Quarter notes: mission vs. vision

Atlanta School composer Osvaldo Golijov.

Two interesting articles courtesy of Arts Journal.

Robert Spano (who was here in April) . The four composers Spano has championed – Jennifer Higdon, Osvaldo Golijov, Michael Gandolfi, and Christopher Theofanidis — have been dubbed the “Atlanta School,” and all have seen their profiles rise as a result of Spano’s efforts. The most encouraging aspect of Spano’s work is what it has done for audience development and ticket sales. I’ve excerpted the most interesting section of article, one that should be read by every arts administrator struggling to augment audiences.

“The most significant aspect of the Atlanta School project may be the trust it is building for new music in general. A semi-staged version of the opera “Dr. Atomic” by American composer John Adams sold at 88% of paid capacity during the depths of the economic recession. In a reversal of usual box-office patterns, concerts with music by Atlanta School composers typically sell at about 84% of capacity, says marketing vice president Charles Wade, versus an average of 78% for other classical events.”

The search committee working to find Gerard Schwarz’s replacement should pay attention to Atlanta’s experience. It isn’t enough for a conductor to be evaluated on: “The musical ability of the person, the ability to conduct and the ability to understand music, to know music, know instruments” as Nancy Evans, one of the members of the search committee said to the Seattle Times. In fact, every music director should “know music” – whatever this means anyway. A conductor should also have a vision for how an orchestra, hundreds of years of music, a city, and culture could fit together.

Just as important to a new music director’s vision, is the search committee and board of directors’ vision for the Seattle Symphony. Do they want a conductor who will steward the Germanic tradition of Brahms, Beethoven, and Mahler? Maybe a charismatic, podium presence in the mold of Gustavo Dudamel is preferred. Where should the conductor be from – America, France, United Kingdom, Russia?  How about a maestro who will help knit Seattle’s disparate music community’s together?

Before one of the concerts Jun Markl led with the SSO, I overheard one board member proudly talking about the SSO’s mission – “To present symphonic music of the highest quality in a distinctive way for the cultural enrichment, education, engagement and enjoyment of the people of our community.”

This is a commendable statement. The SSO should aspire to fulfill this statement with every concert. Reading it, however, I get the impression that this mission statement (or some variation of it) is used by most orchestras. This is the problem the SSO faces. What orchestra doesn’t strive to present “symphonic music of the highest quality?” I keep waiting (and I know I’m not the only one) for someone to communicate clearly an artistic vision for the orchestra beyond just wanting an orchestra that plays symphonies really well.  At the very least, someone could communicate what artistic vision the search committee is looking for in a new music director.

The other article concerns the during the last century. The list of composers reads like a who’s who of the 20th Century (Carter, Cowell, Crumb, Martinu, Higdon, Rorem, etc) Most of the pieces were recorded and released on the First Edition label. Some of these recordings are still available in CD form. The Louisville Symphony could create a nice niche (and a compelling vision) for itself if they resurrected these pieces, programmed them, and over time, incorporated them into the orchestra’s repertory – just like the Atlanta Symphony did with Jennifer Higdon’s piece Cityscapes.

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