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Should Orchestras Confine Themselves To A Certain Genre?
Answering a question from a colleague.

by Holly Mulcahy
July 6, 2009

A few weeks back, there was a question posed on Inside The Arts by Joe Patti, the author of Butts In The Seats. Joe asked "Should orchestras confine their programming to just a few genres?" Responses from Inside The Arts bloggers and readers generated more interesting questions than answers, all of which got me thinking.

On one hand, some orchestras are limiting themselves by relegating the majority of programming to standard repertoire from 100-200 years ago. But isn't that what people expect? When they buy a ticket to go see the symphony, aren't they generally expecting a Brahmish, Beethovenesque or Mozarty type piece? When one goes to a steakhouse for dinner, one expects to see mostly steak on the menu. Why shouldn't orchestras approach ticket buyers the same way?

On the other hand, some orchestras go in completely the opposite direction by trying to attract ticket buyers with increased offerings of rock/pop (under the buzzword of being "approachable"). Luring audiences in with, say, The Beach Boys, or Cheryl Crow, and playing a bunch of garbage arrangements of the star's music that really don't need any orchestral accompaniment at all. My least favorite and most humiliating thing about this ploy (and yes, it is a ploy) is when an orchestra has a rock star or group come in as a guest, and make an audience to wait to hear anything from the star until after intermission. The audience is then forced to listen to cheesy overtures and the sappiest hits from centuries ago, as if to say "See, this is what you really need to be listening to," or, "Recognize this? Maybe your cell phone played it or you heard it on a TV commercial," or worse yet, "See, we're cool. This is fast and exciting music, and you as audience members like loud, fast, and exciting."

This approach has always approached me as lowest common denominator marketing by attempting to lure unsuspecting ticket buyers in and then slam them with propaganda that they will just have to love and cram it right down their collective throats! In a way, this has been the problem with orchestras all along, they try to force audiences what to think and feel.

The line between insipid and inspired is fine but I am glad to say that I've been part of concerts billed as "pops" that were decidedly inspired. There are plenty of genres that can be played tastefully by an orchestra and they shouldn't be restricted by attempts to categorize. Those types of concerts can certainly be successful but another Inside The Arts blogger brings up a very valid point about this. How can an orchestra be versatile and skilled enough to play a Bruckner or Mahler and be able to pull off the correct technique of contemporary style? The example used was Michael Jordan: Great at pro basketball, but pretty useless as a pro baseball player.

Is it fair to compare orchestra players to Michael Jordan? You bet. Musicians are athletes on their instruments, and the training involved parallels that of professional athletes. But the big difference is orchestras aren't as easy to measure in a competitive sense (we don't keep score). All an orchestra has to do is play a convincing and sincere program that engages and stimulates an audience in order to "win."

So my answer is this: orchestras should play primarily traditional genres but occasionally mix in interesting alternatives that make effective use of our instrumentation and skills. Yes, I go to a steak house because of the steak, but I expect the kitchen to offer few interesting and different side dish choices to mix it up a bit.

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