The Place of the Orchestra in the Modern World
At AYO National Music Camp this year, five intrepid writers took part in the Words About Music course. This passionate group got to work capturing the flurry of activity at camp with a range of interviews, articles, and opinion pieces. We are happy to present a collection of these works in our WAM Wrap-Up series!
Read the other pieces in the series here:
Meet the Campers: AYO National Music Camp 2022 by Lily Begg
Porque no los dos? It’s not so simple in classical music by Emily Dodd
Musical Memories by Molly Jenkins
During their time at AYO National Music Camp, members of the Words About Music cohort explored the issues threatening today’s symphony orchestra and how orchestras around the world and universities and conservatoriums are responding to these challenges.
They consulted orchestra members, conductors, programmers and hopeful but anxious upcoming orchestral musicians to answer the question: does the symphony orchestra have a place in the modern world? And what can be done to ensure its future?
Throughout countless lockdowns, social distancing, and other restrictions, one thing was made clear over the last two years: people missed live music. We all lamented cancelled shows, festivals and other live performances. Stuck inside, we absorbed various other forms of art at a greater rate than ever. Why then, with this clearly healthy appetite for live music, performance and creativity, does the demise of the symphony orchestra continue to be prophesied? Does the symphony orchestra have a safe place amongst other artistic institutions, or is it under threat for reasons of expense, elitism and inaccessibility?
Not according to Raff Wilson, Vice President of Artistic Planning for the Seattle Symphony.
‘The demise of symphony orchestras has been predicted for many years now. The prophecy of doom has never come true. In fact it could be argued that we are entering a golden age for orchestras as the cost of a ticket is, for the first time, on a par with many other live experiences. The attention span that a symphonic concert commands is comparable to (or less than) many modern feature films.’
Listening to the orchestra may feel more niche than it actually is: someone who has never been to a classical music concert has probably been exposed to this music without knowing it in cinema, video games and pop culture. Orchestral music is for everyone. So how do we prove that to wider society, and ensure the future of the orchestra?
Many orchestras are already responding with innovative and creative ideas. One example that Carlo Antonioli, the Assistant Conductor Fellow for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, brings up is film score concerts, in which the orchestra plays the music alongside a screening of a popular movie from the Harry Potter or Star Wars franchises. The benefits of such concerts are numerous: they’re entertaining and bring in high ticket sales, they change the audience demographics by lowering the average age of the audience (thus potentially building a future audience). Many musicians also really enjoy taking part in these concerts. Skill-wise, they’re not a cop-out either – a lot of those big film scores are difficult to play and require levels of stamina and endurance the original soundtrack orchestra wouldn’t have had to face, since a film score is usually recorded in numerous short takes.
Another benefit is that these film score concerts act as education by introducing people to the orchestral soundscape. Carlo points out that when someone attends a film score concert ‘the music is mapped on to the narrative; you understand the relationship between music and storytelling because it’s there in front of you.’ It’s like a stepping-stone towards musical comprehension: the audience can see the direct correlation between music and storytelling. That’s a skill they can use if they go on to listen to orchestral music without accompanying visual media.
This educating effect is not limited to those without musical training: when I went to hear the Sydney Symphony Orchestra perform with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I heard for the first time the influence of Renaissance music in both instrumentation and melody. Despite being a trained violinist and a connoisseur of the Harry Potter films, I had never noticed this before. It took the immersive live-concert experience for me to hear this detail, and it really changed the way I watched (and listened to) the movie.
Aside from these film concerts, orchestras are increasingly adapting themselves to suit different performance venues and occasions. In an article on the UK’s Classic FM website, Ivan Fischer (conductor of the Budapest Festival Orchestra) said he would ‘welcome a more flexible musical family that could adapt its size and resources to what different composers and audiences require.’ While this can certainly help to bring music to new spaces and audiences, one does worry about whether this lends itself to further casualisation and job losses for the orchestral workforce, something which concerns Adelaide Symphony Orchestra violinist Lachlan Bramble.
‘We need professional musicians. We need those jobs to be able to attract the best people and have more work and more secure jobs. Having said that, the role of orchestral musicians is evolving and so musicians are adjusting their expectations…performing is one part of it but outreach and education is another big part. For a lot of musicians that’s been an exciting development because they can use other skills that they might have; I think the 21st century orchestral musician will become a kind of “citizen-artist”.’
This sentiment is echoed by Wilson:
‘Flexibility is key, and these different kinds of repertoire can be a stimulating addition to the artistic life of our musicians. But the measure of a symphony orchestra will continue to be large-scale repertoire, and I believe that audiences will continue to expect major orchestras to be able to ‘field’ the number of musicians required to tackle our heartland music.’
The overarching message is that future musicians need to be able to do it all: a recording session with an up-and-coming pop singer one day, a film score the next day and Mahler 9 the next night. As a young musician I find this daunting but also exciting: mastery in many areas presents a challenge, but an exciting one that can be honed over a lifetime. As a classically trained musician, one of the things I felt I’ve found most beneficial over the last few years is playing non-classical gigs, where adaptability and more aural awareness are required than what I’ve encountered before in classical music. I’m sure these experiences have enhanced my skills when I then come back to play in a traditional symphonic program.
Programming also plays a major role in either encouraging growth or stagnation for the orchestra. Many orchestras are modernising and branching out by playing a greater variety of works than ever before, and searching for new stories to tell. The Seattle Symphony recently commissioned a piece to mark the anniversary of the Executive Order 9066 (which led to the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II) from composer Paul Chihara, who spent his childhood in an internment camp. This was followed by a multimedia work with footage of the camps and improvisations by violinist/composer Kishi Bashi, then finally Tchaivosky’s Fourth Symphony. Wilson recalls that their conductor ‘was able to speak most movingly on the theme of fate which linked these three pieces. These concerts attracted a significant new audience and were recognized as a significant way to commemorate a story of national importance and significant local impact.’
Bramble agrees that giving the audience some context and history into the music is a game-changer. He told me of a particularly successful ASO education concert for children in which the orchestra performed the Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. Without the context, it could have been quite an abrasive and unpopular work for children unversed in how to listen to such music, but it actually ended up being a favourite amongst the kids when they understood what the discordant sounds represented.
Both these examples prove that learning and education are essential to audience engagement and therefore crucial in ensuring the popularity of the orchestra and art music more generally. Renowned Australian composer Anne Cawrse considers it essential, even just as a justification for arts funding:
‘It has to be a grassroots approach: we need to be going right back to the very start, making sure that there is a good solid, rigorous but age-appropriate exposure to music so that we are raising an audience, or if not an audience, at least people who don’t screw up their nose when they see millions of dollars go into the arts. They might say, “well I’d rather go to the footy but I’m okay with this happening”.’
But to what extent is it the orchestra’s responsibility to bring music education to the masses and raise an audience? While Bramble has seen great success with increasingly interactive education concerts for children, he acknowledges that ‘it’s hard for an orchestra to take on all the responsibility of educating an entire populace.’ Wilson too, points out that ‘a foundational music education syllabus, accessible by all children during their schooling, remains a key element.’ This is challenging in a country where music education is compulsory and free in only one state (Queensland).
Amongst all this speculation, I start to feel nervous as a violinist. My training has centred around traditional orchestral playing, and I wonder whether I have a flexible enough set of skills from my limited foray into less-traditionally classical avenues of music to cope with the demands that might be placed on me as a working musician. I wonder more broadly whether my original symphonic orchestral training will still be useful to me in 40 years’ time and if there will be orchestras left to play in with audiences left to watch them.
Cawrse is optimistic: ‘From my own personal perception, I think there’s absolutely a place for orchestras and that there can be ways forward to modernise, reinvigorate, change perceptions, make it relevant. There should be funding because art is important and music is important and musicians add huge value to society.’
While I agree with Cawrse wholeheartedly (our world would be a miserable place without art, music, culture and creativity) the analytical part of me can’t help but think about the cold hard facts of funding input vs economic output. Bramble offers me some more hope by reminding me these concerns about the symphony orchestra aren’t new.
‘Orchestras have always been wonderful, and they’ve never been economically viable. Orchestras pop up all over the world in all sorts of shapes and sizes…so I’m positive that we will keep on this journey. Us musicians and the people working within our orchestras will be its custodians: we’ll do our very best and then pass it on to the next generation. And that’s what I see happening in the AYO programs, and it’s really, really wonderful.’
Miranda Ilchef is a Sydney-based violinist, writer and alumni of both AYO’s performance and Words About Music programs (2018, 2019, 2020 and 2022). She writes reviews, promotions, opinion pieces and interviews as a lead writer for Cut Common and plays in orchestras such as Willoughby Symphony Orchestra, Ensemble Apex and Canberra Symphony Orchestra.