Thoughts on the Symphony

Advocating for Artistic Reform

Dark Days


From the New York Times

In its Wednesday edition, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano commemorated two topical dates with full-page spreads: the 500th anniversary of the inauguration of the Sistine Chapel – which took place under Pope Julius II on Oct. 31, 1512 — and the 50-year run of the James Bond franchise.

To honor James Bond is to recognize the character’s role in popular culture, said the paper’s editor in chief, Giovanni Maria Vian, adding that the newspaper’s mandate is “to pay attention to the cultural phenomena of our time,” whether comics, pop music or film. In recent years, the newspaper has commended popular favorites like the Blues Brothers and the Beatles’ “White Album.”

So even the Vatican (!) has honored James Bond and the occasion of his 50th anniversary.

Meanwhile, the Mariinsky Orchestra also offered a commemoration this week. Like so many others, theirs was of the 100-year anniversary of the premier of the Diaghilev ballet The Rite of Spring. The concert was, but for the hurricane, to be played in Carnegie Hall on Wednesday.

The Vatican’s newspaper has a mandate to “pay attention to the cultural phenomena of our time” — that’s more than our classical music institutions do. 

It is a dark day when the Vatican is more open to cultural phenomena than Carnegie Hall.


Separate but Equal



Orchestras should think with a larger artistic world-view — not simply because their very survival depends on their willingness to embrace artistic change, but mostly because that’s what serious artists do. 

Traditional classical programming has become de rigueur in American orchestras.   It is a symptom of an old-fashioned world-view; one that sees orchestras as museums of so-called “high” culture.  Aside from the red-herring of labeling anything “high” culture, this view limits the symphony’s potential as an art form, it’s popularity, and it’s ability to raise funds.  Traditional programming invests in traditional donors at the expense of courting new ones.  Ultimately, re-imagining symphonic programming is about expanding the expressive choices available to symphonies in every market.  This means broadening our definition of what a symphony does and what constitutes good programming.  

Programming should be unique in the context of individual markets.  Across the country, most orchestras approach programming from the same perspective.  They feel trapped in a Faustian programming bargain.  They know change is needed to attract a new audience and new donors, but at the same time they worry that accepting change will alienate traditional donors.  Still, where is the wisdom in investing exclusively in the tastes of the traditional audience when they increasingly do not meet the orchestra’s financial obligations?  If these traditionalists wish to fund the symphony-museum, then they should donate more money. 

Prestige still matters, but the artistic mission matters more. Orchestras don’t offer a product; they offer an artistic experience. They offer a perspective.  Programming choices reflect an artistic perspective, even a nationalistic one. The artistic mission, the aspiration, is what matters most now. Non-traditional programming helps orchestras invest in non-traditional donors, and can reflect a more expansive artistic mission for the entire organization.  Many donors these days react to whether an organization is aspiring to positive social change. Organizations like The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Warren Buffet’s The Giving Pledge, or Richard Branson’s Virgin Unite all seek to help people who have aspirations of societal benefit. Corporate giving also seeks to quantify the societal value of their donations. 

Obviously, orchestras need to aspire to provide social benefit at the community level. One largely unexplored way to do so is to promote the rich and vast array of American symphonic musical genres, as well as our American conductors and soloists. Orchestras should celebrate America’s artistic contributions to the world including film, broadway, and video game music.  While remaining international in its tastes, the symphony should begin each day with a nationalist perspective. After all, most people are just not interested in a museum of German musical culture.

In programming, the choices available to orchestras are severely limited by the classical industry’s insistence that symphonic genres submit to a caste system.  In the caste system bread-and-butter classical symphonic music is naturally the top caste, with places in the middle for New-York-Times-approved composers. At the bottom you will find the untouchables – movie music, Broadway, and video game music. A genre’s caste level is inversely proportional to its popularity in the larger culture — therefore, nothing can be both popular and “good” at the same time. This view reveals minds trapped in an old paradigm: That somehow there exists something called “great” music, then everything else.

The classical caste system largely ignores entire generations of American composers who’ve written for the symphony. It is no wonder the industry is feeling the effects of being cut off from the larger culture. Even though these composers, the untouchables, are among the most uniquely American of symphonic forms and some of the most popular and worthy American art, these artists and their contributions are currently moot in a discussion of programming with classical symphony orchestras.  

This is not about adding another pops series or doing more pre-fab movie concerts; that’s old-paradigm thinking. This is about using all the available repertory together, on each and every concert, to make orchestras more vital and relevant artistic entities. Orchestras need to exercise much more flexibility about programming choices, even at the last moment. Choices made two seasons ago are often not as effective or relevant as new and current ideas. Can we imagine a world where the successful landing of the Mars rover Curiosity causes a symphony to change a concert to include a little Holst? Or even some Jerry Goldsmith?

This idea of “great” music is a particularly insidious view, because it allows some to believe that they are already offering “new” music on orchestra concerts. However, despite very honorable intentions, most classical institutions end up not promoting “new music,” but rather very particular styles of new music; New-York-Times-approved composers. This has been going on for so long that the audience doesn’t trust in the artistic decisions of the orchestra. Even when an organization is being truly adventurous, the audience has a Pavlovian response as it braces for the impact of the latest bad programming choice. The symphony has carefully taught its audience to loathe the new. 

This caste system also limits whether a symphony can achieve meaningful musical experiences across a broad enough base of people who can fund its existence. With the current system, particular kinds of new music are meant for particular kinds of audiences. Classical subscription concerts are for traditionalists. Modern music concerts are for students and critics. Pops concerts are for other people. It’s as if orchestras do not want the various audiences to be in the same room at the same time. 

This tacit snobbery is rotting the foundations of our American orchestras. Separate but equal is not the country that we aspire to be.  Anyone from Erich Wolfgang Korngold to Howard Shore are mostly verboten everywhere but pops concerts. No matter that Korngold was thought of by Mahler, Strauss, and Puccini as a prodigy akin to Mendelssohn or Mozart. Or, that Shore’s The Lord of the Rings symphony is a cultural touchstone that is routinely selling out concerts in very large venues. Doesn’t the symphony want those people too?

Because of this tacit snobbery, it needs to be said that it takes just as much knowledge of the untouchables as is does of traditional classical music to program these genres together. Too often the untouchables are programmed without regard to the original material. The majority of symphonic music from Broadway, films, and video games is a collaborative effort.  Just like when programming classical music, programming untouchable music requires a deep knowledge of the original material. From there one can begin to edit, arrange, and orchestrate for a given concert. Pre-fab pops programming, orchestrations, and arrangements are often terrible. Many of the original works are remarkable, but they need thoughtful and insightful people to bring them to fruition for a symphony. That may mean a new arrangement, or using different sections from the original score, or even re-orchestrating for the available ensemble. Unfortunately for the music, and the audience, pre-fab untouchable music is mostly the norm. Even for many of the staff programming it, whether it is actually any good never enters the equation. They only know that the music often increases ticket sales. Where’s the artistic integrity in that?

Non-traditional programming should be challenging, but also fun to hear.  It should challenge all listeners – not only the existing audience, musicians, and critics, but especially the very large audience who knows only that they don’t want to spend their time and money coming to a symphony concert.  There are other benefits, like giving the musicians a kind of artistic rebirth. Rather than play the same eighty pieces year after year musicians will make better music (even classical music) because their musical experiences will be broader, requiring them to learn and understand new kinds of music and performance styles. Even before the financial crisis, symphony musicians have had record poor job satisfaction. They should welcome these opportunities that will allow them to be the creative, always learning, thriving artists we know them to be. 

Challenging programs could mingle composers one never sees on the same program. Nico Muhly with Kurt Weill and Bernard Herrmann, or Franz Schubert with Adam Guettel and Gabriel Kahane, or Thomas Adés with Nobuo Uematsu and Ludwig van Beethoven. John Williams and Richard StraussStephen Sondheim and Gustav Mahler. Here are two examples of complete programs, the winners of Spring for Music’s Fantasy Programming Contest, Eternal Stories and Too Popular

By allowing American symphonic music under a bigger tent and dumping the caste system we could not only see the symphony and our place in American culture differently, we can also make the symphony into an engaging cultural entity. It could lead to programming that is interesting, popular, and truly challenging. It could create new corporate and donor possibilities, and give orchestras the inclusive creative energy that’s been long absent from the concert hall. That would benefit everyone. 

You say you want challenging programming. Try taking all of American symphonic music seriously. The audience already does. 


A ritual is the physicalization of a shared belief. A community of people perform rituals in order to reinforce their belief. In a Catholic Mass, it is not enough for the congregation to be told that Jesus died for their sins; they must also eat the bread and drink the wine, representing the body and blood of Christ. This ritual reinforces their collective belief through acting out the story. The ritual is a reflection of the belief. 

Rituals of the concert hall reflect beliefs about the symphony. In the hall there are rituals of dress, of repertoire, and even of presentation. With each concert, they reinforce old ideas about the symphony, weighing down the symphony, and the music it plays, in long expired traditions. These traditions alienate most potential new audiences, and keep classical music at arms-length from the larger culture. 

The current concert hall rituals are well known to all those who still go to the symphony. The constant parading on and off stage, the awkward unrehearsed bows, the anarchistic (and historically incorrect) rules surrounding applause are a few of them. The tuxedos, the convention-center lighting, the constant tuning; these are others. Every aspect of a concert is as scripted as any Catholic Mass, playing out the same way whether one is in Boise or Boston. Concert hall rituals are so ingrained in many peoples’ thinking about the symphony that it is often difficult for them understand that these preconceptions can, and should, change. These traditions are not part of the “art”, but rather they are vestiges of history. They hold on to symphonic concerts like barnacles to a boat, and should be scraped off before they sink the whole vessel. 

Right now these rituals are almost always upheld, even when they are detrimental to the best presentation of the music. For example, recently the New York Philharmonic programmed a premier of Thomas Adés’ piano concerto. Just after intermission, as the audience took their seats, Alan Gilbert, the conductor, and Thomas Adés, the composer and soloist, walked onto stage together to much applause. Each of them took a microphone and together they spoke casually about the piece. The audience clearly enjoyed the interaction and the energy of the room warmed in anticipation of this new piece. After hearing about the compositional process, and Eden, and stars, the audience was eager to hear the music. It was perfect time to begin playing.

However, at this delicate moment the rituals of the hall succeeded in being more important than intelligent presentation.

The talk had built up audience anticipation of the premiere. Rather than simply begin, Gilbert told the everyone that they both would “be right back”. They put down their microphones and left the stage, departing to a smattering of applause, but it died before they made it off-stage. In the minutes that followed, silence ruled the hall. Then, as ritual demanded, out came the concert-master; complete with awkward bowing, predictable lighting changes, tepid applause, and yet more tuning. Again, silence in the hall. Then Gilbert and Adés made another entrance. By this time the ritual of entrances and exits and tuning had robbed the hall of the energy built up from intermission and the composer/conductor talk. 

At this unfortunate and inopportune moment; where the audience could barely be bothered to applaud for the soloists second entrance, this is when the music started. The rituals of the hall made it so that rather than capitalizing on the anticipation of hearing a new work, the audience was bored just as the piece was starting. 

The rules surrounding applause, particularly, reinforce old ideas about classical music. Recently, I had the opportunity to see the Emerson Quartet at Disney Hall, in Los Angeles. Moments after the first movement of the Mozart Flute Quartet ended, pockets of the audience ignored the ritual of silence between movements and burst into enthusiastic applause (which Mozart would have loved). Other concert goers were visibly surprised, but they politely endured. However, after the next movement many of the audience applauded again. And again after the following movement. After each movement, with each breech of protocol, the traditionalists got more comfortable staring and openly scowling at those applauding. 

At intermission, exiting the hall, I overheard a conversation; A man who had been among the outraged regulars had pulled aside a women, a stranger, and he was lecturing her on concert hall etiquette. The words “not a circus”, “disturbing”, and “rude” were used to describe her behavior. She was embarrassed, and I intervened and offered the man a lecture of my own. Unfortunately, it remains common at classical music concerts for members of the audience to be treated as if they were unsophisticated, simply for reacting to the music. And why shouldn’t the audience react? In every other art form, the lighting and the performers make it clear when to applaud. In classical music, you either know or you don’t. You are an educated person of taste, an elite, or you are a rube. 

It is worth pointing out that even at this concert, with the Emerson String Quartet, James Galway, and a premiere of a new quartet by Thomas Adés; the hall still was not sold-out. Not even close. 

A large problem created by these old concert hall rituals is that they imply institutional support of elitism and snobbery. This belief has defined the classical music for a century, with the support of musicians and the symphony. It has been used to hawk various luxury products from cars, to annuities, to mustard. The symphony should stop marketing itself as a refuge for elitism and snobbery. Changing the rituals of the hall is the best place to start the reform. After all, does a symphony really cease to be a symphony if there are no tuxedos?

Obviously, it does not serve the collective good of the industry to alienate new audience members. It’s difficult enough to get people into the hall, and it helps no one to make them regret attending. The rituals of the hall reflect its culture, and it is a culture that needs to be changed. Not only for the health of the industry, but also for the sake of art. 

The symphony is not a church, and the rituals of the hall are not sacred. They can be changed, and the symphony is an institution that needs to embrace change. It needs a more enlightened approach as to how it presents the art; the music. If we change the rituals of the concert hall, we can begin to change the symphony itself.

Hopes and Dreams

Ideas of symphonic reform must necessarily be pragmatic. Orchestras of any size are slow moving ships that are adverse to change. In calling for symphonies to change how and what they present, it is sometimes difficult to imagine how change could actually manifest. There are two moments in the coming weeks that offer opportunity for change, moments that are pragmatic chances for reform. 


The first opportunity comes from the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Like so many other orchestras, this group has had major budgetary issues. They haven’t performed in two seasons due to funding shortfalls. Wednesday they announced that they have hired Alan Pierson as the new artistic director of the group. Mr. Pierson is the artistic director of the contemporary music group Alarm Will Sound. One hopes that Mr. Pierson will use the chance of a fresh start to expand the repertoire of new music beyond the composers championed by the New York Times. This is also an opportunity to address how the symphony presents music. Maybe now is the time for the musicians, at last, to change out of the formal-wear? Perhaps hire a lighting designer? Addressing the antiquated concert protocol? The Brooklyn Philharmonic has a chance here to really try something new, something vital, something interesting. Let us hope that they attempt some sort of reform and resist the temptation to sell variations on the status quo. Change is not the enemy of art.


The other chance for change is the upcoming announcement of the New York Philharmonic’s 2011-2012 season. It is an opportunity for their music director, Alan Gilbert, to expand the range of what the symphony performs. An invitation to think more broadly and inclusively about repertoire and thus relevance. It’s a chance to get away from the same eighty pieces that symphony orchestras play year after year, and instead offer all kinds of new music. Music from film, Broadway, and video games should be played on the same concerts as art music and the standard repertory. This would elevate the entire organization. It would elevate the entire industry. 


A new season is an opportunity to dream of possibilities. A chance to dream of reform that could help make the symphony matter to more people. It could be something small, like letting go of the tuxedo. Or something more substantial, like offering new unheard-of collaborations with other cultural institutions; for example it would have been inspired if the New York Philharmonic had played the music of Danny Elfman in partnership with MOMA’s (sold-out) Tim Burton exhibit. 


At the very least, one hopes the new season will have something more imaginative than another season-ending semi-staged opera. 


One or the Other

There was an article in the New York Times last week about the copious vacancies in the New York Philharmonic. An explanation was offered by its conductor Alan Gilbert, who said in a statement, “We’re looking for the best musicians, people with a human quality that makes them uniquely right for the New York Philharmonic.” According to the Philharmonic, it may take a long time to find these gems, but they are worth the wait as they bring to the table what cellist Brant Taylor (of the Chicago Symphony, which has 9 vacancies) calls “thinking, thoughtful musicians who are the whole package.” It appears that the level of musicianship required is integral to the orchestra, but extremely hard to find.

Zarin Mehta, the Philharmonic’s president, is careful to point out that the vacancies are not the result of organizational cost savings strategies. Though he admits, “It happens that you do save money.” While the search goes on for permanent players, “We are fortunate that this is New York, and we have an awful lot of very good people out there.” The 12% vacancy rate at the Philharmonic is presented by the institution as a symptom of the difficulty in finding and acquiring these rare musicians. However, the abundance of very good people in New York City allows the Philharmonic to hire substitutes to fill in the vacant positions, and yet these players perform concerts at less than full pay. It is unclear why these substitutes are not of the quality required to persuade the orchestra to hire them as salaried members.

This question was further brought to a head recently by the experience of Erik Ralske. He is a french horn player who had been playing third horn in the Philharmonic, and he was the only finalist in its audition for principal horn. The Philharmonic chose to leave the chair open rather than hire him. Ralske went on to turn down an offer to be principal horn for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, deciding instead to join the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, as principal horn. If Ralske has sufficient musicality for both the L.A. Philharmonic and the Met Opera to offer him their principal horn chairs (not to mention his years at the NY Phil), one wonders what exactly the New York Philharmonic is looking for. What makes one uniquely right for the Philharmonic, and why is that quality unimportant to these other top-tier groups?

It appears that it is either true that the Philharmonic is currently offering concerts that are musically 88% of what they ought to be, or the concerts are of world-class quality and it is choosing to keep the vacancies in order to save money. It is fallacious to argue that they can offer a top-of-the-line product and at the same time believe that the vacancies remain because of the scarcity of musicians “uniquely right for the New York Philharmonic.”

The Philharmonic is either making the fiscal decision not to hire while hiding that choice behind the fig leaf of artistic integrity, or they are offering concerts that are musically substandard. Perhaps tickets should be 12% off?


The New York Times criticizes, in a review this week of the Korean Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, that “Momentum and continuity were sapped by applause between movements.” This is exactly the sort of traditionalist’s view that ruins the fun of going to a concert.

If a symphony orchestra does not want applause between movements, then it is the symphony’s responsibility to find a way to show the audience. Blaming the audience for reacting to the performance is the wrong answer, and it re-enforces the traditionalist delusion that the audience should know and follow the symphony’s rules of concert etiquette.

For example, the following is from the New York Philharmonic’s web site. There are similar pages on nearly all other symphony’s sites. Some are listed below.

When do I applaud?

There are two reasons to applaud at a New York Philharmonic concert: as a greeting, and to show appreciation. Just before the concert begins, the Orchestra members will all be seated on the stage, except for the Concertmaster – the violinist who sits in the first chair of the first row of the Orchestra. You applaud to greet the Concertmaster when he or she comes onstage. You applaud again a few moments later when the Conductor comes onstage. Any soloists who will be performing will usually come onstage with the Conductor; you applaud to greet the soloist or soloists as well. You do not applaud again until the end of each piece of music, to show your appreciation to the performers. Some longer pieces may have several sections, or movements, separated by a brief, silent pause. The audience does not applaud between movements of a piece. The program will list the movements in each piece, so you will know how many there are; applause is usually reserved for the end of the last movement.

Los Angles Philharmonic

Seattle Symphony

San Francisco Symphony

Boston Symphony 

Chicago Symphony

Seriously expecting the audience to follow this laundry list of old etiquette is absurd. The world does not revolve around the symphony. The answers lay in changing the concert experience itself.

Lighting design can address this issue because it allows the orchestra to choose when applause happens. I personally think the symphony should let go of the tradition of silence between movements. Like coat-tails, it is an anachronism. Still, no matter where one wants applause, lighting design can show everyone when to applaud together. The modern audience is well-trained in reacting to lighting changes. Indeed, it is part of every other cultural event, except the symphony. Lighting can lead the audience without condescension. Then the symphony may remove from its web site the FAQ: When do I applaud?

Lighting, like music, is difficult to describe accurately in words. With subtle choices, a good lighting designer can achieve an enriching concert experience without pulling focus from the orchestra, and at the same time make the concert more fun for the audience. This is a simple change that can make the concert experience better for everyone, and it can be implemented immediately.


Show Me the Money

It is worth noticing that the desire for ideas to address the symphony’s problems comes almost exclusively from its shortage of funding. Traditionalists in the symphony would ideally like to solve the money problem, while maintaining the status quo. When the budget is balanced, few of them notice the artistic stagnation. The symphony needs to think bigger. The goal of change needs to be more than producing short-term economic sustainability. The goal must be achieving cultural relevance. Relevance leads to funding. Without it, finding funding will always be limited to muddling through the latest financial crisis.

It has been so long since the symphony has had anything to do with the larger American culture that it is easy to accuse those asking for relevance of selling out. Attempts to widen the symphony’s scope are viewed by traditionalists as diminishing the Art. To them, concerts cannot be both serious and popular at the same time. The idea of changing how the symphony presents its concerts is offensive to them, because it concedes that the fault for irrelevancy rests on the symphony rather than on the audience.

There are many models for how not-for-profit arts groups can fund their activities. In the United States, however, it is pie-in-the-sky thinking to hope for substantial government funding. Government’s support fluctuates from year to year, but will never fully fund a symphony in America; nor can ticket sales, even at full capacity. The pragmatic truth is that the bulk of funding must come from private donors and foundations.

Because it has modeled itself as a mausoleum rather than a performing arts institution, there are fewer private donors who are inclined to help maintain the symphony. The symphony’s funding problems existed long before the most recent financial crisis, and without change, these problems will continue into the future. It is therefore in the symphony’s own self-interest to become relevant to a larger audience in order to build a larger donor base.

Relevance also gives something for the rest of the organization to work with. The marketing department will have content to sell. The board will have something tangible to point to in its search for funding. The organization itself will be more attractive to other new sources of collaboration. With the goal in mind of being artistically relevant, which is not completely unlike being popular, the orchestra needs to change how it presents Art. This would give the institution a stable base of support, and at the same time makes it matter to the audience, and thus the community.

It is absurd to expect any sort of meaningful change in the public’s relationship with the symphony without actually changing something about the concerts. The concert experience itself, the thing that happens at eight o’clock on a Saturday night, is what needs to be examined. There are two aspects of the symphony’s concerts which should be addressed immediately: the concert hall traditions, and the repertoire.

The symphony must make the experience of sitting and listening to long-form music as enjoyable and fulfilling as possible. Concerts need to take place in the present, not as an imitation of the past. For too long, concerts have been museums of expired traditions. The ritualistic bowing, the coat-tails, the awkward silences, the bad lighting: all these bad apples are barriers to the modern audience’s enjoyment of the music. The protocol of bowing, tuning, and applause should be updated and refined. Lighting should be used to better present the orchestra throughout the concert and to dictate updated protocol, like applause. The orchestra should wear modern clothing (such as suit and tie) and let go of the nineteenth-century evening wear.

The symphonic music that is relevant to Americans is the very music that most symphonies refuse to present seriously: Film and Broadway music. This music is not only distinctly American music, it is also the symphonic music that speaks to the absent audience. And frankly, it is where the vast majority of living compositional talent lay. Composers are professionals, and the best go to places where they are well paid. Traditionalists may disapprove of the direction the symphonic art has gone (or, of collaborative art in general), but art does not need the establishment’s approval to grow and change. It continues as part of peoples’ lives whether the symphony plays it or not. Art does not wait for traditionalists to catch up, and neither will the audience. This is not to say that simply programming film music will address the myriad problems the symphony faces. However, creatively allowing this music to mingle with classical music, with Broadway music, modern music (art music), and video game music creates possibilities for programs that have both relevance and beauty. This, in combination with revising concert hall traditions, is how to start making symphonic concerts relevant in the twenty-first century.

The audience no longer trusts the symphony’s artistic judgment. They must be won back and shown that the symphony can present Art that speaks to them without condescension. The social structures built around the symphony are only traditions. Saying that “we’ve always done it this way” is not an argument, it is an admission of fear. The symphony should be brave!

Classical music is a top-down industry and a valid worry among smaller symphonies is that if they embrace meaningful change they will lose their artistic credibility among their peers, critics, and donors. Leadership needs to come from the major orchestras in order to lend credibility to a new direction. If a mid-level symphony starts wearing business suits, hires a lighting designer, reformats the concert, and offers more varied and popular repertoire, it is selling out. If the New York Philharmonic does it, it is the new direction of the art. We must learn to think with a larger world-view, and expect the artistic staff at the major orchestras to lead the way. Their stubborn inaction suffocates the entire industry.