Big Tent Thinking

by petersachon

History is filled with people who have tried to define art.  They have all been wrong, and there is no reason to suspect we are any better at it than they were.

Changes to what experts call “Art” happen all the time.  There was a time when people questioned whether photography constituted fine art.  Some used to ask the same question about Andy Warhol, and today it’s Murakami.  These days film-makers such as Tim Burton are routinely presented as serious artists by mainstream museums.  The Smithsonian Museum exhibits video games as fine art, and video games are now part of the permanent collection at MOMA.  The New York Times has given them a distinct category in the Arts section.

Museums and others are taking popular culture seriously.  Orchestras should follow their lead and program repertory from film, broadway, and video games alongside traditional classical and modern music.  Like museums, orchestras should treat all symphonic genres as interesting and worthy American art.

The separation of genres is a damaging industry prejudice, and it is artistically unjustifiable.  This conceit that they need to be separated into classical and “Pops” divides more than just an orchestra’s resources and their audience, it also divides advertising considerations, fundraising goals, mission statements, and priorities over hiring musicians and conductors.  It even can divide an orchestra’s own name, like when the Boston Symphony magically morphs into the Boston Pops.

It is great news that the Minnesota Orchestra’s Sibelius recording was nominated for a Grammy — and that also makes it worth pointing out that there was another (new!) symphonic score nominated for a Grammy this year: the score to the video game  Journey.  While the Smithsonian, MOMA, The New York Times, and others treat video games as art, orchestras in America will likely ignore Austin Wintory’spopular new Grammy nominated symphonic score.

Perhaps someone will put it on a “Pops” concert?

Meanwhile, Time Warner Cable cut the TV channel Ovation from its lineup this week. Ovation was the only cable channel dedicated to Arts programming. It has been cut because it was one of their poorest performing networks. Three-quarters of its programming consisted of repeats of existing material. It was watched by less than 1% of customers, and it “costs too much relative to the value of service”.

Costing too much relative to value is a problem shared by orchestras, and so it is mystifying that no matter how marginalized they become, orchestras program concerts as if repeating existing material were the best way to boost attendance and donations. And apart from the money, is that even the best way to present art?

For those open to the new world, opportunities abound. The Cutting Edge Group announced this week that they have purchased the film soundtrack label Varése Sarabande for $100 million, and they intend to produce more than sixty soundtracks a year. The really interesting part is that they will make all the new orchestral scores available to be performed. They are not, however, doing this exclusively for the sake of art. To them, film music scores “are highly undervalued properties”.

Orchestras ought to come to the same conclusion.

Like global warming, these trends in the arts are obvious and they can be addressed.  As the traditions of symphonic writing evolve, orchestras need to be partners with all kinds of living composers rather than reactionary judges.  After all, no orchestra can seriously present people as artistically nuanced as Kurt Weill or Richard Rodney Bennett while at the same time disregarding so much of their compositional output.

Changes are coming. Musicians and management should acknowledge that whatever the new traditions turn out to be, they will challenge some deeply held artistic convictions.  Innovation is needed in orchestras’ artistic thinking just as much as in finance or presentation.  It is time for orchestras to stop repeating the same music each year, and curate concerts using the entire American repertory.  It is better for the art form, and better for the bottom line.

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