I attended the League of American Orchestrasâ€™ annual conference last week in St. Louis. The conference was the usual mix of plenary sessions, constituent meetings (I attended the musician sessions), workshops and smaller presentations, a master class with David Robertson, and a concert by the St. Louis Symphony. I will be writing about the various sessions I attended over the course of the next few weeks, so check back for more details.
The theme of this yearâ€™s Conference was “Imagining 2023.” The conference presenters included two futurists, one of which was the keynote speaker Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, a most dynamic speaker. More about Elizabeth later.
Jesse Rosen, President and CEO of the League, gave his opening remarks about the future of orchestras. He talked about the need for orchestras to balance getting out into their communities while still performing in their wonderful concert halls, where they sound the best. He used the metaphor of the Hudson River in New York City that flows both north and south simultaneously. He mentioned the New World Symphonyâ€™s initiatives in bringing in new audiences and quoted hockey great Wayne Gretzkyâ€™s response to the secret of his success (“I skate to where the puck will be”) and applied it to New World (“We skate to where the audience will be”).
As examples of forward-looking initiatives, he mentioned the Cleveland Orchestraâ€™s series that takes place in a bar, the Stockton (CA) Symphonyâ€™s work confronting gang warfare with a piece about conflict resolution, and the diversity conference organized by the Sphinx Organization last February.
He quoted Yo-Yo Ma who, in his Nancy Hanks Lecture on April 8 in Washington DC, talked about the “edge effect” — the ecology where two different ecosystems meet, such as a forest and a savannah. The more varied the two backgrounds, the more diverse are the life forms, and the more potential exists for new life forms. Jesse suggested that orchestras should look for their own “edge effect” in finding unions of different genres, cultures, art forms, etc. Imagine 2023!
Jesseâ€™s complete remarks can be found here on the Leagueâ€™s website.
A fascinating coincidence was presented at the opening session. The Gold Baton award was given to the Volunteer Council of the League and to Don Randel, president emeritus of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Dr. Randel is an eminent music historian (medieval and renaissance music) and taught at Princeton for many years; he is also the past president of the University of Chicago.
During his remarks in receiving his award, he mentioned the performance of John Adamsâ€™ Dr. Atomic by the St. Louis Symphony that evening. He said that a scientist he knew at Princeton, who left to go to Fermi Labs and who is featured in the Dr. Atomic opera, was once asked by Congress whether the work he was doing there would contribute to the national defense. His reply was, “No, except to make the nation worth defending.” Dr. Randel applied this concept to symphonies as a treasure of our nation.