I like to look out into the audience when we take our bows. Seeing the faces of the people applauding is a good gauge of how much they enjoyed the concert.
Tonight was the final Boston Symphony performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony before we go on our European tour in a couple of weeks. The 90-minute symphony is long and challenging, both to play and to listen to. Its relentless intensity and stretched tonality prevent it from being easily satisfying in the lyrical manner of a Tchaikovsky or Dvorak.
Yet when I looked into the audience, which was a pretty full house, what I saw was more than gratifying. Not only was it clear that the performance was meaningful to the listeners, I was surprised to see a fairly balanced division of people in their 20s and 30s, 40s and 50s, and 60s and 70s. Surprised because the naysayers who prophesy the doom of symphony orchestras tell us that only rich, old people go to concerts anymore. I’m sorry, but that’s not what I saw tonight. And let me add that going to a symphony concert is no more expensive than the average ticket for a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, and a lot less than a Fenway box seat. So if you can afford to sit in the bleachers and get a hot dog, you can afford the Boston Symphony.
A prevailing narrative, promulgated in many instances–amazingly enough, by some symphony orchestras’ very administrations–runs like this: Symphony orchestras are in dire trouble. The traditional symphony format, including the repertoire, is no longer relevant to contemporary society. For it to be meaningful, and therefore in order to survive, it has to connect with a more diverse local community and compete more actively for the entertainment dollar. In other words, orchestras have to jettison the “standard” repertoire and create new formats for less formal performance experiences in venues that will attract a more hip crowd. Otherwise we might as well pack our bags and go home.
I find this narrative to be flawed for a number of reasons. First, I don’t see that orchestras are on the verge of extinction. On the contrary. People who make this argument are viewing only the top echelon of major symphony orchestras, and even in this regard its a fiction. There is no doubt that when economic times are tough, orchestras struggle. When times get better, they rebound. In other words, they’re like everyone else. But going beyond fully professional orchestras, when you look at the depth of symphonic orchestras in American society, including hundreds of semi-professional, community, youth, college, festival, and school orchestras, a strong case can be made that symphony orchestras have never been as alive and well.
And you know what music they’re playing? They’re playing Mozart and Beethoven, Mahler and Strauss, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy and Ravel. You know why? They’re great composers. Musicians love to play their music and audiences love to hear it. No one has gotten tired of the Mona Lisa. Should we program more music of contemporary, ethnically diverse composers? Absolutely! If it’s worthy music, by all means. But it’s ass backwards if the reason is out of fear that otherwise symphony orchestras will die.
But what about the format? And those stuffy concert halls? Outreach and education activities are great, and the more the better. But how can they “save the symphony” if the raison d’etre, playing symphonies, is devalued? What would the purpose of such an effort be? If a group of symphony musicians playing Piazzolla tangos in a pub floats their boat, that’s great. That would be a lot of fun. Go for it! And maybe it would attract one or two people to go to a real symphony concert. (Personally, when I’m at a pub, I’d rather watch a ball game while I’m drinking my Rolling Rock than listen to string quartets. But, hey, that’s just me.) But here’s the problem. It’s a challenge to play Tchaikovsky Fifth in a bar. I’m not sure know how you’d fit all those bass players in there. Maybe behind the pool tables. So I think we’re stuck with concert halls. And you know what? Some people think it’s very special to go to a concert hall. In fact, a lot of people feel that way. Maybe that’s why they’ve kept coming for three hundred years.
In this day and age when we’re surrounded by external stimuli 24-7, when our computerized world frames us into thinking and feeling and responding in nano seconds, perhaps the appeal of two hours in the comfort of an impressively comfortable concert hall, listening to a Rossini overture, a sublime Mozart piano concerto, and a Brahms symphony, is actually something that people would be more inclined to enjoy more now than ever before. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the death of the symphony orchestra have been greatly exaggerated.