Sign of the times: US orchestra fires its agent of renewal

Two years ago the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra hired Elena Dubinets with the title of Chief Artistic Officer. The idea was that she was going to flood the organisation with new programming and outreach ideas.

Sadly, Covid kicked in and Elena’s is one of many Atlanta Symphony positions that have been silently eliminated.

She has a new book coming out, Russian Composers Abroad, from the Indiana University Press.

 

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  • I am not surprised. There was no way that Atlanta would proceed to use Ms. Dubinets’ ideas. Most major American orchestras exist to provide safe, familiar, ultra-comfy programming to an increasingly small and increasingly elderly slice of the local elite–Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, rinse and repeat. Atlanta is a city with a huge African-American middle and upper-middle class, and yet the orchestra has shown little inclination to broaden their programming to include music by African-American composers, including Alvin Singleton, a locally-based major African-American composer.

    • In an effort to provide “actionable intelligence” on how to get out of the “lather/rinse/repeat” orchestral programming cycle, I asked my “Stereophile” magazine readers to program a seven-concert Fantasy Symphony Season, the “kicker” (or the “gazumph”) being that none of the works could be by any of these composers:

      Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Handel, Haydn, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Schubert, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, or Wagner. Did you catch the “no Beethoven” part? Good.

      I think the winning results were stunning. The write-in contest setup and rules, and all the winning results, are here:

      https://www.stereophile.com/content/fifth-element-70

      Here are my exemplary seven Fantasy-Symphony concert programs.

      Concert 1
      Toru Takemitsu: From Me Flows What You Call Time (1990) (32 min.)
      Intermission
      Frederick Delius: Piano Concerto (1906) (22 min.)
      Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1919) (14 min.)
      TT: 68 min.

      Concert 2
      Jean Sibelius: Night Ride and Sunrise (1907) (16 min.)
      Alexander Glazunov: Violin Concerto (1904) (22 min.)
      Intermission
      Jean Sibelius: Symphony 7 (1924) (24 min.)
      TT: 62 min.

      Concert 3
      Roy Harris: Symphony 3 (1938) (16 min.)
      Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs (1948) (26 min.)
      Intermission
      Howard Hanson: Symphony 2, “Romantic” (1930) (32 min.)
      TT: 74 min.

      Concert 4
      Fikret Amirov: Struggle and Immortality from A Tale of Nasimi (1969) (3 min.)
      Dmitri Shostakovich: Piano Concerto 2 (1957) (22 min.)
      Intermission
      George Butterworth: A Shropshire Lad (1911) (11 min.)
      Claude Debussy: La Mer (1905) (24 min.)
      TT: 60 min.

      Concert 5
      F.S. Kelly: Elegy in Memoriam Rupert Brooke for Harp and Strings (1915) (9 min.)
      Ralph Vaughan Williams: An Oxford Elegy (1949) (24 min.)
      Intermission
      Morten Lauridsen: Lux Æterna (1997) (28 min.)
      TT: 61 min.

      Concert 6
      Sir John Barbirolli: An Elizabethan Suite (1942) (11 min.)
      Edward Elgar: Cello Concerto (1919) (28 min.)
      Intermission
      Edward Elgar: Symphony 2 (1911) (52 min.)
      TT: 91 min.

      Concert 7
      Modest Mussorgsky: Dawn on the Moskva River, from Khovanshchina (1883) (8 min.)
      Sergei Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934) (25 min.)
      Intermission
      Gustav Holst: The Planets (1916) (46 min.)
      TT: 79 min.

      Average TT: 71 min.

      I think this proves that you can exclude 12 top-shelf composers, yet still have a captivating symphony season. My season tries to balance pieces most concertgoers may never have heard in concert (the Khovanshchina prelude) with pieces almost everyone knows (The Planets). And unless I missed something, with only one exception, my entire season is all 20th century.

      IMHO, better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

      Of course, I have tried to get a few symphony orchestra management people to sit down and read all about this, but they all suddenly had to back-flush their Water-Piks.

  • Finally, someone has the sense to fire the totally useless but strong virtue signalling (at least among their own cohort) chief DIE officer (diversity, inclusion and equity).When your vital organs are failing, you’d be totally stupid to hire a dressmaker to try to make your near-death body look good in front of your peers. Every other musical org. should do the same, and use Covid as the excuse if you don’t have the courage to do it openly.

  • These hires are ridiculous in the first place. The last time I checked these big orchestras have somewhere between 55-70 people who also know a thing or two about music and programming. They’re called orchestral musicians.

  • An unfortunate reality in these difficult times, although a mind such as Ms. Dubinets’ should have been seen as an immense asset to Atlanta as they (re)plan for the current and coming seasons. Sadly, Atlanta’s COVID programming is somewhat lackluster. Look to Seattle, where they are not only playing weekly streamed concerts of varied repertoire but are even premiering new works. It would seem that Ms. Dubinets left her mark there in terms of creative programming.

  • I’m against these kinds of positions in principle. Shouldn’t a symphony orchestra with a highly paid conductor be able to come up with creative ideas on their own?

  • More an Angel of Death by all reports. Her appointment by an ignorant and desperate CEO was bound to end in tears. The fact that this inexperienced mouthy woman insulted the Music Director almost daily and orchestra members said nothing is clearly a sign of the state of the union in this institution!

    • Hyperbole aside, the ASO has a host of problems: PTSD from the horribly contentious labor negotiations (clearly not forgotten), a music director beset by a host of serious personal crises, and a cumbersome bureaucracy of only modest talent. Inserting such a creative change agent was clearly too much for them to swallow.

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