanding this can help all of us in the new music community be constructive, rather than reactive, advocates for the repertoire we want to hear.
Go to concerts! I realize it sounds simplistic, but both the easiest and most powerful way to reward adventurous programming is to show up when your local orchestra rolls the dice on a new piece by a living composer. And we can all do a better job of this.
A lot of the pressure on orchestras to program Beethoven and Mahler comes at the board level, but not for the simplistic reason you might think. While, yes, by and large, board members’ tastes probably tend a certain way, it’s not just that they hate contemporary music and demand traditional repertoire. Just as operations and marketing departments deserve more credit than they’re often given, it’s important to resist the stereotypical image of the board member as merely a moneyed dilettante wanting in artistic conviction. Many of them may not have the finer artistic discernment of the conservatory-trained among us, but let’s remember that boards consist of volunteers who have given hours of their time and thousands of their dollars, sometimes over the course of many years, to support the orchestra; and they have accepted a fiduciary responsibility to the orchestra’s institutional sustainability. They go to concerts (when I was at the SPCO, I saw almost every board member at almost every program). And they see full houses for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and empty seats for contemporary fare.
The steady graying of the average orchestra’s audience alarms boards more than any other constituency. Board members, least of anyone, want to see the institution they’ve supported for years die of old age. At one of the orchestras I served, one of our most dedicated board members would often challenge us to think creatively and strategically about how to broaden our audience reach; pointing to his own gray hair, he would warn us that too much of the audience looked like him.
And it’s just as important for the musicians to know that there’s an audience for this music. In one of my previous positions, I received an email from a musician in the orchestra—the day before the world premiere of a piece we had commissioned!—suggesting that we cancel the premiere, because he felt it hadn’t been adequately rehearsed, and, in any case, the audience was coming for the Beloved Classical Music Masterpiece on the second half, not to hear some weird new music. There’s a lot that’s wrong with this picture, but one of the most important takeaways for me was that this musician felt that new music had no audience support, so why were we even doing it?
So when your local orchestra programs contemporary music, buy a ticket, bring a friend, and show the musicians onstage and the board members in the house that adventurous programming appeals to a younger, more diverse demographic. (This may not be fair, but I’m taking it as a given that new music audiences tend to look younger than my graying board member.) By simply attending, we send a clear message that the orchestra has a future beyond Beethoven and Brahms.
Thank the orchestra for programming music by living composers. Write a letter or make a phone call. Artistic and marketing departments take audience feedback seriously.
Thank the orchestra for programming music by living composers. Write a letter or make a phone call. Artistic and marketing departments take audience feedback seriously. I can’t tell you the number of times my marketing colleagues—who, in spirit, supported diverse programming themselves—held up audience survey results to remind me that the single-most popular concert program from the Mesozoic era to the present day was “Glories of the Italian Baroque.”
But I was in the house for all three performances of our world premiere last week! Standing ovation all three nights! The lobby was buzzing during intermission! Yes, but survey says.
How I wish I could have read a letter to my management colleagues and board as effusive as what I had heard directly from the audience at the concert.
Pekka Kuusisto and Sam Amidon perform with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, 2017. Image courtesy SPCO
Put a few bucks in the hat. If you’re in a position to enclose a check with your thank-you letter—even a modest gift of $10 or $25—so much the better. (NB. You’re right to think that your $10 check won’t make a significant difference to the bottom line of the orchestra’s x-million dollar budget; but you as an individual donor—especially if you are a new donor—represent a valuable asset to the orchestra as it appeals to major donors, corporations, and foundations for big-dollar support.)
Single-ticket purchases, thank-you letters, supportive phone calls, and small contributions might seem like drops in the ocean, but they can make a real difference. Imagine an artistic administrator able to stand up in front of the board, staff, and musicians at the orchestra’s annual meeting and report, “This past season, we increased our programming of music by living and under-represented composers by 15%, and we saw a direct correlation between these programs and a 3% audience growth. These programs also attracted 64 new individual donors.” If she could give this report, then read a letter or two from audience members sharing how much they value the diversity of the orchestra’s programming, what a powerful message that would send to the entire organization.
Finally, if the reader will indulge a slight left turn, here’s a pro-tip for prospective guest conductors and soloists (and their managers) looking to land a debut: include contemporary music in your repertoire proposals. So many up-and-coming conductors want to make a splash with their Bruckner 7; every young virtuoso wants to set the world on fire with their Beethoven concerto. But orchestras aren’t just looking for the most accomplished musicians: they’re looking for the most interesting musicians. An orchestra musician I worked closely with on developing programs used to insist, “A soloist should transform a concert.” For my money, the most interesting artists—the ones who can be counted on to deliver the most transformative Beethoven concerti—are the ones whose repertoire doesn’t stop at 1999, much less 1899. Approaching the literature, not as a museum catalog but as a living, dynamic continuum, invariably makes your Beethoven more interesting. Offering contemporary repertoire doesn’t mean the orchestra will necessarily ask for your Widmann or Wolfe, but it’s informative to know whether you value this music at all.
It’s much easier to distinguish yourself with something new and less familiar than with the second-best Sibelius they’ve heard in as many seasons.
Also, some perspective: does the orchestra have one of the world’s preeminent Bruckner conductors as its current music director? Did the world’s most famous violinist play the Beethoven with them last season? If so, it doesn’t matter how great your Beethoven is—truly, I know it would be great! Your exceptional artistry is why I’m on the phone with your manager to begin with—you’re setting yourself up for a difficult comparison. At the orchestras where I served, musician surveys played an important part in determining whether to re-invite debut guest artists, and the conductors and soloists who made the strongest first impressions did it with repertoire outside the standard canon. A young violinist making their debut with Sibelius typically prompts responses of, “Eh, fine, but we’ve had better.” It’s much easier to distinguish yourself with something new and less familiar—leaving the orchestra and its audience eager to hear what you can do with the standard repertoire—than with the second-best Sibelius they’ve heard in as many seasons.
The magic of our art form is its capacity for reinvention. The inheritance and transformation of tradition is the greatness of Beethoven is the greatness of Stravinsky is the greatness of Ligeti is the greatness of Matthew Aucoin and Alex Temple and Angélica Negrón. By advocating for the music of the present day—whether as artists, audiences, or administrators—we not only promote the work of living composers; we renew the vitality of the art form as a whole. I applaud Maestro Gaffigan’s efforts to champion the work of living composers. We can all do more than lay this charge at the feet of orchestra administrators. Let us all take up this cause constructively, proactively, and with gusto.