Seattle really is the place to be when it comes to envisioning the future of the American orchestra. The future, as in: not another whine-fest of grumpy old men (or ill-informed hipster “observers”) bewailing “the death of classical music,” but the future as a challenge to rethink the “binaries” that shackle the art, that limit how we conceive the culture of performance.
That’s the message enticingly floated by flutist extraordinaire, new music advocate, innovative entrepreneur, and MacArthur genius Claire Chase, who gave the keynote speech for this year’s edition of the League of American Orchestras Conference: “Critical Questions, Countless Solutions.”
The 2014 Conference has just gotten under way, and the choice of Seattle is especially fortuitous. The Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot is gaining wider recognition as an engine for smart orchestral innovation. Their major commission of music by John Luther Adams won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Music. And the Symphony did something more than hit a home run with its Carnegie Hall performance last month, which inspired Alex Ross to write (and League President and CEO Jesse Rosen to quote during his presentation yesterday at Benaroya Hall): “When conductor, players, and administrators are of one mind, an orchestra can become a singularly vital beast.”
The opening session got a nice launch with a brief concert by the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra under Stephen Rodgers Radcliffe: Joshua Roman contributed the solo cello part to Aaron Jay Kernis’s Dreamsongs for Cello and Orchestra, which was followed by a Wagnerian excerpt (Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey). Deborah Rutter, incoming new President of the Kennedy Center (and a major force in making this concert hall a reality back in the 1990s), gave a heartfelt and quite moving tribute speech to Wayne S. Brown. Brown then appeared onstage to accept the League’s prestigious Golden Baton Award.
Ending the afternoon was a duo session by Joshua Roman and Gabriel Prokofiev (performing the latter’s Cello Multitracks, which mixes live acoustic playing with “electronica” to effect a cello nonet). Claire Chase introduced herself with a superb performance of a piece she says changed her life: Edgard Varèse’s Density 21.5.
Note the prominence of non-orchestral music here. It might seem odd for the opening session of an orchestral conference, but the point seemed to be that the standard model of full-scale orchestral performances can benefit from a flexible context of solo and chamber playing, a dialogue with other forms of music-making.
Chase waxed on about her hero Varèse’s pronouncement that “music, which should pulsate with life, needs new means of expression.” There were a lot of heady suggestions drawing on her experiences spearheading the contemporary music ensemble ICE, but this was primarily a mood setter. Some will say it’s just another variant of the standard pep talk self-congratulation. One friend and colleague points out that you can’t just leap-frog past ingrained traditions of performance, not to mention the nitty-gritty of musicians’ contracts that are in place, to will new models into being.
At the other extreme, the promise of “countless solutions” can, after all, lead nowhere: if there are too many options, how is any to have a lasting, meaningful impact? But what I heard in Chase’s remarks was a provocative invitation to do more than daydream about a promising future. Let’s see what concrete suggestions emerge from the next few days of sessions, brainstorming, and conversation.