Ayden Adler  

The Critical Response to Profitable Concerts: The Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1930-1950

Ayden Adler
August 20, 2019

As a former musician in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and current Director of Education and Community Partnerships at The Philadelphia Orchestra, I’m keenly aware of the cultural and fiscal challenges facing symphony orchestras in the 21st century. As a musicologist, (Ph.D.’07 from ESM), I’ve always been interested in learning from the past in order to make stronger decisions in the present. My scholarly work on the Boston Symphony Orchestra has been a fantastic way for me to do this. I recently offered a paper, titled, “The Critical Response to Profitable Concerts: The Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1930-1950” to a conference at the University of London that deals with symphony orchestras as cultural phenomena. I will be presenting the paper again at the national meeting of the American Musicological Society this coming November in Indianoplis, IN, and will include a longer version of the material in a forthcoming book. Here is a synopsis of my presentation:

During the 1930s and 40s, when Arthur Fiedler conducted Pops concerts, and Serge Koussevitzky conducted the winter subscription series, the Boston Symphony Orchestra grappled with cultural tensions that existed between elitist emphases on refinement and good taste, impulses towards the democratization of culture, and contemporary forces of consumerism. Although some critics praised Fiedler’s Pops concerts for their artistic virtues, to the distaste of others, including Koussevitzky, these lighthearted performances in august Symphony Hall appealed to large swaths of Boston’s population and made considerable money. Similarly, while many lauded Fiedler’s use of radio, recordings, and, later, television, as a tool to democratize classical music and to educate people intimidated by the orchestral repertory, others denounced his willingness to capitalize on consumerism and transform the Boston Pops into a brand name capable of generating significant profits for the BSO—and for himself. My research, based upon extensive primary research in Fiedler's papers at the Boston Public Library, Boston University, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, suggests that while the BSO’s management and conductors may have originally conceived the idea of Pops concerts as a strategy to build a year-round orchestra of relatively stable personnel, by the mid-1930s the institution began promoting the Pops as a separate “brand” in order to deflect any perceived taint of commercialism, ethnic miscegenation, or popular culture from infringing on the artistic “purity” of the winter concerts. This paper explores how Fiedler negotiated the cultural space between “art” and “entertainment” and turned symphonic music into big business.

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