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Have Orchestral Concerts Become Too Timid?

Renowned improviser, pianist Gabriela Montero. Image Credit: Stefano Paltera/For The Times.
Graham Strahle
| July 4, 2017

All our orchestras are guilty of it: devising programs around star soloists and adhering to a fairly narrow range of standard repertoire that comprises well-known symphonies and concertos by household names. With a few notable exceptions, Australia’s main city orchestras have chosen to stay firmly with this same well-worn formula in 2017.

Mahler cycles from the Melbourne and Queensland Symphony Orchestras stand out, as does the former’s new composer-in-residence initiative, which sees Elena Kats-Chernin in the spotlight in five of its concerts.

Bravo to them. However, that’s about it in terms of big projects. Minor mention goes to the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra for mounting a pair of Rachmaninov concerts that feature all four of that composer’s piano concertos, and to the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra for its second semi-staged collaborative project with the State Theatre Company of South Australia in Romeo and Juliet.

Oh for programming that breaks out of the mould – for special events that explore lesser known works, and for composer festivals such as the ASO used to do. The last thing we want, of course, is for our major performing arts companies to be making a loss. However, in the present conservative climate in which they are operating, one wonders who is frightened the most: orchestras losing at the box office or audiences venturing beyond the familiar.

There is a hidden price to be paid for orchestras that lose their nerve. It contracts the repertoire still further and creates a reluctance to hear new or different music. Large swathes of what was once standard repertoire, and was therefore familiar, disappear into the shadows and become unknown to new listeners. For orchestral players, it can’t be good news either: being on a starvation diet can only diminish their interest.

More special events are needed, as these serve as points of growth for all concerned. In her doctoral thesis investigating the impact of popular versus core programming in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sarah Price (University of Sheffield, UK) remarks that while audiences generally favour music that is familiar, there is a point at which this ceases to be the case as overfamiliarity sets in. She notes, however, that it is intrinsically difficult to judge when this happens.

Price gives as an example the CBSO’s Beethoven Week mini-festival in 2014-2015, in which “core attenders commented on the atmosphere and the standing ovation as much as the quality of the music. This suggests that, for both populist and core audiences alike, arts organisations would benefit from turning concerts into more of an ‘event’.”

Let’s have more such events from orchestras in this country.

What could also ignite more interest is musicians moving outside their comfort zone. Battles of ego and prowess are the stuff of theatrical stage, and the concert stage should be no different. Staging pianist duels of the likes of Liszt versus Thalberg in the 1830s and 40s might be out of the question today, but seeing star soloists trying their hand at improvisation would add a whole new dimension of interest. Pianists Robert Levin, Keith Jarrett and the Venezuelan-American Gabriela Montero are amongst very few today who dare to attempt it – Levin did so in the ASO’s Beethoven Fest in 2014.

If Mozart was alive now, he would no doubt be astonished to see how formatted concerts have become and how little free invention occurs. In his era, cadenzas were a test of a musician’s skill at improvising on the spot, but these, along with all other parts of a performance, are carefully scripted and memorised. Levin’s observation that “the ethos in Mozart’s concert life was exactly that that one finds in a jazz club today” remains spot on.

So let’s see some more boldness and bravery too, please.

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