Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Give the People What They Want, Seriously

Sixth Symphony Concert, Greek Theatre, Berkeley, California, 1906. Library of Congress.
There is an interesting article by Norman Lebrecht on the demise of urban symphony orchestras over at Standpoint. While this is a theme that has been repeated for at least the past several decades, things do seem to be more dire than usual this year.

He talks about why orchestras have mattered, in terms of civic boosterism and social cohesion, but one thing he adds, which in my view is probably the most important factor, is that people wanted them. As he notes, orchestras have survived historically because they signified valuable meanings for listeners: in the 1830s, they were part of "a rising demand for entertainment from a growing middle class;" in the 1900s, after both World Wars, they were symbols of hope and a better, civilized future. "It was both 'the done thing' in English cities to go to symphony concerts and a refuge from the otherwise inescapable gloom of postwar austerity. In America, GIs returning from war to a free college education and a small-town life demanded orchestral concerts of the kind they had heard abroad."

Lebrecht goes on to make an argument for orchestras today as a much-needed antidote to our hyperculture of communication: "...In a lifestyle of wall-to-wall wi-fi and instant tweets, the concert hall is one of the few places where we become reachable, where we can switch off our lifelines and surrender to a form that will not let us go for an hour or more. The symphony orchestra is our relief from the communicative addiction. It forces us, willy-nilly, to resist the responsive urge. It is a cold-turkey cure for our reactive insanity, our self-destroying restlessness. The more concerts I attend, the more I see how they restore balance to over-busy lives. It may well be that we, as a society, need the symphony orchestra now more than ever before."

I suppose this is true for some people but probably not the people orchestras need to reach in order to survive. In my view, this describes a perceived cultural need but not a popular want. Orchestras can be a part of people's daily lives but only if they become more vital to people's actual desires and enthusiasms. The instinct to pose the arts as a corrective to society, as a distinct alternative to a speeding world, is not the way I'd think about it, however much I might sympathize with the sentiment on occasion. While Lebrecht turns to 1940s post-war audiences' desire for contrast and redirection as his model for how to revive orchestras, I think our "over-busy" lives are more like those of the music lovers of the 1850s, who were, in their way, also people of "busi-ness," in awe of technology, living in topsy-turvy urbanized environments. Before genteel reformers got to them, they saw a symphony orchestra concert as an exciting extension of the exuberance, sophistication, and progressive promise of urban life. Concerts were part of going-out and moving up, of being with thousands of strangers, of participating in a world of sensation.

How can orchestras and their public concerts more actively and dynamically connect to this new age of technology, migration, and urbanization? What's the new role for art music in civic boosterism? How can the sonic palette of symphony orchestras truly create excitement for potential audiences, on the move and on the keyboard?

A Wilco concert--I'm there. A BSO concert--questions, hesitation, memories of discomfort. That's the problem.

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