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.


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