“A Ship Is Safe In Harbor, But That’s Not What Ships Are For.”

A short while ago, Joe Patti posed a question over at Butts In The Seats asking whether or not orchestras should confine their programming to just a few genres. The first thing that popped into my head when I read his original post was a quote from Mark Twain: “I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn’t know.”

But after reading all of the comments and opinions other Inside The Arts authors, and taking some time to think about it, I do have a few thoughts; but to be fair to Joe, I really shouldn’t paraphrase his questions. Here’s what he originally wrote:

“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?”

What I think Joe is asking about touches on a very old but relevant discussion which can trace its roots back to the rise of the motion pictures business and the resultant commercial music business. From that point forward, the world of traditional classical music and commercial music began to grow apart (in spite of the fact they are based on the same musical language).

Harbor is safe, but it also makes you an easy taget.
Harbor is safe, but it also makes you an easy taget.

Sure, there have been plenty of prominent composers that have dabbled in writing for film but they don’t make a living at it. And since it is human nature to use the shoulders of others to reach to new heights, traditional classical music institutions began elevate their status by marginalizing the accomplishments of commercial composers and musicians. An interesting divergence to this was Bernstein who was able to master commercial classical music and the likes of Mahler and Beethoven. He had the right skill set to stand across the classical/commercial chasm without losing his footing.

Nonetheless, as Joe points out, most classical musicians have enough skills to perform just about any style of music out there. If they don’t have familiarity with certain styles by the time they leave music school, it won’t take long to acquire them. Still, Joe would likely interject here asking again why pops series even exist and why they feature a relatively narrow cross section of available music.

I’m glad my straw man representation of Joe is so instant because he allows me to bring up my final observation. There isn’t a wide variety of pops music out there because most of what’s written sucks. There’s not much money in it and what orchestra is going to take a chance on someone to write quality pops music. For non-commercial composers, they risk marginalizing their reputation and for good commercial composers, there’s more money to be made in Hollywood and the video game business.

In the end, orchestras continue to program commercial music from a few well known names in pops concerts and standard repertoire plus music written by living composers who stay away from the commercial circuit in masterworks and new music series. In fact, there’s no good reason why they should do this other than because it has always been done that way.

In twenty years, I would like to believe that we’ll see more gray and less black and white but then again, this is the classical music business. For my money, I love commercial composers like Ron Jones (alive) and Cal Stalling (not so alive); in fact you can read more about how Ron and other popular commercial composers think about this topic in an interview article I published back in July, 2004.

Ultimately, it all boils down to how well music is written/arranged for the vehicle known as the symphonic orchestra. Sometimes, Jimi Hendrix sounds great on violin, other times it sucks; in the case of the latter, orchestras should stay away from it regardless if it was written 30 or 300 years ago. Everything else related to labels and categorization is just semantics.

Look at this issue from the perspective of other Inside The Arts authors (make sure to read the respective comments as they offer additional thought provoking insight):

Postscript: for you quote junkies out there, the title is from William Shedd.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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