Challenging the “Orchestral” Model

Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend two local concerts: Georgia Symphony Orchestra (GSO) Jazz at the Earl Smith Strand Theatre and a matinee Atlanta Symphony performance at the Woodruff Arts Center. While I’d like to offer a few musical observations on both concerts, it seems this would be an appropriate setting to discuss how modern orchestras are changing the way they reach audiences.

Sam Skelton’s tradition in presenting GSO Jazz often brings programs with a well-developed theme, so last weekend’s offerings focused on the arrangements and compositions of the late Fred Sturm. Sturm was indisputably one of the most prolific and respected jazz composers, arrangers, and educators of the last several decades, working with artists including Bobby McFerrin, Clay Jenkins, Ingrid Jensen, Wynton Marsalis, Wycliffe Gordon, Branford Marsalis, and countless others. In 2010 he was awarded the Downbeat Jazz Education Achievement Award. Furthermore, Sturm had a personal connection to GSO Jazz through Lead Trumpet Mike Barry, who was one of Sturm’s esteemed students.

Skelton’s choice of Sturm’s arrangements exemplifies a vision that more ensembles are capitalizing on: merging styles and challenging traditional instrumentation. Selections included reworkings of Radiohead and Steely Dan (a personal favorite of Skelton). Through the widely successful Radiohead Jazz Project, Sturm was a champion of these innovative masterworks for the jazz ensemble. Each chart delves into territory that is all-encompassing, with tastes of minimalist Steve Reich and even post-impressionism. Perhaps more than most music for large jazz ensembles, the Sturm arrangements are often through-composed excepting a few solo selections (although one chart included every member of the horn section taking a short multi-bar solo).

GSO Jazz could find success simply because of Sam Skelton’s musical vision and hiring of top Atlanta freelance talent. But what makes the group even stronger is its partnership through the Georgia Symphony. American orchestras are endowed organizations that have often been single-minded: one large ensemble presenting a concert season. But more orchestras, including the Georgia Symphony, are foregoing this model, creating multiple ensembles and concert series in order to maintain a wider audience reach. Additionally, GSO Jazz presents most programs in the Earl Smith Strand Theatre, a venue that can create an experience around the concert attendee. Food and drinks are served and may be brought into the theatre, for example. A post-concert “piano lounge” is offered. Additionally, the Strand’s location in the historic Marietta square offers mild nightlife to patrons.

The Atlanta Symphony’s weekend concert offered Debussy’s Premiere rhapsodie (performed with Principal Clarinet Laura Ardan as soloist), Richard Prior’s Symphony No. 3, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. Firstly, the orchestra, under Music Director Robert Spano, performed magnificently. However, I would like to offer a few thoughts regarding the audience in attendance.

Unsurprisingly, Debussy’s work for solo clarinet was well-received by all involved. Three curtain calls for Laura Ardan were much deserved, for Ardan has become a driving force in the orchestra’s sound, premiering a work commissioned by the orchestra in the last two years.

Following the Debussy, a work by Emory University professor Richard Prior received its ASO premiere. Prior composed a work performed by the orchestra last season, but his Symphony No. 3 had previously been performed by the Emory University Orchestra under the direction of Prior himself.

A pre-performance video interview between Prior and Spano offered various insight on the composer’s composition, which Prior discussed was largely a journey from chaos and struggle to light. Orchestrally intricate with numerous overt stylistic influences, the orchestra offered a beautiful performance of the relatively new work by this local composer.

I personally couldn’t help but notice the contrasting reactions from the audience between the Debussy and Prior (first half of the program) and the Beethoven (second half). While Beethoven’s Fifth is an incredible and pivotal piece of orchestral literature, it was stunning how enthusiastic most audience members were for the Beethoven, after perhaps less than half of the audience offering a standing ovation for both first-half works.

Premiering a 30-minute piece of new music by a local composer is unfortunately rare for many orchestras today, but the collaboration is destined to create a widespread interest from the community abroad. Championing new music must be an initiative to keep the orchestral medium alive, but “selling” this idea can be difficult if audience reaction is less than anticipated. In last weekend’s case, I believe the less than enthusiastic reaction for the new music cannot be blamed on the composer, musicians, or management, but rather a much more “traditional” audience.

In my opinion, orchestra initiatives like GSO Jazz and ASO Presents (i.e. Jazz at Lincoln Center, Sci-Fi programs, Pops concerts, etc.) get younger audiences in the door. Once someone comes to a concert, we as an arts community have an opportunity to get them back. Many young people, including myself, would LOVE more new music like that of Richard Prior, but many don’t even know it exists.

What can we do about this? After all, the blame for diminishing audiences goes to us as concertgoers just as much as it goes to anyone else. I believe we can start by inviting a friend to a concert. Stir things up on social media. Write about what you see and hear at concerts. Invest yourself in the music as much as the musicians onstage do.

We can re-invigorate our city as an active arts community. Let’s thrive through art again. Our culture is so much poorer without it.

-JTB

johnthomasburson.com

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