Here on Inside the Arts, I am surrounded by orchestra professionals (or professionals closely related to orchestras). There are two conductors, a consultant, three musicians, some radio broadcasters and an opera administrator. I figure this is a good cross section of views and experience. There has been a question lingering in my mind for some years that I have wanted to ask so I thought I would toss it out there for some cross blog discussion, if my confreres are so inclined. (Certainly, readers are always welcome to chime in.)
My question is this- Orchestras have some of the best trained and skilled musicians around. Why do they primarily confine themselves to a certain genre and periods of music? Why aren’t they playing all the best music out there? I know most groups have a pops series, but that still barely scratches the surface of the available material and it is separate from their main product. And really, why are the pops separate?
This is my thought- Have an evening of music around some theme like romance. One of the pieces is Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” (or some other selection, I am just trying to stay away from the obvious “Stairway to Heaven”), maybe there is another contemporary rock/pop/blues/jass piece as well and interspersed between them are pieces of the regular repertory (or vice versa.) I am not suggesting getting rid of the current programming, just enhancing it with other works. The concept of great music being part of a continuum of excellence that didn’t stop at a certain year.
The only compelling reason I can think for not doing this is artistic unity of an evening. But I wonder, does it really matter to audiences? If you do the beginning of Hamlet set during 1920s flapper days and then shift to steampunk, audiences will find it jarring and perplexing. Would there be the same problem going from orchestrated classic rock to a baroque piece of a similar energy in the same evening?
Since many potential pieces weren’t written for orchestras, I imagine there would be some cost involved in arranging songs for a larger number of instruments. That could certainly prove an impediment for some organizations, as might royalty payments where required. It might prove a boon for lesser known ensembles if one group’s arrangement was recognized as superior to another’s. Given that the music may be more widely known, a larger segment of the population would have the discernment to make that judgment.
I know that not every piece will lend itself to adaptation for orchestra performance. Those who do not recognize that may shout “Play Freebird!” or the equivalent. But I have to believe there is potential in a lot of works.
I guess there would also be a concern that things were being dumbed down or compromised to fill seats. I have heard of symphonies playing video game themes and integrating cell phone rings into the performance. There is much more potential for a quality experience in this idea –and an interesting educational one too boot! You can have a blues guitarist perform Lead Belly’s version of “Gallis Pole” and talk about the centuries old history of the folk song and then have the whole orchestra play Led Zeppelin’s “Gallows Pole” as a comparison.
Talks about the composers might be a lot more interesting to audiences because some have lived recently enough that the circumstances that influenced their writing are more familiar to audiences. Then there are the controversies over song writing credits.
I know that it is easy for people on the outside to criticize and say they could do better. What I have described here has sort of been my idea of how I would program things if I were in charge.
But to a degree, I am.
I have a lot of under employed symphony musicians running around my community right now. What is to keep me from going to them and asking them to put together a program that mixes a few of the standard pieces with arrangements of more contemporary works for a performance some point in the future? Given my financial resources, I wouldn’t imagine I would get the whole orchestra, but 1/4 might sound impressive enough to determine if the basic concept is sound.
Any success I may have wouldn’t necessarily imply similar promise for orchestras. I do not run an orchestra so expectations of my events are much different than for theirs. While I would love to have this idea succeed and an orchestra schedule these events at my space, real success in my mind is when a change like this becomes the primary practice, not separate from it.