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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Nytch

Field Notes, Vol. 5 no 1: "We are ancestors, too"

Hello, friends! I know it’s been a while since I last wrote. I’ve been on a full-year sabbatical, which has not only given me the capacity to dive into some big composition projects but also to think about some of the “big issues” facing the world of classical music today (both outside the conservatory and within it). If you want to know a little more about what I’ve been up to, check out the diary from my MacDowell residency last fall. There will be more thoughts building on that transformative experience in the coming weeks/months, but today I want to draw your attention to the fantastic address by Gabriela Lena Frank at the recent League for American Orchestras conference in Houston. I'm also using this occasion to sort of reboot "Field Notes." If you don't already receive these posts via your email and would like to, please let me know!

So, on to Gabriela's address. I can’t think of a more eloquent, concise, and bang-on-bullseye statement of why the music of our time matters and how we can, and must, do more to support those musical storytellers—our composers—in our midst. I urge you to watch the whole video, though today I’m focusing on two key points. To paraphrase…

1. “Composers are cultural witnesses of their time. […] What legacy are we leaving to our descendants? […] We should have reverence for our ancestors, but we should have even greater reverence for the future.”

2. “Time to level up”—not just reacting to trauma (the death of George Floyd, the Me Too movement) but proactively building connections, supporting new stories, cultivating new and diverse talent and audiences.

She also provides several specific ideas that would help develop more and better musical storytellers, as well as ways that orchestras can play a proactive role in bringing those stories to life.

Though articulated with a rare degree of beauty, heart, and authenticity, the specific ideas Gabriela shares are not particularly radical or new; advocates for change in the classical music world have been preaching these points for years: If orchestras want to revitalize their audiences and build a sense of purpose and relevance for their organization in the communities they serve, they must be willing to change. But what does that change involve? Yes, we can talk about the repertoire we program and various forms of “outreach” (a term I despise). But these discussions skip over a fundamental, necessary first step: before meaningful change can be made within any kind of organization they must rethink their Why—“What is the essence of our mission?”—and only then can a conversation of How yield any meaningful results.

As Gabriela mentions in her talk, orchestras have made some progress in recent years: for instance, orchestras are slowly beginning to program more music by women and BIPOC composers. This is clearly a good thing. But she offers a brilliant insight when she observes that these changes have been reactive, not proactive. Said another way: what’s missing is a sense of how these programming decisions fit within a broader context of an orchestra’s mission. What I see in many orchestras is nothing more than a checking of the “diversity box”: they replace a traditional concert opener with a short “diversity” piece and then continue programming and running their organizations in the exact same way they always have. These new musical offerings might be fantastic, but organizations who are just “checking the box” have completely missed the point. (And, I would venture, they will not see their audience numbers change in any significant way.) Orchestras must go back to the beginning: What is our mission? Why does this music matter? Who is missing from the picture and how can the orchestra not just reach them, but serve them? What are the assumptions we’re making about our current audience, and are those assumptions valid? (Chances are they’re not.) Then, based on the answers to these questions, we design a portfolio of programs to accomplish the mission. 

And what of that mission? I would argue that an orchestra’s mission is to serve its community through music. Sounds reasonable enough, but one implication of this view is that the repertoire is not, in and of itself, the totality of an orchestra’s mission. An orchestra’s programming—both inside the concert hall and outside it—needs to be seen as the vehicle for achieving the orchestra’s mission. This shift in mindset might sound like a subtle one, but it would be nothing short of transformational to every aspect of the classical music organization: the repertoire programmed, the people hired, the communities engaged—not just what you do but how it’s designed, who is empowered, how you partner with the constituents you profess to want to reach…ALL of it.

The same goes for our conservatories too, of course. Gabriela mentions how meager our education of composers is when it comes to developing the art of storytelling through their work. I would go one step further and say that we’re not training any of our students how to tell stories through their music. Where are the courses in how to build compelling programs in every aspect, not just repertoire but venue and duration and every other element of the experience? Where are we teaching students how to incorporate technology and other media into what they do? Why aren’t we putting FAR more emphasis on how to engage our audience from the stage, through social media, and just on the street? What about entrepreneurship—not just a cookbook of “career skills” but a mindset of customer focus and opportunity recognition. At many schools there might be electives offered to address some of these issues, but they are still on the periphery; they are ornaments of a sort, not to intrude on the core curriculum (which has been largely unchanged in two centuries). We talk and talk and talk about educating “artist citizens,” but we are doing precious little to actually cultivate such musicians; to recognize this would require a radical reexamining of everything we teach and how we go about teaching it.

These deeply rooted, systemic issues not only lead to a lack of vision within our organizations, they also stymie those who have vision and seek to implement it within their institutions. For instance, visionary artistic directors are routinely thwarted by their administration and/or the boards who govern them—boards who tend to be made up of the “old guard” and who dangle their dollars in front of the administration in order to keep the status quo. We need only look at Esa-Pekka Salonen, a superstar composer/conductor if ever there was one, who recently announced he was leaving the San Francisco Symphony amid budget cuts and resistance from the orchestra’s administration regarding the very things Salonen was hired to do. (You can read more about this story here.) I know of other similar cases across the country: those with vision are not given the resources or the time to implement their ideas; they’re set up for failure from the start and then either end up failing (surprise!) or they leave out of frustration. Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

Another example is more personal one. In 2013 my whole sense of why I’m a composer changed when I had the glorious opportunity to write my first symphony. In bringing together my passions of geology and music, I discovered the power of storytelling to engage audiences and create music that spoke to them. (A huge thank-you to the Boulder Philharmonic and the Geological Society of America for making it possible: all these years later I still meet people who tell me what that evening meant to them.) I’ve been employing those lessons in everything I’ve written since, and a decade’s worth of standing ovations, non-traditional audiences filling halls, community impact, abundant press coverage and win-win funding scenarios ought to speak for themselves and make the case that yes, we can program new music that energizes audiences and communities in ways that nothing else can. Unfortunately, that track record doesn’t seem to matter: many organizations, conductors, and even some individual musicians still assume I’m just blowing smoke when I propose a new project, even after spelling out Why this story matters to the community and How we’ll engage the community, build a unique audience beyond the normal, partner with local organizations, get media attention, work in the schools, and so forth.

I don’t say this from a standpoint of sour grapes—after all, composers have been struggling in this regard for centuries: this is part of the gig; if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen; et cetera, et cetera. No, I say it because if we’re not teaching our musicians and administrators how to not only do these things but also how to envision them in the first place, then we shouldn’t be surprised that so many of them don’t see the value of what’s being proposed by countless musician-storytellers who are trying to do what needs to be done—for the benefit not just of ourselves but audiences, organizations, and communities. So, am I frustrated? Yes, but not just for my own sake: I’m equally if not more frustrated on behalf of the organizations who are shooting themselves in the foot and the audiences they’ll never reach as a result.

Classical music attendance has been declining for decades, and the pandemic only exacerbated the trend; orchestras continue to struggle financially as a result. This is not a new story. Orchestral leaders recognize this, but they continue to resist any substantial change in how they go about their business. Some of the bolder ones do this or that, but for the most part it’s still just nibbling around the edges of the problem—more ornaments adorning an unchanging core. Yes, I’m painting with a broad brush; yes, there are exceptions: there are orchestras out there doing creative and innovative programming, building meaningful connections between their community and the music they present. (You know who you are, and I salute you.) But the exceptions are just that: exceptions. Somebody once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Orchestras acknowledge the challenges they face, but they resist the solutions that are staring them in the face.

I’ve watched Gabriela’s address multiple times now, and I get teared up every time. Part of it is surely due to the heart that Gabriela brings to her remarks; as I know her personally, I can attest that she is every bit the wise and beautiful soul she appears to be. But I think I also shed tears for all of us storytellers, in whatever medium, who simply long to have their stories be told. There is so much possibility. Rather than the scarcity mindset that permeates so much of our society, and which is particularly prominent in the performing arts, what could we accomplish if we embraced abundance?

So much possibility.

Gabriela closes her remarks with this summary:

“[What is] the orchestra we could be…? We are ancestors, too…Reverence for the past, more for the future.

“We’re supposed to dream big. We composers are here. We’re your cultural witnesses. The stories we tell are your stories. Let’s gift our descendants. The times are so tumultuous. The time is now.”

Perhaps Gabriela’s address, so beautifully articulated, will help drive the change our field desperately needs. I sincerely hope so, for the sake of the classical musicians, composers, organizations and, most of all, the audiences of today…as well as those of tomorrow.  

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