Blazing a trail

Blazing a trail


norman lebrecht

October 24, 2007

Why is it that amateur and community orchestras can be so much more adventurous in their programming than the heavily-funded behemoths who occupy Carnegie and other great halls?
After writing on Nigel Kennedy’s current advocacy for the Mieczyslaw Karlowicz concerto, I heard from two players who had been involved in performances in the past year.
Francis Norton of London, a member of the (amateur) Royal Orchestral Society, reported his delight at a concert he played in at St John’s, Smith Square, with Florence Cooke as soloist. ‘I thought the concerto was at least as good as the Bruch,’ he wrote. ‘She played it brilliantly, and it has become one of my favourite violin concerti, (together with Dohnanyi’s No.2).
Next up was Odette Burgess, librarian and back row cello player in the Peterborough Symphony Orchestra of Ontario, Canada, a country town of 70,000, some 80 miles from Toronto.
She writes: ‘Our conductor, Michael Newnham, studied in Poland and married a Polish girl who is now our principal cellist. We had done Karlowicz’s Eternal Songs last year and Michael thought we would enjoy the violin concerto. And we certainly did! The soloist, Erica Dobosowiecz, who is based in Mexico City, learned it especially to play it with us. And she was wonderful! And it was a lovely piece to accompany – our horns which were featured prominently in many places were top notch! The audience loved it!’
So there you have it – a fine piece, with both audience and musician appeal, yet you will search in vain for a professional performance anywhere outside of Poland. Why is that? I wonder.


  • Alex says:

    Easy answer — lower stakes. Big orchestras are very heavily funded because they have very high expenses — high musician salaries, conductor salaries, hall expenses, not to mention expensive fundraising/development initiatives.
    These high expenses mean that they believe they cannot afford — not only despite but actually BECAUSE of their wealth — to take risks on pieces that may fall flat on an audience and discourage them from returning.
    They lose their subscriber base and don’t fill the halls, they slip into irrelevance, lose donors, and eventually the whole organization crumbles.
    Community orchestras are often made up of musicians who not only are not paid, but in fact pay dues and may even be donors for the group. Their mission is to create a space for music lovers to exercise their amateurism.
    Because their expenses are much lower, they can afford to lose a few ticket sales on unfamiliar programs without worrying about bankruptcy.
    Furthermore, community orchestra audiences are attracted less by the programming and quality of the music performed and more by the people performing it — neighbors, coworkers, colleagues, family. This audience is less likely to be dissuaded by an unfamiliar piece.
    NL: Very good point. But surely the purpose of funding, especially public funding, is to encourage orchestras to take risks and push the culture ahead?

  • Robert Berger says:

    I do not agree with the premise of your article.
    In fact, many leading professional orchestras regularly offer unusual and interesting programming, probably more with US orchestras than English ones, which do tend to be rather conservative.
    Neeme Jarvi has been an indefatigable champion of this kind of music,James Conlon is currently doing much for composers like Zemlinsky and the forgotten composers of the holocaust,Gerard Schwarz,Leonard Slatkin,Michael Tilson Thomas,and David Zinman have done so much for lesser-known American music,Leif Segerstam for Scandinavian music,and so on.
    The fact remains that despite the lasting popularity of standard repertoire,a great deal of rarely heard music has been heard everywhere. There are tons of it on CD.Yet critics keep complaining about
    alleged “narrowness” of the repertoire.
    NL replies: The conductors you mention are more adventurous than most. New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, the London orchestras, hardly deviate at all from the tried and tested.

  • I add Carl St. Clair, music director of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra in California. He has brought this orchestras through great strides in new music as well. We are premiering a new concerto by Richard Danielpour in 2009, and it seems likely a new work by William Bolcom in 2010. There are slao young conductors taking the helm of regional level orchestras that are trained in the last half of the 20th century in traditional and new repertoire. They feel it is their duty to bring the classics to their communities, as well as foster the music by living composers, and special music that had been neglected that they feel a certain affinity for. In smaller cities, many conductors make themselves feel felt, which brings a closeness between them and their audiences. This builds a sense of trust, which then allows the conductor to mix old and new repertoire with a sense of trust from their audience. Sometimes it works, other times not. I have been recently experiencing this way of programming throughout the US with orchestras that have co-commissioned Lowell Liebermann’s Third Concerto. When conductors and their orchestras are part of consortium projects, it brings them close together with new music and their audiences feel part of something bigger as a whole entity. They are part of the creation and have a sense of ownership. It is one way to introduce new music to their cities, which helps to expand their accessibility to a wide range of repertoire. This begins with the music director. There are still conductors who rely on the tried and true, and stick with the standard repertoire becuase they believe their audiences will not accept the new music. Well, this is agreed on many levels, though it depends on how and when new music is brought on the plate–and with composers the audiences can relate to. In addition, many people now blog about their experiences going to concerts, so there is the added level of communication within the communities I have witnessed.

  • alan page says:

    The composer Rutland Boughton published an essay in the “Daily Telegraph” c. Nov.1923 arguing that the future of British Opera lay with amateur societies. One of the major reasons he gave is because it was done not to forward careers or for money, but out of sheer love of doing it.
    His Glastonbury enterprises (and the summer schools he ran prior to that) were an embodiment of that faith.
    I think you only need to look at what the Leicestershire Schools Orchestra did for Havergal Brian to see there is an element of truth in what he said.
    Personally I have given up on major orchestras and now basically am CD/Composer driven in my pursuits.
    I expect it is one of the reasons why composers of the Minimal generation gave up on orchestras in general and started touring like rock musicians.

  • Jessica says:

    Tasmin Little made a very beautiful recording of the Karlowicz for Hyperion’s Romantic Violin Concerto series about three years ago, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins.
    NL: Yup, I heard that. But why didn’t she perform it in concert? Where was the advocacy?

  • Brian says:

    It’s true that smaller/amateur orchestras are often doing some of the most adventuresome programming. Looking at the American Symphony Orchestra League’s premieres listing for 07-08 ( the most active commissioners are B- and C-tier groups like the Albany Symphony and Toronto Symphony, not to mention the Empire State Youth Orchestra and the Georgia Youth Symphony. Meanwhile, Chicago is doing just 3 premieres, Cleveland’s doing 4, and New York is doing just 2. In any other discipline (theater, visual art, literature) it’s taken for granted that new works are the driving force behind the medium; in classical music though, it’s ruled by a museum mentality in which new works are the exception and not the rule. Of course, there are many reasons for this – as several others have commented, it’s partly due to the financial risk involved with commissioning new works. Perhaps it’s also because of the lack of good-quality new pieces that don’t pander yet a broad audience can understand?