From 1-3 July 2010, our colleague David Garrett attended a conference hosted by the Institute of Musical Research, University of London, titled The Symphony Orchestra as Cultural Phenomenon. David kindly agreed to provide us with a report on the sessions he attended.
The full program of the conference can be accessed at:
David presented a paper at the conference titled ‘A Happy Coincidence? – Broadcasting, the ABC and the first permanent orchestras’. Of his summary of the conference, David writes:
I have grouped my quotations and comments according to the degree of general interest presented by the sessions, rather than the order in which they occurred. Since the majority of papers were historical in approach, the keynote addresses and papers on more general subjects come first, followed by the nuggets from more specific papers, and a wash-up of the rest.
AT A GLANCE:
David lists the following as key points coming from the conference.
- The conference was originally planned to focus on British orchestras. International scope recognised that the comparative approach is often lacking in British scholarship.
- ‘Orchestras are things that have things done to them’ – by administrators, by programmers, by organisations, by sponsors.
- Fundamental to our orchestral enterprise is finding the right words to define it. ‘Quality will prevail’ is insufficient to ensure survival.
- The notion of ‘Classical’ music derives from the 19th century ritualising of the public concert – emotional constraint, disciplining of bodily behaviour.
- The main criteria for the values, attitudes and practices of classical music: use of acoustic sound, and transmission in written form.
- The symphony orchestra represents the conditions of the past at the highest level of organisation: ‘the most active negotiator between the historical values of an art form and the challenges of new forms of sound production, organisation and transmission’
- Who now ‘owns’ the symphony orchestra? Or who thinks they do? The orchestral management, the grant givers, the audiences, or the politicians? Does public subsidy imply public culture?
- ‘LSO Live’, the first label of this kind. Nobody gets paid at the time, and the proceeds, when they come, are divided. A Listening Committee monitors the editing and approval. Who has the final artistic say?
- Atlanta Symphony (Robert Spano Musical Director from 2001): ‘Atlanta School’ of composers (including Michael Gandolfi, Osvaldo Golilov, Christopher Theofanides…). Tonality and tunes; popular and world culture resonances. The presentation and marketing tactics include:
- performing existing and known works
- a video of the composer and Musical Director shown at the concert
- repeat performances in future concerts/tours/education
- ticket sales up 5% when an Atlanta composer is performed.
- Belgium, the radio and the symphony orchestra – parallels with Australia and the ABC in the 1930s. Public broadcasting as employer and as disseminator of ‘modernistic’ music. The first permanent orchestras in Belgium were radio orchestras.
- Hallé Orchestra under Harty in the 1920s: especially the importance of recordings for that orchestra’s profile –and making printed programs with brief notes free from 1929.
- Louisville Orchestra (Kentucky USA) New Music Project from 1948 for more than a decade. One new work in every symphony concert, plus a recording on the orchestra’s own label.
Duncan Boutwood (a convener of the conference) revealed that the original plan was to focus on British orchestras. The widening to international scope was a recognition that the comparative approach is often lacking in British scholarship. Subjects of papers covered France, the UK, Belgium, Serbia, USA, Vienna, China, Italy, Australia, and Venezuela.
I had a watching brief to look out for ‘the orchestra in Asia’. The one paper I attended on that theme I found disappointing, even in its treatment of a limited subject.
One of the keynote speakers, David Wright of the Royal College of Music, made valuable contributions throughout the conference discussions. Commenting on my paper, and another concerned with orchestras within a national broadcasting network (in Belgium), Wright was reminded that ‘orchestras are things that have things done to them’ – by administrators, by programmers, by organisations, by sponsors. Most of the papers addressed orchestras as things in themselves, not always in context. It struck me that those used to orchestras in a very public context (government funding through broadcasting) tend to think about orchestras in the way described by Wright.
Perhaps of most basic theoretical interest was the paper by Francis Maes (Ghent University): ‘Negotiating the Values of Classical Music: Towards a Definition of the Symphony Orchestra as a Cultural Actor’. Maes argued that fundamental to our [orchestral] enterprise is finding the right words to define it. The age-old wisdom that quality will prevail is insufficient to ensure survival. Policy makers present the enterprise in terms of social accountability and aesthetic value. To a certain extent these terms are resisted within the orchestral world because of the pressures they create for standardisation.
The notion of ‘Classical’ music, with its assumed value judgment (‘Classical’), derives from the 19th century bourgeoisies’ ritualising of the public concert – some relate this to an ethic of emotional constraint, disciplining of bodily behaviour. Maes argued that the terms should be defined from the angle of practice: ‘classical’ are the products of human activity from the past, timeless models of excellence. They rely on the conditions of the past [e.g. the instruments, acoustic media, and written transmission, as opposed to new technology]. For classical music these differ most from the technology of the contemporary music world. Exclusive use of acoustic sound and transmission in written form should be the main criteria for the values, attitudes and practices associated with classical music.
Transmission is now possible WITHOUT INSTITUTIONAL INTERMEDIARIES. The survival of the symphony orchestra (as of the opera house, piano, and chamber music) is due to continuity of practice, achieving a degree of permanence. The repertoire is explained by practice.
The symphony orchestra is the most advanced organisational response, representing the conditions of the past at the highest level of organisation. ‘In contemporary culture, the symphony orchestra is the most active negotiator between the historical values of an art form and the challenges of new forms of sound production, organization and transmission’.
David Wright’s keynote address was ‘The Symphony Orchestra in an Age of Public Subsidy: Paying the Piper and Calling the Cost-effective Tune in Post-war Britain’.
In the light of the receipt of public subsidy, who now ‘owns’ the symphony orchestra, or who thinks they do: the orchestral management, the grant givers, the audiences, or the politicians? Does public subsidy imply public culture? ‘For all the autonomy suggested by its freestanding musical identity, the symphony orchestra’s existence is defined by economic environment and cultural context’.
An Australian hears strong resonances in these questions.
Wright’s paper explored the Keynesian Post-war consensus underpinning the Arts Council: stimulation of demand should widen taste, and result in a reduction of public subsidy. Audiences become consumers. These hopeful assumptions were undermined by recordings, and radio: there was a decline of concert life.
Arts Council involvement in orchestral standards: intervention through public subsidy, promoting patrician cultural values. A perennial dilemma of funding was how intervention would affect the four London orchestras? It was assumed four was too many, but there was never agreement on which, if any, should go.
Reasons for Subsidy:
- More concerts
- More attendance (lower prices)
- Employment of musicians
- Cultural imperative
- Educating the public
- Adventurousness in programming
- Expert knowledge
This approach made orchestras clients of the Arts Council: ‘vassals’ – even after the Thatcher-era shift to business sponsorship. Removal of subsidy would cause an orchestra to go under. It removed the direct relationship between commodity – provider – consumer.
Orchestral subsidy came to be hard-wired, but was contingent on cultural and social circumstances. The public left in droves; there is decreasing awareness of the ‘theatre of live performance’; concert attendance has become exceptional rather than routine. In the past a ticket was admission to a forum, for assimilation, or rejection. Repeated performances of new works are a luxury rarely encountered.
‘Absence of philosophy, abundance of politics’
Interesting, particularly in the light of the ‘Live’ labels ventures of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Sydney Symphony was a paper by Ananay Aguilar – an intern for a time with ‘LSO Live’, the first label of this kind. The background was the decrease of [paid] studio activity. Clive Gillinson was General Manager of the London Symphony Orchestra when it was set up at a time of decreased studio recording. Nobody gets paid at the time, and the proceeds, when they come, are divided. Aguilar sat in on the recordings under Gergiev of all the Mahler symphonies.
For studio recordings, the Musicians Union-agreed terms had been 3 x 3 hour calls for every 1 hour recorded. For ‘LSO Live’: 1 rehearsal, 1 concert, 1 patching 1 hour 30 min recording. Only repeated concerts are recorded.
A Listening Committee monitors the editing and approval. Recordings are still considered necessary for international profile [‘calling card’], and it was argued that recording in performance helps flow, spontaneity, focus, adding up to the possibility of greater authenticity. Unfortunately Aguilar was excluded from the editing process, where the crucial artistic questions arise. Discussion centred on this. Who has the final artistic say? She did reveal that Gergiev wasn’t involved in the editing…
Laura Jackson, Music Director, Reno, Nevada was formerly assistant conductor at the Atlanta Symphony (Robert Spano Musical Director). Her paper, given by video, was preceded by Mark Clague’s scholarly introduction, telling how in 2001 Spano brought into being what has since been called an ‘Atlanta School’ of composers (including Michael Gandolfi, Osvaldo Golilov, Christopher Theofanides… ) Adherence to tonality and tunes, popular and world culture resonances make this music an intellectual entry point for audiences.
The presentation and marketing tactics include:
– performing existing and known works
– a video of the composer and Musical Director shown at concert
– workshopping, last minute editing and changes, collaborative rehearsal
– repeat performances in future concerts/tours/education
– supporting composers’ ongoing work and careers
– orchestra and community raising money (coterie of donors)
The idea is support of ‘living composers’ and linking their music to the city. Ticket sales go up 5% when an Atlanta composer is performed.
The extension by Jackson to her own orchestra in Reno was less interesting.
Some insights, very selective given space, from other papers:
In ‘Creating an audience in 19th century Chicago’, Mark Clague showed how attempts were made to link civic pride with concert attendance – donor Charles Norman Fay’s guarantee of a 50 week season (1860s-1880s) also gave conductor Theodore Thomas absolute artistic control. Fay hoped, largely in vain, that the popular outdoor ‘Garden’ concerts would feed audience to the ‘subscription’ concerts. Clague commented on the instability of late 19th century orchestral life: recent (ie late 20th century) stability was not typical.
Belgium, the radio and the symphony orchestra brought some parallels with Australia and the ABC in the 1930s. But Australia lacked the cultural tension between Flemish and French speakers (both papers were on the Flemish). Nor was there the near-artistic dictatorship of a single man, Paul Collaer, who spearheaded the cause of modern music, and took it to the Radio as head of musical programming from the mid-1930s .The focus on modern music alienated many listeners and was aimed at ‘the high bourgeois francophone elite of Brussels’
The importance of the public broadcaster as employer and as disseminator of ‘modernistic’ music was stressed by Kristin van der Buys. Lieselotte Goessens explored how this centralisation of music and other programming replaced a previously incoherent policy, while disadvantaging Flemish programming. (Incidentally, note the pronunciation of her name – the way we pronounce [Eugene] Goossens, but he should be (G)Hoessens). )
Radio orchestras in Belgium originated in public broadcasting – which shaped their policy. The first permanent symphony orchestra in Belgium was the ‘Grand orchestre symphonique’ of the National Radio Institute (1936), which gave its concerts primarily for broadcast, with a studio audience.
Another comparison/contrast with Australia: the role in Yugoslav symphonic orchestra development of a composers’ competition in Belgrade from 1935. This was a Serbian initiative, to match Slovenia and Croatia, but not connected with radio, as was the ABC’s composer competition in 1932-3. The orchestras in Ljubjlana, Zagreb and Belgrade were opera house orchestras with occasional symphonic concerts.
Jane Evrard and the Orchestre feminin (Paris) was about an all-female string orchestra (1920s-30s) and the first female conductor in France. Evrard had acted in films and projected a hyper-feminine image. The orchestra did sterling work for new and for ‘old’ music, and gave opportunities for woman players. It did not survive their recruitment into orchestras during World War II (as in Australia). I found interesting the assumption that such an orchestra would have a conductor.
From the papers on the New Symphony Orchestra (UK), and on the Hallé Orchestra under Harty in the 1920s: I found especially interesting the importance of recordings, even then, for that orchestra’s profile – and the Hallé’s making printed programs with brief notes free from 1929.
The reputation of the Louisville Orchestra (Kentucky USA) is based on its New Music Project from 1948 for more than a decade. A visionary benefactor (Farnsley) and the musical director (Robert Whitney), with the help of a large Rockefeller Grant secured by Farnsley (who helped found the National Endowment for the Arts) enabled one new work in every symphony concert, plus a recording on the orchestra’s own label. The project was ‘a patchwork of artistic experimentation’, often bringing for the orchestra tension with financial sustainability, and some alienation of the local community.
Orchestral alternatives I found more entertaining than insightful. The Baroque Orchestra: Balancing Commodification and Counter-culture argued that the main ensembles in the Early Music movement in Netherlands beginning in the 1960s – the Orchestra of the 18th Century and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra – were ‘first positioned as socially progressive, but this was problematised by recording, and especially the marketing of recordings’. But Maes had commented earlier in the conference that the modern Early Music movement began largely in the recording studio
The really terrible orchestra and the politics of musical failure looked at three orchestras:
- Cornelius Cardew The Scratch Orchestra (c1969)
- Portsmouth Sinfonia (Gavin Briars) 1970s (Classical Muddley 1981)
- The Really Terrible Orchestra (Alexander McCall-Smith 1995-)
Criteria were the humor(?) of bathos, a stance of anti-professionalism, and a quintessentially British ‘Pythonesque’ aura. The first two orchestras were, to different degrees, experimental, with artistic aims – both to the left in politics – that they foundered over. The third relates more to amateurism and an aristocratic tradition of incompetence: dilettantism, leisure; the opposite of perfectionism. The paper could have discriminated more between values in varying forms of amateurism. One comment queried ‘failure’, since these orchestras achieved what they set out to do – ‘foibles rather than failure’.