On Not “Blowing Up the Orchestra”

Esa-Pekka Salonen

Esa-Pekka Salonen

In an article by Anthony Tommasini in the March 7 edition of the New York Times, the very fine Finnish conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen; music director designate of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, muses on the future of the orchestra in the 21st-Century.

The article itself is not terribly well-written, suffering from the same lack of focus in logically expounding the concepts and ideas that the maestro makes attempts to articulate. Albeit the conceptual foundations for Salonen’s ideas; being largely self-intuitive and arguably unproven outside his own efforts with the Philharmonia Orchestra – successful and insightful as they have been, warrant attention.

The most important virtue of the article is the clear intent in which Salonen is engaged with the myriad issues besetting the future of symphony orchestras around the world.  It’s called ‘leading from the front’ and it is to be thoroughly admired.

I don’t agree with Esa-Pekka on every point.  I certainly do not see that the future of orchestral programming being so rigidly tied to concerts in which masterworks of the repertoire  are “present[ed] alongside comparably ambitious modern and contemporary works.”  This is an approach that has yielded fairly poor results over many years for multifaceted reasons.

I do agree with him unreservedly, nonetheless, that an orchestral concert becomes an event of “human energy, human expression — and people react strongly to that.”

It is the elemental proposition of maximising the importance of the level of human expression possible that, at least in my view, is the key.

Orchestras do remarkable things; so remarkable in fact, that we often lose sight that what orchestral players do is viscerally thrilling to audiences.  But we don’t advertise that to the general public.  As Salonen rightly remarks, “The message…is often conveyed — “come and hear an immortal masterpiece performed by Maestro So-and-So and a great symphony orchestra” — is actually off-putting. Lots of concert halls look like shrines or temples, like a Parthenon,” he added. “You climb up to make yourself worthy” and “walk out a better person.”

It will come as no surprise to learn for those of you who peruse my personal blog that I hold deep and abiding concerns about marketing departments of many symphonic organisations who commonly seem bereft of ideas of how to promote classical music to new audiences.  As I pointed out in a recent post, it is actually proven that audiences generally don’t care who is conducting, but what music is being performed!

It is through the music itself that connections are made to the human experience.

The challenge is how to articulate the meaningfulness of the experience to an audience through the mechanisms that contemporary audiences evaluate and experience in their daily lives.

When we solve that issue – and something we spend a lot of time at the ADO thinking about and developing – then we’ll be on a path that can lead to only better outcomes.

Kevin Purcell

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