There's been much talk of pop styled musical groups lately. There's a contingent in the classical world that calls for classical groups to meet audiences half-way, and that the best way to do so is to embrace popular music in classical concerts.
There are others that claim that such attempts are nothing but pandering to commercial interests. That this type of programming accepts a viewpoint that classical music institutions and smaller groups should be tied, first and foremost, to commercial interests.
Of course, the truth of the matter is that there is no one answer to this dilemma. Performing popular music, be it transcriptions, arrangements, or original tunes in popular styles is not a new idea; nor is it likely to be the savior of classical music that certain pundits assume. It is also not outright pandering, nor specifically bowing to commercial interests.
A series of problems lie at the heart of this (continuous) disagreement. First is a philosophical issue--what is the purpose of the institution or group? Is the chief purpose of the group entertainment, educational, promotion of the arts, or some other idea? The answer for performing organizations, or course, is the promotion of the arts.
Which comes to another question: what arts are being promoted, and how best to promote them? For a symphonic group, the general mission is to play concerts at a high caliber. What is on the concerts is a matter of discussion.
In deciding programming, there are many issues to weigh, including past seasons, areas of expertise of the performers involved, a general aesthetic mission, and what best serves the public (which is decided, in part, by feedback from the public). Every group has its own character, from symphonies that focus on Classical and Romantic area rep, to new music ensembles focusing only on the most recent compositions from a few different styles, to a gospel choir performing modern and traditional spirituals, hymns, and anthems.
Many of these groups are tied to specific geographic regions. The New York Philharmonic serves, first and foremost, New York City. newEar new music ensemble serves Kansas City, MO. The Indianapolis Children's Chorus serves Indianapolis, IN, and San Francisco Opera serves San Francisco, CA. Groups when they reach a certain size and have accumulated enough cultural capital can begin exerting influence in wider and wider circles.
For groups focusing on performance, this means that they can add more concerts to the schedule, tour, record CDs (and publish themselves, or work with a record label), create spin-off groups (say, a section forming a small chamber ensemble under the banner of the large ensemble. This is fairly common in large symphonies) or expand into other areas of need, such as focusing on educational outreach. For educationally focused groups (such as youth symphonies or choruses), this could mean creating more groups, bringing in more teachers to help run sectionals, expand into after school programs, or expand performance opportunities through recordings and tours.
But first and foremost, the main mission of the group should be the focus: in this case, I will limit it to just groups focusing on the promotion of the arts through musical performance.
Discussions have arisen on what is the product of a group. It seems odd to ask this for a performing group, however in the pop world, the paradigm has been shifting. In the age before recorded media, the live performance was the product. In the age just prior to the rise of recorded media, the beginning of the radio age, the live performance was still a main factor. There were radio and television symphonies in place all over the world, from the BBC Orchestra to the NBC Orchestra (under the baton of Arturo Toscanini). For pop groups, the recorded media quickly became the main product--it is easier and more cost effective to produce a large amount of recordings and sell them for personal use than to undertake a tour. Radio proliferated the songs, home audiences rushed out to buy records, and the rise of the record company and popular music in the 20th century begins to take firm hold.
Of course the most early adopters of the technology were arts groups. One of the earliest recordings on an Edison Phonograph that has been preserved to this day is Johannes Brahms playing Brahms. Radio and TV Orchestras gave regular concerts over the air, and opera singers, such as Enrico Caruso, were recorded and pushed out as the must have items of the time. It was a time that held culture in high esteem for being culture. The goal for Grammophone was, of course, commercial at heart, but there was also a moral belief that the highest quality and caliber of music should be represented. This early 20th century period was marked by the writings of philosophers and critics dating back to the 19th century--in particular Schopenhauer who praised music as being the highest art form (but not all music), Eduard Hanslick and his formalist push (backing Brahms and attacking Wagner and other artists that sought to connect music to outside forces), and Theodore Adorno (who's critical theory is still approached today, and again touts the superiority of high art over all other art forms, even specifically attacking "Jazz," though at this time it is thought that the term is synonymous with all popular music, swing being the most popular at the time of his writings). The Romantic ideals of music pushed into music theory as well, where a certain German nationalist named Heinrich Schenker put forth a musical theory of linear (contrapuntal) analysis that, as a theory, works well for some specific style periods. Along with the useful theoretical end, Schenker attached large amounts of philosophy pushing nationalistic ideals, most importantly the superiority of German musical writing.
Nationalism in general was a major movement in the Romantic era. Countries throughout Europe were rebelling against what was seen as cultural imperialism in music--German music being placed on the highest place, and all other music being inferior to it. This manifested itself in many countries, notably Sweden (an early adopter due to the efforts of Gustav III, a ruler who was not known for his strength, so he made up for it with wanton flourishes of power. The bonus was the creation of the state opera, state symphony, and various other arts enterprises in Sweden), England (whose identity became more coalesced in the 20th century with Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams), Scotland (who was seeking not only their individual identity apart from Germany, but also apart from England), France (who was often at odds with Germany, and now focused on the creation of original forms, such as the French Grand Opera), and many more. However, culture in America was tied heavily to who immigrated to America. Recently founded in comparison to these movements, America had to struggle with national identity on a more base level, and cultural capital was not the highest priority. This may be linked to groups such as the Puritans who did not believe in the use of music for recreation, only for services, or Calvinists, who had similar views, but were a bit more lenient on the recreational use of music, but a bit more strict on what music could be performed in church (monophony only--meaning everyone singing the melody together. Instruments were also frowned upon). And, of course as time has gone on, there have been more forms of music in America, from the minstrelsy shows of the 19th century (where many of the American folk songs, such as "O Susannah" originate--for a look at the times, check out the later verses. There's a lot of stereotypical imagery which showed the lack of understanding of the culture). This leads to the rise of Burlesque, the creation of American theater (with musicals owing much to signspiel traditions of Germany, and the light comic operas of the English, especially Gilbert and Sullivan).
Why cover these trends? Because they are important to understanding how performing groups came to be in the United States. Symphonies were often led by European conductors, and filled with European musicians. American musicians traveled to Europe to study, with notable exceptions (such as Charles Ives, who had a fiercely nationalistic view, and was a misogynist, which explains why he discusses Europeans in derogatory effeminate terms--this is not to detract from his music, to put in slight perspective why he took the path he did. Other nationalistic composers also created national trends based on misguided personal ideals. It doesn't injure their music, but it's important to keep a perspective on why these trends started. Reactionary, and political...but that was a past post. Let's at least be honest about where the trends begin).
There has also been a huge amount of cross pollination between musical styles from time immemorial. From Machaut and Dufay writing popular songs and including them in their masses; to madrigals inhabiting a space somewhere between folk music and liturgical anthems; on to the use of folk music in the nationalistic works of Sweden, Scotland, and England; Barok and Kodaly recording folk songs, and using the material (directly and indirectly in their music); to the rise of film music with Korngold and Bernard Herrmann's memorable scores; jazz composers and orchestras recreating pieces in a new light, or fusing traditions into new pieces (Duke Ellington is a master of this with a great example being his Nutcracker Suite); dance bands develop into funk, go go, and disco, all which originally included acoustic instruments as well as the rising electric guitar, electric bass, and synthesizers; and we would be remiss to include the great Herbie Hancock's work in fusion, reaching out to artists of all walks starting in the 70s: all of this to illustrate a single point--the idea of fusing genres, even in the orchestral world, is not new. How many rock/orchestral concerts can be pointed out in the last 40 years? I personally own Metallica's S&M , which dates from 1999...And yet, somehow that collaboration concert didn't lead to more amazing things with the San Francisco Orchestra. Metallica fans did not rush out and buy the great SFO recordings. Or what about Portishead's concert and recording "Live at Roseland" with members of the NY Phil? Did this collaboration bring more people to the NY Phil?
I made the claim earlier that there is no correct answer to the issues that face orchestras. I do, however, have a strong opinion of what can help a great many of them--a return to their original purpose of serving a local community. Orchestras exist for their live performances, not their recordings, live streams, or televised appearances. Media is a way of reaching a wider crowd, but is that crowd who is really being "served" by the organization? If I buy a CD of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it is a one off deal. I may purchase another, if I happen to like their recording of a certain piece. I did buy their recording of Ives' 4th Symphony. Did that one time sale bring me to the concert?
No, because I live nowhere near Chicago. At the time, I lived in Kansas City.
Did buying that recording get me to go to the Kansas City Symphony?
No, because that recording is not the KCS.
Connecting with a local audience comes down to knowing your local audience. This doesn't mean following national metrics, or even sending out a questionnaire to your season ticket holders. This means talking to people--talking to people after concerts, during intermission, and outside the concerts during community events. It means talking to people who aren't your largest donors, but people who would gladly go to a few concerts, when time and funds permit...and if the programming is interesting.
It means connecting with local musicians. Many orchestras do a good job going to local colleges and playing concerts. Some offer side-by-sides. Orchestral musicians often teach at local universities (I had the fortune to take lessons with a principal player). And yet there's still a divide. Composers, both young and old feel left out of the equation. Performers know only one or two members of the orchestra, but don't resonate nor understand the group as a whole. And the public faces, the musical directors, often hold themselves aloof from the community--and those that make themselves known are beloved (take Bernstein, Osma Vaska, Michael Tilson Thomas, just to name a few).
But pandering is not the way. Ah, there it is, the dirty word that pundits on one side scream "Listening to your audience is not pandering!" while the other side retaliates "Playing anything but the greatest works is pandering!"
There's a simple definition to "what is pandering?" The basic definition is to gratify or indulge an immoral desire or taste. With a symphony then, what is pandering?
Creating a concert season that abandons your mission.
If your mission is to "promote the arts through orchestral concerts to the local populace," then the question becomes "Is playing a bunch of pop arrangements to draw in a wider crowd pandering?" The deeper questions are "Does pop music need promotion?" and "Is the purpose of the orchestra to sell tickets?" Another way to phrase it is "Are orchestras solely for entertainment?" And this leads to the question "Are masterpieces, Romantic and Classical era pieces, and large symphonic works entertaining?"
And this reaches a final question of taste, which is something that all too often pundits on both sides seem to ignore. Not everyone likes classical music. Not everyone who likes classical music likes Classical era music. Someone may love Schubert but hate Bruckner. They may love Penderecki but despise Brahms. They may love Nickelback, Pentatonix, and Lindsay Stirling, but hate Shostacovich.
Does this mean that the answer to the question becomes "The metric says the most people like Lindsay Stirling. We can sell out concerts if we bring her in."?
Does this mean that this serves the community?
Or is it entertainment, a way to sell tickets, a necessary evil, or a brand new way of expressing ourselves that should replace the old?
For me, this is where the arts stand. They don't stand at a point of answer, they stand at a point of questions. To answer the questions, each group must discuss them, openly; board, management, and players. Groups must be willing to experiment within what they feel is the purpose of their group. And be ready to say "no, this is not what we stand for as an organization."
So, let's open the dialogue--here and all over. What is the purpose of a non-profit performing group? What are the necessary "evils" (or giving of concerts outside what the group would consider the mission)? How broad is the mission? Are all music forms to "equal" in representation? Do some groups need more or less representation? And how do we connect with a local audience without giving up our moral standing (as it relates to the mission of the group)?
Thoughts, ideas, comments?