Christina Fong

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Back when I was in music school in the mid 80s, there was a myth that audiences hated new music. Although history and CD sales prove this to be completely false, people in academia still push this agenda and many in the orchestra world still believe it. Many orchestra managements and music directors (the people responsible for most of the programming) are also perpetrators of this academic hogwash and have thus responded by not programming new music. Perhaps like George W. Bush and company have shown, if you keep telling a lie often enough, people will eventually believe it. Finding substantial new pieces programmed by orchestras today is about as difficult as finding WMDs in Iraq.

The myth goes further in the belief that it was always this way. This is also false. Until the mid to latter part of the 20th century, orchestras DID program new music. Living composers were popular and respected. Bartok, Shostakovich, Copland, Prokofiev and Bernstein were all popular, respected and therefore frequently performed by orchestras during their lifetimes. As a violin student, I prepared various works on the standard audition lists. Those pieces meet several criteria. They present technical and/or musical challenges; they are considered part of the core repertoire (i.e. frequently programmed) and are held in high esteem. The include the works of composers such as Mozart, Brahms, Strauss, Prokofiev and Bartok. At that time, Bartok's "Concerto for Orchestra" and Prokofiev's 5th symphony were about 40 years old; both showed up frequently on auditions.

So that was then. What recent pieces are now part of the standard audition repertoire? The answer -- NADA, NOTHING, ZILCH. Why? Because orchestras stopped performing new music. Living composers are still popular, just not respected by the "orchestral establishment,"... for example Philip Glass, Michael Nyman and Karlheinz Stockhausen. All of them outdo their dead counterparts in CD sales. Yet, somehow orchestra managements and music directors still miss the boat. When artists and arts organizations lose their sense of exploration, they lose their character and purpose.

Orchestras used to have different personalities and characteristics. Now, most professional orchestras in North America are practically interchangeable. Orchestras, like most of America, have become corporate entities, offering only what the consumer will not complain about: not what they need or want, just what they won't complain about. Conservative orchestral programming is like the corporate Atkins protein-only diet. Sure, one may enjoy an all protein diet for awhile and may even experience some benefits, but the body needs protein and carbohydrates and the brain runs mainly on carbohydrates. In the end, if an all protein diet doesn't kill your body, it will drain your brain. Likewise, the Atkins approach to orchestra programming will lead to death or idiocy. With many orchestras going belly up and others in major financial crisis, what is it going to take to wake Rip Van Orchestra up?