Christina Fong

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Several weeks ago, a small but vocal minority of right wing radicals in the "pro-life" movement bullied their way into getting constant press coverage which led to our government holding an "emergency session" for Terry Schiavo. In the name of "life" they rallied around a shell of a human -- a brain-dead vegetable. This same group ignored and in some cases condoned the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis. They can care less that around 5000 people die weekly from preventable diarrhea. Many of them even support the death penalty. They clearly do not care about human life. Their behavior is illogical, arrogant, inconsistent and hypocritical. The same can be said for most of our congressmen, senators, and of course, our illustrious President W(ar), who pandered to these radicals.

Around the time the Terry Schiavo circus breaks out, I receive two pieces of media which convince me the artistic and social integrity of orchestras in the USA has gone to the dogs.

The first was the Chicago Symphony's season brochure for 2005-2006. To describe it as progressive and adventuresome would be a big lie. I don't mean to single out Chicago's season, but am only using it as a template. As far as programming is concerned in the USA's corporate-minded orchestral culture, you can interchange almost any orchestra without noticing much difference.

Here are the new works to be programmed:

1. "Naive and Sentimental Music" by John Adams (with Mozart: Horn Concerto 4 and Sibelius: Symphony 5)
2. "Aerial" by HK Gruber (with Mahler: Symphony 4)
3. "Notations for Orchestra V and VI" by Boulez (with Wagner: Parsifal, Act 3)
4. "LA Variations" by Essa Pekka Salonen (with Copland: Old American Songs and Dvorak: Symphony 7)
5. "Piano Concerto" by Marc-Andre Dalbavie (with Beethoven: Overture and Sibelius: Symphony 2)
6. "Rapture" by Christopher Rouse (with Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto and Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition)
7. "TBA" by Isabel Mundry (with Mozart: Piano Concerto 2 and Concerto for 2 Pianos)
8. "Astral Canticle" by Augusta Read Thomas (with Mozart: Masonic Funeral Music, Mahler: Kindertotenlieder and Wagner: Siegfried's Funeral Music)
9. "Violin Concerto 2" by George Tsontakis (program TBA)
10. "Soundings" by Elliot Carter (with Mozart: Piano Concerto 24, Flute Concerto 1 and Schoenberg: Variations)

There are a total of 40 concerts with approximately 80-100 hours of music including, at best, 6 hours of "new music". Not one of these 10 pieces is the featured work of a concert.

Is this part of a larger agenda to destroy new music audiences and the future of new music, or pure idiocy? Orchestras claim there is no audience for new music. If this is true, why not program popular new music? CD sales are a good indication of what music people will pay to hear. Of all of the composers listed above, only John Adams excels in CD sales. If orchestras are going to devote so little time to new music by using the excuse "it doesn't sell," at the very least they should program popular composers. This is both common sense and a tactic already applied to older music.

What if orchestras adopted a similar attitude programming older repertoire? In a way, it is impossible, because one would need to unearth a completely obscure and unknown piece by an obscure and unknown court composer, church music director or music academy professor from pre-modern times. We would thus have to substitute an "unknown" pre-modern composer with a "somewhat known" pre-modern composer. Compared with the way orchestras handle new music programming now, this approach still gives music of the pre-modern era a "marketing" edge. For example, in program 6 we would replace Mozart's concertos with those of Antonio Salieri, Josef Martin Kraus or Bernhard Heinrich Romberg, just to name a few. If this plan continued for a couple of years we would witness dramatic changes to the audience for pre-modern music.

If orchestras are hell bent on satisfying the pre-modern audience by not programming unpopular or lesser works by unpopular or lesser composers, then why such a different strategy with newer music? Why not program a Philip Glass symphony instead of HK Gruber, or Michael Nyman's "Piano Concerto" instead of Marc-Andre Dalbavie's piano concerto, or a work by Arvo Pärt instead of Augusta Read Thomas's "Astral Canticle," or a John Cage Number Piece instead of an Elliot Carter piece? Should lesser known composers and works be programmed at the expense of works and composers who already have devoted audiences? Why program Tartini or Salieri while excluding J.S. Bach, Mozart or Haydn?

I feel there are two reasons why new works should be programmed. First, the artistic merit of the work. Second, does the audience want to hear it? These concerns are especially important in the case of new music if so little time is devoted to it. Simply put, there is no time to waste. Chosen works should either represent the artistic pinnacle of new music or top the billboard charts. It is clear -- the works programmed above were not chosen for their popularity. Do the Chicago Symphony management and Daniel Barenboim honestly believe these works and composers represent the pinnacle of new orchestral music? Or, are these composers simply friends of the music director and management? This is an issue which does not only apply to the CSO.

What if orchestras decided to reverse the balance and quality of newer and older music? One example ...

Louis Spohr: Overture
Michael Nyman: Concerto
Philip Glass: Symphony

Would audiences begin crying out for music of the pre-modern era if this was the type of programming heard on a regular basis, or would they be clamoring for more newer music?

Substitute "pro-life radicals" with "pro-dead radicals." Substitute "congressmen, senators and president" with "orchestral musicians, management and music directors." Substitute "Terry Schiavo" with "unknown modern composer."

All too often, music directors and managements rally around a composer whose music, like Terry Schiavo, should be allowed to die. This, while completely turning a blind eye to the multitude of excellent pieces by composers whom people want to hear. Orchestras clearly do not care about new music. This is illogical, arrogant, inconsistent and hypocritical.

The second piece of media I received ...

Would you like fries with your Beethoven?