To paraphrase Mark Twain’s famous quote, the death of classical music in America has been greatly exaggerated.
This Saturday, November 9, 2019, I will have the great pleasure of guest conducting a concert of the Salt Lake Symphony at Libby Gardner Concert Hall on the University of Utah campus. The orchestra by and large comprises a group of amateur musicians who perform throughout the year simply for the joy of it. In preparation for a concert, they rehearse once a week on Tuesday nights for five weeks. Why at night? Simple. Because during the day the musicians have full-time jobs, most of which are not in music.
The program we’re doing is daunting by anyone’s standard. The major work is the Symphony No. 3 by Aaron Copland, a massive, 45-minute composition that requires the forces of a battery of a half dozen percussionists, piano, celeste, two harps, and a full complement of brass, woodwind and string sections. To put it mildly, it is a challenging piece in terms of ensemble playing, its dozens of rhythmic pitfalls, and technically difficult parts for all involved (yours truly, included). I performed it in the violin section of the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood last summer, and even given Tanglewood’s park-like setting, it was no walk in the park.
Yet, the Salt Lake Symphony is performing it at the request of the musicians themselves, and they have been up to the challenge. And it must be mentioned that the remainder of the program is hardly less challenging: the rowdy overture to “The Cowboys” by John Williams, and the muscular “Estancia” Suite by the Argentinian composer, Alberto Ginastera. To be able to retain information from one rehearsal to the next is hard enough from one day to the next, but when rehearsals are a week apart, it is impressive how much these musicians manage to hold on to the progress we make.
The Salt Lake Symphony is by no means unique. Virtually every community has at least one orchestra of one sort or another. School orchestras, youth orchestras, community orchestras, college orchestras, semi-professional orchestras. And of course, fully professional orchestras. Yes, the orchestras at the top with multi-million dollar budgets have the most accomplished musicians. That goes with the territory. But those are also the ones we hear about in the news when they’re struggling financially, which is often. I think because we hear only that sliver of the whole picture, pessimism about the future of orchestras in the U.S. has been skewed. The reality is that orchestras in this country, thanks to organizations like the Salt Lake Symphony, are alive and impressively well.