A historical perspective on orchestra concerts: programing and ritual

Today, American orchestra concerts usually have three or four pieces. In one very typical formula, they have some kind of overture, a concerto, and a symphony.

If the program should happen to include music by a living composer–or even by one who died some time after, say, 1945–it typically comes right before intermission, sandwiched between two popular standards. That way the audience will come on time to hear the opening piece and be forced to stay in their seats through the new piece in order to hear whatever delight awaits after the intermission.

Certain unwritten laws dictate concert ritual, including applause for the concert master and entrance of the conductor, but no applause between movements of a concerto or symphony.

There are both good and bad reasons for our current practices, but they are not sustainable very long into the future. Concerts have become museums for music that, for a number of reasons, seems less and less relevant to our society. As audiences grow older, demographics threaten orchestras’ long-term viability unless changes in programing and ritual can attract a wider following.

Most of Americas orchestras were founded some time in the twentieth century. The New York Philharmonic, founded in 1842, is the oldest of them, but not by any means the first. Even colonial America had many orchestras, but no one at the time conceived of a concert orchestra as a permanent institution. An orchestra might have been assembled for a single performance, or as a social institution for the sake of reading though symphonic music and occasionally giving public performances.

Typical eighteenth-century concerts, both in America and Europe, featured a very mixed repertoire. Orchestral works like symphonies and concertos shared the stage with chamber music, songs, operatic excerpts, and choruses. An entire program without any singers, let alone an entire program by the orchestra alone, was simply unthinkable. In fact, this approach to programing lasted well into the nineteenth century.

For a while in the nineteenth century, brass bands (and later, mixed wind bands)seemed a more viable and truly American ensemble than orchestras. There were more of them, but no particular ideological rivalry. Harvey Dodworth, leader of one of New York’s successful brass bands, helped found the New York Philharmonic and played violin there.

Like all other nineteenth-century American orchestras, the Philharmonic did not have a long enough season that any of its members could make a living from it. Many musicians besides Dodworth played for both orchestras and bands, and both kinds of ensembles programed similar music.

When Viennese ballerina Fanny Elssler toured America in 1840-42, she performed not only classical ballet, but various folk dances. Her programs appealed to all segments of American society and established a model for later foreign stars. Swedish operatic soprano Jenny Lind combined popular British and American songs with operatic standards. Their audiences, and American audiences in general, behaved more like rock audiences than modern symphony audiences.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Theodore Thomas and others struggled mightily to purify orchestral concerts by purging light music and enforcing a quiet reverence among the audience.

I would not advocate returning to the days when musicians could not make a living from playing in an orchestra, or when concerts included trivial music but often not full performances of multi-movement works, or when audiences came and went as they pleased and held loud conversations during the performance.

On the other hand, it seems that some lightening of concert programing and concert etiquette would help dissipate the aura of stuffiness that shrouds modern orchestra concerts. Perhaps a look back at what worked well in earlier concerts would provide some useful ideas.

Earlier orchestra concerts included not only music by revered masters, but new music–both new symphonic works and popular tunes. Somehow, rock tunes or rap do not seem good partners on orchestra concerts, but plenty of new composers, who have a great desire to connect with a broad audience, write music partly under the influence of contemporary popular music.

Instead of using Beethoven as a draw to force people to listen to Webern or other musical brussels sprouts, perhaps at least some orchestra concerts could be devoted to music by living composers who already have a following, and then sprinkle some Beethoven.

I suppose anyone who goes to a concert to hear music by, say, John Adams, Libby Larsen, Michael Torke, Jennifer Higdon, Michael Daugherty, any one of a number of living American composers would enjoy the great classics, even if hearing some of them for the first time.

As classical audiences develop a taste for new American music, maybe they’d all enjoy Arvo Pärt, Giya Kanchelli, or any number of European composers who have turned their back on audience-repelling avant gardists of the post-war era.

Maybe there is a way to allow audiences to participate more interactively, not just sit in silence in the dark, yet still listen intently to the music. Orchestra concerts have so much to offer to society. Good art is such a welcome antidote to the tawdry industrialization and commercial manipulation behind so much popular music.

Art overcame manipulative marketing of cheap tricks in the 1840s. It has the power to triumph over empty commercialism again. All it requires is imagination and willingness to jettison unsustainable programing and ritual.


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