Back in April, an assortment of Cleveland-area composers banded together to register their outrage (via an open letter in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer) over the pronounced lack of American composers on the Cleveland Orchestra’s upcoming season programming. Following that, there was a detailed and articulate discussion on New York’s WQXR in which Naomi Lewin hosted headlining letter writer Keith Fitch along with New Music USA President Ed Harsh and forward-thinking Seattle Symphony Executive Director Simon Woods. There are multiple overlapping issues at stake here (now that American concert music can officially claim more than one century to its credit, all American music isn’t new music), but at the heart of this latest chapter of classical music brow-furrowing is the now familiar specter of the floundering major symphony orchestra that has long shadowed our culture pages and news feeds. Painting a picture of the precariously preserved edifice of the symphony à laDorian Gray has served its purposes, stirring up the perpetual debate over society, art, and relevance. But I would suggest that new music proponents are uniquely qualified to stop worrying about the Major Symphony Orchestra in favor of much more productive—and yes, more American—channels.
An easily made but generalized across-the-pond comparison casts us in an unfavorable light. European orchestras take a marked pride in their national tradition (e.g.: Sibelius in Finland; Britten, Tippett, and Vaughan Williams in the U.K.) that is notably absent in America. Are we being unpatriotic? We’re a comparatively adolescent country, and the American intelligentsia has been known to sustain a certain cultural inferiority complex. Yet we acknowledge that America is a place with possibilities that can’t be found in the old world. And what could be more old world than rigid hierarchies? The Cleveland Orchestra makes the news, in part, because it’s one of the original “Big Five.” (To the best of my ascertainment, the jury is currently out on the number of qualifying orchestras in today’s Big club, but Cleveland still holds a place of seniority.) The financial health and adaptability of our major orchestras are convenient barometers of the health of the classical music scene in this country because these institutions are our most observably active ties to the Western music tradition. Similarly, the attainment of major orchestra jobs can function as that rare quantifiable yardstick of professional success in a statistically slippery biz, the outcome of which spells number-crunched woe for music degree earners.
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