A New Normal

As orchestras and performing-arts institutions start to assemble onstage again, both with and without live audiences, an opportunity to implement substantial change is within their grasp. Now what?

The Philadelphia Orchestra, performing at Mann Center for the Performing Arts on Aug. 6, 2020
Screenshot from Philadelphia Orchestra Digital Stage

As I’m writing this, I’ve just watched and listened several times to a special pre-season prelude concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra, recorded by a sensibly distanced contingent of the ensemble with conductor Kensho Watanabe on August 6, 2020, at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts. The concert had its streaming premiere on Tuesday night to introduce the orchestra’s new Digital Stage, where its fall season is set to unfold. Comprising that season are an Opening Night Celebration on Sept. 30, featuring guest artists Angel Blue and Lang Lang; 10 subscription-series programs (seven conducted by music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin), mixing canonical Classical-scale and chamber-orchestra works with a fistful of contemporary pieces; and seasonal events devoted to Halloween-inspired music and Nutcracker selections.

It felt meaningful that the first concert started not with Tchaikovsky – or Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven – but with Gabriela Lena Frank, a widely admired living composer who is not white, European, or deceased. The orchestra sounded solid and inspired in the “Tarqueada” and “Coqueteos” segments from Frank’s Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout. (Nézet-Séguin will dip into Leyendas for the program he’ll lead on Oct. 29, as well; it’s not clear whether he’ll conduct these same selections.)

Unsurprisingly, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings was elegant and congenial. Watanabe, whose work I’d very much enjoyed when he led works by Mozart and Missy Mazzoli in a Houston Symphony concert streamed live from Jones Hall just a few weeks ago, was a steady, stylish leader. I confess that I enjoyed hearing all the nighttime insects chirping and singing along with the Philadelphia players.

The first five minutes of the presentation – which remains available to ticket holders for delayed streaming or replay through Friday – were devoted to orchestra members relating anticipatory jitters and expectations, and, ultimately, their satisfaction in playing together in person, even for just a small handful of executives and crew. A Digital Lobby offered glimpses behind the scenes, a guide to using the Digital Stage, and a video of isolated orchestra members playing Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, with Nézet-Séguin and the musicians projected across the Philadelphia skyline. Clearly, we’re meant to sense that some kind of normalcy could be on the verge of returning.

Normalcy, though, is not what we need. Right now, what we need is hope, and action.

Serendipitously, while I’ve been mulling this topic, the extraordinary opera director Yuval Sharon shared his remarks from the Wednesday press conference that announced his appointment as artistic director of Michigan Opera Theatre:

I think we all know on a deep level that we will not return to old standards, but we are instead starting to imagine what the new normal could look like. If “normal” implies we can all gather together again as a group of 2,000 people and sit next to each other without fear, to listen to sung and danced stories about ourselves and to reflect deeply on what they mean, then that will be a welcome return to what we were looking for in opera in the first place. But if we come back to the opera house and opera looks, sounds, and feels the same as before all of this happened, then we will have failed to give our art form a chance to speak to this moment.

It’s exactly this that I’m thinking about, now: the idea that this elongated period of isolation, anger, frustration, and outright fear about what the future holds, for ourselves and for the imperiled institutions that we hold dear, might also provide an opportunity – maybe even a mandate – to implement substantial change.

There’s a lot to admire in the Philadelphia Orchestra season, tickets for which went on sale today. The opening-night concert, in addition to its starry guests, includes the live premiere of Seven O’Clock Shout, a composition by Valerie Coleman that the orchestra’s players recorded and assembled in isolation, and posted online in July to honor frontline workers. The second program, on Oct. 8, includes Fate Now Conquers, a composition by Carlos Simon originally conceieved under the auspices of a Gabriela Lena Frank-helmed workshop tasked with reponding to to the towering and/or overpowering influence of Beethoven during this, his 250th-birthday season.

Another piece that emerged from that workshop – Climb, by Jessica Hunt – is featured alongside Mozart, Brahms, and Emanuel Ax on Oct. 15. On Oct. 22, Yannick Nézet-Séguin introduces Prayer, a Vivian Fung composition that he previously conducted with a virtual ensemble of Canadian orchestral musicians for a video posted in July. Further programs bring Philadephia premieres by Jessie Montgomery and Missy Mazzoli, as well as two should-be-canonical works by Black composers, George Walker’s Lyric for Strings and Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1.

It’s a promising sign. It shows that Nézet-Séguin and Philadelphia Orchestra president and CEO Matías Tarnopolsky have paid attention to prior criticism, and are continuing to take heed of calls for fundamental change emanating from many places within and without the performing-arts and academic communities.

The need for profound responses to prolonged inequities could not be more urgent; for evidence, look to “Musicians on How to Bring Racial Equity to Auditions,” published today by The New York Times, in which musicians, conductors, and administrators grapple with the intentions and shortcomings of blind auditions for orchestral positions. While you’re there, find “Orchestras Looking to Broaden Horizons? Start Improvising,” written by Seth Colter Walls and published by the Times on Aug. 25.

Then read “5 Questions to Philip Ewell,” published by I Care If You Listen in July, after Ewell – a musicologist at Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center – found himself at the center of a storm of controversy concerning racism deeply embedded in music-theory studies. And continue with the manifesto posted by Sphinx LEAD, a cohort of executives, grantmakers, and officers who identify as Black and Latinx, last week on Medium: “We are arts administrators of color. We are ready.”

Jader Bignamini
Photograph: Opus 3 Artists

The Philadelphia Orchestra isn’t the only major institution that has stepped up with ideas about how to reshape the concert-music community, its constituency, and its canon. Tonight at 7:30pm EDT, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra welcomes its newly appointed music director, Jader Bignamini, with a concert streaming live from Orchestra Hall; the program, a succinct smörgåsbord showcasing the orchestra’s brass, woodwind, and string sections by turns, includes Elegy: In Memoriam—Stephen Lawrence, a sublime tribute by English composer Philip Herbert to the murdered Black British teenager of the title. (A video of a quarantine-distanced virtual performance by Sphinx Virtuosi, who toured with Elegy in 2019, is warmly recommended.)

Bignamini, a talented and charismatic Italian conductor, is known best for his work in the core operatic repertoire. But, in addition to the Herbert piece on tonight’s program, he’ll be leading three substantial pieces by Black composers for his fourth concert, Sept. 18 at 5:30pm EDT: George Walker’s Lyric for Strings once again, here alongside William Grant Still’s Serenade for Orchestra and the Symphony No. 1 of Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George. (“His Name Is Joseph Boulogne, Not ‘Black Mozart,’” written by composer Marcos Balter for The New York Times in July, is compulsory reading beforehand.)

Yes, it’s one piece on one program, and three more lumped together on another. But it’s a substantial opening gambit for a new leader, too. Future Detroit Symphony online events will bring Adolphus Hailstork’s Baroque Suite, conducted by Leonard Slatkin; a new orchestral version of Primal Message, a lovely string quintet by Nokuthula Ngwenyama, on Nov. 5; and an arresting pairing of For Marcos Balter, a new violin concerto by Tyshawn Sorey, with Florence Price’s Five Folksongs in Counterpoint, on Nov. 6, with Jennifer Koh as soloist and Christian Reif conducting.

There’s more worth celebrating elsewhere, not least the Emerging Black Composers Project, a joint initiative of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the San Francisco Symphony that will commission 10 new works over the next decade, and provide workshops, performances, and mentorship. The Seattle Symphony, via its new Seattle Symphony Live digital platform, will present “Soul of Remembrance” (from Five Movements in Color) by Mary D. Watkins, William Grant Still’s Mother and Child, Carlos Simon’s An Elegy: A Cry from the Grave, and Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst on programs between Sept. 19 and Oct. 29.

And the New York Philharmonic, rumbling back into action after a protracted absence, has included a brand-new Carlos Simon piece, loop, in its pop-up Bandwagon concerts around the city. (The Phil is also working to revive and reimagine last season’s focus on women composers, Project 19, starting with a commissioned Soundwalk created by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Ellen Reid, launched today in Central Park, opening at Saratoga Performing Arts Center and Spa State Park on Sept. 21, and coming to a wide variety of locations thereafter.)

This list is not exhaustive, but it’s a lot. It’s impressive.

It’s still not nearly enough.

We need to see more commitments and more tangible plans from more institutions, some of the biggest of which have been almost entirely silent throughout long months of quarantine isolation. We need to know that creators who don’t fit the conventional profile of “orchestral composer,” for one reason or several, are provided with opportunities to work, grow, develop, and be heard, and not simply to be relegated to the overture slot before the superstar concerto and the timeless masterpiece. We need our institutions and presenters to reach out to extraordinary creative artists whose work might not fit neatly into the standard symphonic paradigm, like Anthony Braxton and Wadada Leo Smith, and offer to create works with them, on their own terms.

We need to be given cause to believe that a safe, cozy retrenchment into “ennobling music” by the “Great Composers” is not the endgame our institutions have in mind, once panic and protest cease to dominate our daily conversations.

We need to make sure that initiatives like these, and larger ones still, are established as the new normal: paradigms designed to make the concert-music world more accessible, inviting, and relevant to the widest possible range of participants onstage, behind the scenes, and in the audience.

It’s efforts like this, and not a return to some sentimental view of normalcy and greatness, that could assure a rich and meaningful future for our art, our artists, and our institutions. There is no time like now to get started.

Let’s do this.

The Detroit Symphony performs music by Aaron Copland, Giovanni Gabrielli, Richard Strauss, Philip Herbert, and Ennio Morricone tonight at 7:30pm EDT; dso.org