Reinventing the Orchestra

This past week, the Philharmonia Orchestra played at Hill Auditorium under conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. Salonen was recently featured in the New York Times discussing the future of classical music, and I thought it was a funny coincidence that he came to Ann Arbor just four days after the article was published. The article, written by Anthony Tommasini, is titled “Esa-Pekka Salonen Says Tweak the Orchestra, Don’t Blow it Up” and I wanted to reflect on it for my post today. I will link the article here, but from what I understand, Salonen suggests that instead of destroying the whole institution of classical music, it’s in each orchestra’s best interest to understand the community they are serving and tailor their concert programming accordingly.

Disclaimer: “Revolutionizing” the classical music world is a complicated topic for me. My identity is so intertwined with this institution that I think about it constantly, but it has been a challenging process and not all of my opinions are fully formed.  

Since entering music school for a classical performance degree, my relationship with classical music has changed. Music classes and rehearsals consume my school (and weekend) days, so I spend a fair amount of time thinking about it. There is a very strong element of conservatism in classical music, which to be fair, makes sense. The process of learning an instrument has been passed down by teachers for hundreds of years, and much of the music that we play is at least 100 years old. For the most part, the purpose of learning any classical art form is to preserve a part of history. It truly is a special, beautiful thing. I take a lot of pride in being able to perform historic pieces of music. Art should most definitely be preserved.

But there are traditions in classical music that should not be preserved. The institution, like many others, values the work and talents of white men at the expense of other groups. Classical music is rooted in classicism, elitism, racism and sexism. Performance spaces are often inaccessible for people because of the high cost of concert tickets and exclusivity in its “elite” audiences. The standards of perfection expected of audience members and musicians alike creates a toxic environment that inevitably harms the art itself.

What Salonen suggests, to program music that fits the audience/community, is valid and good advice. But I feel like a lot of symphonies are already doing that. In an effort to be innovative, orchestras will typically program two to three pieces written by dead white male major composer (Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Strauss, etc.) and for some diversity, they’ll include a filler piece by a 21st-century composer that’s under ten minutes long. And most of the time, that 21st-century composer will still be a white man. I am not saying that white men cannot or have not written great music, but I’m saying that it’s time for other artistic voices to be heard. It is immensely important to give contemporary music the acknowledgement that it deserves– there is so much important music that is being written right now and it needs to be heard. Why can’t contemporary music be in the forefront of the classical music industry? We can still play music from the past, but why not let Beethoven be the filler piece while the rest of the concert can be carried by new music composed by people of diverse identities?

I want to see what would happen if we “blew up” the orchestra. To reset this institution whose entire historical foundation is rooted in oppression, I believe that it’s our only choice.


Podcast Starter Pack

I can’t leave the house without my earbuds. Or my headphones, depending on my mood. Although I will say that since my headphone cord broke last week and I switched to $5 earbuds, I am seriously missing the noise cancelling technology. (Thanks but no thanks, Bose.)

I would say that most of the time I listen to podcasts as I walk to and from class. I’m never in the mood to listen to music for some reason, maybe because I studying music at school all day, or maybe I’m just a really curious person. It’s a combination of both, I imagine.

There’s something about stories for radio that makes them so meaningful. I understand that if you were to read the transcript of a radio show from a screen or piece of paper, it wouldn’t have the same effect on you as if you had heard it. I’m sure there’s an art to writing for radio and I could probably take a class on it.

(Before I get into my recommendations, I want to preface this by saying that I listen to my podcasts on The Podcast App. The built-in iPhone Apple Podcasts app is a poor excuse for a podcast app!)

The starter pack:

This American Life was on in my mom’s car all the time while I was growing up. Every week the stories are based on different themes, and each story offers a totally different perspective on that theme. They just released their 661st episode on Sunday, so there’s a lot to check out. I would recommend this podcast to everyone on earth.

Serial and S-Town are break-off pods from TAL. Serial is hosted by Sarah Koenig, and in each season she picks one story to tell episode-by-episode. The first season was a national sensation, and now she’s in her 3rd season, reporting on the criminal justice system in Cleveland. Easy to binge-listen. Same with S-Town, a six episode story about a man who lives in Alabama. Trust me, it’s more interesting than it sounds.

Ear Hustle is based out of the San Quentin State Prison and it explores topics in prison life by interviewing real prisoners.

Queery with Cameron Esposito is a good one if you’re interested in queer topics and hearing from queer people in the entertainment industry.

2 Dope Queens is a comedy podcast that supports women and people of color! The hosts are hilarious and they spotlight around 3 comedians per episode. They only invite 1 white guy on per year, and last year it was Tom Hanks. My kind of show!

The Daily is my preferred news podcast from the NY Times. It comes out every morning and each episode is different. It can surprise you.

Let me know what else I’m missing!