Home     Foreign Correspondence   Orchestras in our time and place: the League of American Orchestras’ conference, Seattle, 2014

Orchestras in our time and place: the League of American Orchestras’ conference, Seattle, 2014


League of American Orchestras conferences are inspirational affairs. It’s not just the wealth of sessions or the chance to hear orchestras and ensembles you might not otherwise hear; it’s the chance to run into colleagues, including former employees of Australian orchestras who now work, say, in Atlanta or Dallas. Mostly, it’s those moments sitting in crowded auditoria pinching yourself and saying, ‘I never realised the world of orchestral music is this big!’

This year’s conference took place in Seattle where, according to Seattle Symphony Chair Leslie Chihuly, ‘Boeing engineers helped define air travel, Amazon and Microsoft have changed the way we use technology, and Starbucks has popularised coffee culture’ (although Australian coffee connoisseurs probably won’t get overly-excited by that last boast). Seattle is also legendary for being rainy with 226 cloudy days per year (the dark green of a well-watered Pacific Northwestern forest landscape is refreshing when you arrive from arid Southern California), but in the three days of conference I attended, we experienced brilliant sunshine. From the top of the Needle the city looked stunning with its volcano, Mt Rainier, seemingly sitting in the clouds off to the right of the skyline.

Conference themes in the years I’ve attended have hovered around the rumours of classical music’s imminent death or inevitable decline. There is often an emphasis on the importance of innovation.

Clearly, classical music has issues to face, but I’ve never been convinced that innovation is a value in itself. The Minneapolis conference three years ago didn’t answer this question for me, but Seattle started to drill down. Perhaps the conference title helped: Critical Questions, Countless Solutions. One of the speakers, Alan Brown of the San Francisco-headquartered management consultancy WolfBrown, summarised some of the challenges orchestras now face:

… music is now a visual experience for those who grew up with music videos and now YouTube. With the migration of consumption from physical media to streaming audio, we’ve witnessed an unprecedented proliferation of choice….Downloading music and making playlists is by far the dominant modality of music participation in the US. And billions of people worldwide have grown accustomed to listening to music in random order, with an algorithm as their DJ….thankfully, people are still showing up for live concerts…

Of course, the rise of Asia is another significant new feature in the classical music landscape and Seattle was the perfect conference venue to consider Asian as well as indigenous ‘outreach’ (even if that’s a word the Seattle Symphony has actually banished in favour of ‘partnership’ and ‘collaboration’). League president Jesse Rosen recalled Boeing’s Ron Woodward observing in 1996 ‘that America once looked from its eastern seaboard across the Atlantic to Europe for its connection to commerce, to culture, and to heritage. But today… America looks from the shores of the Pacific, with its independent and innovative spirit, to face towards Asia.’ Seattle now has one of the largest Asian communities in America with significant populations of Filipinos, Vietnamese, Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, Indians and Cambodians. And Seattle has a highly visible indigenous population. During the conference, we got to hear an extract from the ‘Potlatch’ Symphony, a collaboration between the Seattle Symphony and the local Duwamish people.

The tone for the conference was set at the outset in the keynote address by virtuoso flautist and founder of ICE (the International Contemporary Ensemble), Claire Chase. Having started her talk with a rivetting performance of Varèse’s Density 21.5, she spoke of Varèse’s observation that ‘possible musical forms are as limitless as the exterior forms of crystals’ and therefore of the need to spark the ‘fire’ to tell different kinds of stories. To a large extent, Chase’s address was an exhortation to create new economies, collaborative models and definitions of community by which ensembles could ‘pulsate’ with music’s life. When she started out in the world of commissioning and staging new works with an ensemble of 15 Oberlin classmates there was, she said, no decision that wasn’t creative ‘whether it was about marketing, fundraising, budgeting, education, production, outreach, where to put the chairs at the concert, or how to get people on and off stage between pieces…’ She reminded us that everything we in the orchestral world are engaged with, is storytelling – marketing, education, community building, ‘natural outgrowths of a burning need…to make music for people and tell them stories.’

But does Chase’s brand of guerilla music-making suit orchestras? Perhaps ICE can be ‘part 21st century orchestra, rock band, circus troupe, startup’ but what about an ensemble of 100 people whose most rewarding repertoire, for audience and players alike, has not been significantly increased in the past 50 years?

The conference’s final speaker Alan Brown noted the gulf between Claire’s call to “widen the space of our imagination” with the realities of the conversations I’m hearing in breakout sessions and in the hallways’ and the 2014 conference had the regular panels on fund-raising and management (what perhaps might be called bread-and-butter issues). But even here, the dominant theme, if there was one, was how to create freer structures. Boards on Fire, presented by a Seattle-based consultant on NGOs Susan Howlett, offered useful ideas on how to inspire trustees ‘to raise money joyfully’ by finding time to get into meatier, more ‘generative’ issues, rather than be stuck, as usually happens, between strategic and fiduciary agenda items. New Habits for New Times involved discussion of ways to allow decisions and ideas to percolate up throughout an organisation, although as an Australian it surprised me that the concept of Friday evening office-wide drinks came as something of a novelty.

Perhaps the session I was most looking forward to, given the theme and location of the conference (and my own concerns), was Collaborating with Asian Communities. After all Australia doesn’t just look across the Pacific to Asia, it’s in the region.

Only 20 or so people were there to benefit from the advice of a panel including Seattle-based composer Byron Au Yong; Pankaj Nath, vice president/relationship manager for JP Morgan Chase, and Mayumi Tsutakawa, manager of grants to organisations for the Washington State Arts Commission. What was clear though was that those who attended had pondered long and hard the best way to collaborate. They agreed that what must be found is ‘true collaboration’, in the words of another panel-member Kelly Dylla (vice president of education and community engagement for the Seattle Symphony), but as an audience member said, it was ‘way harder than anything I’d imagined.’ Practical advice included making sure your board represents the population make-up of your city. Byron Au Yong also advised people to be realistic. His opera, Stuck Elevator was about people from Guangxi Province in China, ‘but they won’t be the audience. They work 24/7. It’ll be their children.’ On the plus side, a couple of attendees noted that ‘there are a lot of people who get involved in music to remind them of home’.

I guess it’s understandable that only 20 people attended the session. Such collaborations have not yet produced repertoire that’s guaranteed to reward listeners and players who are used to the narrative richness of Mahler or Shostakovich or Brahms.

But that wouldn’t be any reason to give up the quest. The important thing, surely, is to make sure these collaborations are not one-offs and that orchestras continue to draw on everything that influences classical music in the world at this time. If there was any single take-away from this conference it might be that orchestras must continue to strive, in the words of Jesse Rosen, to ‘be the orchestra of and for your community, in this time, and in your place’.

‘The word “orchestra,” in ancient Greece, meant “a dancing place.” What if orchestras of the 21st century could revisit this most ancient part of their stories and be, literally, an open space? A place where change is the norm, where even the permanent collection ‐ what we call our canon ‐ is questioned, argued, retold? A place that commissions twice as much new music as it repeats? And reaches twice as many schoolchildren as it reaches patrons? Or a place where the sphere of context, the very notion of public, is constantly widening? A place where the radical reimagining of how and for whom art gets made, is a daily practice?’ Claire Chase

I don’t know how much of that can happen when people have day-to-day questions of survival to consider, but I do believe that in the three years of League conferences I’ve attended the suggested answers to those questions have gotten deeper and deeper.


Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2014