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Can an Alien Save the American Orchestra? -Thoughts on “The New Model”

3 Michael Manley
Object-Movie-Posters-ET1 Editor's Abstract

In this article, Michael Manley offers some compelling thoughts about the future of orchestral programming. He challenges us to break down the barriers of “art music,” “commercial music,” and “pops” and to be more open to including a wider variety of music on orchestral concerts. I think you will enjoy his writing style and his ideas for the future!

Steve Danyew

American Orchestras, so we are told over and over again, are on life-support. Audiences are aging or dwindling; “operating expenses” (often a euphemism for “musician salaries and benefits”) are rising; fundraising has reached a ceiling; Apple and Amazon exist; people just aren’t as “educated” about classical music as they were; public music education programs are forever being cut…and on and on.

Fear not, there is a savior: The New Model.  In The New Model, orchestras are leaner; musician “constituents” (previously known as “musicians”) don’t merely perform, but are educational missionaries, cultural ambassadors to philistine corporate sponsors, emissaries to the disenfranchised and down-trodden, and (for all I know) healers of the halt and lame. Concerts are streamed; directors and choreographers are hired to ‘enhance’ the concert-going experience; bass trombonists are re-classified as part-time employees; pensions and vacation weeks are gutted.

Some of The New Model initiatives are noble-except for the unfortunate business of the vacation weeks, pensions, and the poor bass trombonist-but how helpful are they?  If one’s goal is to, say, sell out a concert hall? But is selling out a concert hall of even mild concern to The New Model? Just the opposite-The New Model seeks to find innovative ways to use musicians’ services because it assumes that demand for concerts will stay flat, or diminish over time.  Whatever else The New Model is, it is not about maintaining (in the case of large orchestras) or achieving (in the case of smaller orchestras) anything near a full-time, year-round schedule.  Which means, sadly, fewer full-time opportunities for symphony musicians.

The New Model is also not that concerned with repertoire, and instead places its musical focus on, say, Raising the Artistic Profile, whereby merely adequate musicians-playing to half-empty halls and earning less than $20,000 a year in a regional orchestra-are forced out to make way for better musicians…who play to half-empty halls and earn  less than $20,000 a year in the same orchestra.  Or The Magic Bullet Conductor is hired, whose passion for fundraising and community engagement doesn’t really move the needle on ticket sales all that much.  As far as ‘Butts in Seats’ goes, focusing on how the orchestra performs and functions amounts to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. I wonder, to take one recent example, if anyone in the Philadelphia metropolitan area has been inspired to purchase a subscription series to their city’s orchestra, based on the fact that the orchestra’s management succeeded in severing their contract’s obligations to the American Federation of Musicians’ Pension Fund?

Now it is true that ticket sales alone are never going to solve what are often huge and systemic financial problems in an orchestra.  But wouldn’t sell-out concerts-All Seats Butted, if you will-increase relevance, raise the orchestra’s public profile, and build enthusiasm? And also  increase demand for more concerts, which one hopes is part of the whole point? And wouldn’t they also make donors more excited to write checks?  Selling out the concert hall isn’t the only mission of an orchestra to be sure, but it should be a main one.

So what is the secret to selling out?  Well, selling out I think-when it comes to repertoire.  At least that is how most conductors, board members, artistic administrators and musicians would view it.  But the Wrong Question has been asked for too long.  We should not be asking “How can we get more folks to come here Bruckner 7?” (note: you can’t; only 4 people want to hear Bruckner 7); the question should be, “What can we program to sell out the house?” Maybe the problem lies not in how an orchestra functions to perform, but what it performs. One possible solution: less Austria and more aliens.  More on that soon.

Before film, radio and TV, in lands across oceans, what we enshrine as “classical” art music was popular, contemporary entertainment.  And this “classical” symphonic canon-almost entirely European, still-is not all High Art. Alongside the meat and potatoes of Mahler, Stravinsky and Brahms, are the needed desserts and amuses of Rossini and Johann Strauss, Jr. Similarly, major art museums find space to include the ‘low’ irreverence of a Jeff Koons or Andy Warhol in their collections, along with the Rembrandts and Picassos.  Yet the symphony hall (exempting the pops and children’s/family programming ghetto) doesn’t embrace a similar diversity of repertoire, and its programs are largely limited to warhorses, masterpieces, and the occasional “challenging” contemporary work.  Why not also a contemporary work people already know and like, from say a recent film score?  Because that would challenge the aura of prestige (the deeply conservative, stuffy, humorless aura of prestige) that symphonies, rather mistakenly I think, believe they must cultivate in order not to alienate their donor base, or ‘cheapen’ their artistic brand.

But American art is full of wit, optimism, humor, and eclecticism, which make the distinctions between “high” and “low” almost unseemly, if not irrelevant.  It embraces collage, and eschews hierarchy. It is no wonder, then, that the orchestral canon produced here isn’t taken as seriously as works written in Europe. Of course this American canon is not mainly concert music, but music written for the theater, the screen or (more recently) the video game console. Today’s successful American composer-like Mozart, Beethoven or Strauss before-is writing in the contemporary genres of his/her own time.

But the symphonic field as a whole doesn’t give this body of work much respect. There are a few genre outliers which sneak in to the symphonic canon-Bernstein, Gershwin, Corigliano and Copland are a few whose theater or film works have managed to sit at the grown-ups table at Subscription Concert Thanksgiving-but there are very few other examples of this. Oh, there will be the occasional all-John Williams young people’s concert, but the idea of following a work by Strauss or Wagner with a John Williams film track is, currently, a form of heresy in the industry.

How often is an entirely new genre of music invented?  Every 100 years or so?  You’d think at that rate the most recent genre-video game scores-would pique a little more interest than it has so far from orchestras. Tellingly, orchestras regularly sell out their “Video Games Live” bookings; “Video Games Live” being a rather unfortunate and spastic showcase for the genre, but better than nothing I guess. But the relationship of  “Video Games Live” to the size of the orchestras audience is selectively discounted by many in the industry.  I paraphrase here a real conversation I had, with an Important Artistic Administrator:

Me: “Gee, that ‘Video Games Live’ concert did really well last week.”

Important Artistic Administrator (disappointment): “Yes, we sold out.”

Me: “Wow, that’s awesome.”

Important Artistic Administrator (sighing, defeat): “I suppose, but you know, they aren’t really our audience.”

Me: “Hmm.  Did they buy tickets?”

Important Artistic Administrator (condescension): “Of course.”

Me (amusingly naive):  “So then, wouldn’t that sort of make them your audience?”

Important Artistic Administrator (irritation): “Well sure they came for ‘Video Games Live,’ but wild horses couldn’t drag them to our Beethoven Festival next week.”

And therein, I think, lies the entire problem. The symphonic field as a whole largely views the folks who pay tickets for Video Games Live, or for the Fourth of July concert, or the all John Williams program-ticket buyers who more generous thinkers might term ‘audiences’-are not, in fact, audience members.  Or perhaps they mean, “they’re not the audience we want.”

There are obvious programmatic links between film and video game music, and tone poems, ballets and operas. But, as noted previously, presenting these together would be like cussing in church. The exclusion speaks loudly, though-it says to the “Pops” and “4th of July” audience that the symphonic music they know best, the music they grew up listening to and cherish-that is, the music which has some cultural meaning which relates to their own life experience-is not worthy of your orchestra’s serious attention. This amounts to an unspoken insult to most of the population, many of whom might eagerly subscribe-might eagerly donate-if their local symphony hadn’t quietly taken all the orchestral music they know best and thrown it on a kiddie concert or pops concert.

But since we’re speaking of heresy, let me offer something (o.k., something else) that is truly heretical: one major challenge for American orchestras is that there is nothing at all particularly American about them. Paying money to sit in silence and listen to 80 or so musicians realize a score is an idea we lifted from Europe, largely to make ourselves (us cowboys, yahoos, robber-barons, and mountebanks) feel more classy and serious. That’s how it began-but it need not remain that way.

While the orchestra is forever a European idea, there are wholly American forms of orchestral music: film and tv scores, works of musical theater, and video game music all have their origins in the US. For better or worse they represent our native symphonic tradition-not symphonies, sonatas, piano concertos, ballets or operas. It is true that many fine American composers write ballets, operas and symphonies-but that doesn’t make these forms innately American (and we should champion and program these works-but also champion and program worthwhile music from the film, musical theatre, and video game genres). American composers can adopt and adapt the symphony-as a form-as their own, but they cannot make the idea of a symphony an American one (conversely: probably there are Muscle Cars somewhere on the streets Estonia, but the idea of a Muscle Car is not Estonian). But this doesn’t mean there aren’t strong connections and influences among these different forms, and programming more of these newer genres will invite those associations-even, perhaps, making a Bruckner fan out of a film buff. (Having been raised on the great Spielberg/Williams collaborations of the 70’s and 80s, I remember my first reaction to hearing Wagner’s “Ring Cycle:” that I was listening to the greatest film score ever written).

I’m not saying that “Parade of the Ewoks” is a logical prelude to Mahler’s 9th, but surely if orchestras regularly find room for “The William Tell Overture” in their seasons, there is also room for any number of great works-yes great works-penned by Mr. Williams, to name one?

I have been put in this mood by an alien-E.T., to be exact. He turned 30 this year-how did your orchestra mark the occasion?  Or did they?  I noted the anniversary by ordering a used copy of the soundtrack from Amazon.  E.T. is in my top 5 movies of all time, and in the last few weeks I’ve been listening to it non-stop in my car. Of course the ‘flying theme’ is a popular favorite on Pops concerts, but in many ways its the least interesting of the 8 tracks on the CD I bought (which is the 1990 MCA, 8-title recording; there are other editions which are more comprehensive).  I would pay money to hear an orchestra play any of the other 7 tracks as concert works on a subscription series. But film music is ‘simplistic’ you say.  Not in terms of performance-the technical demands on musicians, at least of the E.T. score, are as challenging as Strauss and Wagner, and the orchestrations are equally “sophisticated.”  And the melodies are as lovely, thrilling, and affecting.

So why isn’t E.T. as famous in the concert hall as Till Eulenspiegel?  I think the bulk of European-born conductors are unfamiliar with (or worse, dismissive of) “commercial” genres such as film and video game music. But that’s not the whole problem. Currently conductors, regardless of their nationality, gain no practical benefit in studying this repertoire or programming it (unless they want to be branded as “Pops” conductors for their entire careers). Conductors understandably want to conduct the works that will make them better, and that will advance their careers.  And their only chance to practice is with the aid of 50 to 100 others-the musicians they conduct.  When they audition for music director posts, the committee and musicians simply don’t want to hear what they can do with “Three Million Light Years From Home.”  That’s a reality, but it need not be a deal-breaker.  If more high-profile conductors (and orchestras) took the lead, the music would gradually enter the canon, and be studied and prepared as if it were ‘serious’ art music…which, of course, some of it is.

Terms like “art music,”  “commercial music,” and “pops” are becoming more useless and arbitrary, as the ipod playlist further democratizes and ‘flattens’ access to music of every style and type.  Your orchestra might feel the need to separate a Bach Brandenburg Concerto from Michael Giacchino’s “Lost” soundtrack, but the ‘shuffle’ feature does not. Now that the dogmatic push for “modernism” in the concert hall (‘intellectual’ and largely non-tonal music) has long been abandoned, many of today’s most serious and talented “art music” composers embrace melody and clear harmony.  So if the subscription program can welcome Libby Larsen and Michael Daugherty, why not John Williams or Michael Giacchino? (Neither of whom write only tonally, by the way; much of their music is as bracing and terrifying as Berg on his most angst-ridden day).  It it interesting to note that neither Mr. Williams nor his aesthetic opposite, the esteemed devout “modernist” Elliot Carter, have produced a work which has entered the standard subscription/classical concert repertoire.

Composers of film music also seem indifferent to the prestige offered by the concert hall.  They are, happily, compensated well for their work, so there is no real financial incentive to have their scores treated as concert repertoire.  Another hurdle: rights-holders of film music (often the film studios) charge very high rental fees for performance. They treat it as any for-profit trademarked piece of intellectual property-but it is to everyone’s benefit to have this music played, and that  should be more financially feasible. Imagine if, in advance of some future Star Wars sequel, an orchestra premiered the film score a week before the opening of the movie. Not only would it sell out, it would be a useful demonstration-especially to younger folks-that the film music they listen to in the movie theatre and on their iphones originates as a live, acoustic event that is  produced by professional musicians, composers and conductors.  Memo to Deborah Borda: please take a meeting with Mr. Spielberg and make this happen.

Is there a ton of crappy film and video game music?  Of course there is; most great works of art in any era float on oceans of failure and mediocrity.  It’s not like there weren’t 100 other mediocre composers writing, say, in Beethoven’s day. Yet in our time, we don’t honor even the rare scores that rise to the level of art.  How many artistic administrators and conductors know, for instance, that John Williams’ deeply affecting, haunting, and unsentimental score for the film A.I. contains a Steve Reich-ish riff on a waltz from Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier?”  And how interesting would it be to hear the two side by side?  Instead we get “Pirates of Caribbean” played live to the film, on a Pops series. There’s nothing wrong with this really, but it says to the orchestra that the music can’t stand on its own without the film, and it says to the audience that they can’t survive the concert without watching a movie.  And maybe that’s true of the “Pirates” score. But not all film music falls in this camp, and my challenge and hope is that this music, as a whole, will not be relegated to Pops and Children’s concert programming, or done only as gimmick-laden ‘one off’ concerts with videos, light shows, or (God forbid) conductors dressed as Darth Vader.

Because the secret to building a bridge to the classical canon that already exists-and that is rightly revered-lies in tying this music, on the same program and in the same concert hall, with the music that the audience knows and loves.  They just happen to know this music from venues that are far from the concert hall.  The” E.T.” score won’t damage Strauss or Wagner, but it will give new listeners a context to appreciate them.

I have hopes that in these very trying times for orchestras, some maverick board, conductor or executive director will have an epiphany-that the true “New Model” may not lie in re-inventing a  ‘restrictive’ or ‘costly’ labor contract, but might instead begin with offering patrons-alongside the established canon-music that they know and love, which they will enthusiastically pay money to hear.

We really shouldn’t wait another 30 years to invite E.T. into the concert hall.

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3 comments feed top ↑

  1. Comment by javelinda
    March 21, 2019 at 1:06 PM

    I’m playing the ET Music with the New Amsterdam Symphony Orchestra 4/4/13… see you there? 😀

  2. Michael Manley Comment by Michael Manley
    February 22, 2019 at 9:53 PM

    Thanks for your feedback George. You are not the first composer I’ve heard from who has pursued composition because of John Williams! Writing a great melody has been an overlooked art in modern music, and he certainly writes some great ones. The “force” theme from Star Wars is why I play horn ;]

    Keep writing and thanks again!

    Michael Manley

  3. Comment by georgeshawmusic
    February 16, 2019 at 11:09 PM

    Great article, I have to say that discovering John Williams in middle school led me to discover many more serious orchestral works. Since then I’ve become a composer working in film/tv/video games, and have particularly grown a large online following of primarily teens who have discovered me through their favorite YouTube celebrities, many of whom (with millions of subscribers) I compose music for their videos.

    Some of these kids actually buy sheet music for my piano works. I’ve also created concert suites of my film music for orchestras to perform, but conductors seem reluctant to program my music even though there’s interest in my music. What better way introduce classical/orchestral music to a younger generation?

    -georgeshawmusic.com