American Music and the American Orchestra – David Stock

What music should an American orchestra play? This seems like a simple question, but,
sadly, it doesn’t have a simple answer! Many people, myself included, have come
up with a wide variety of answers.

Some would say, “play
what the audience likes”. But which audience? The one that goes out of duty? To
be seen? To have a fulfilling, sometimes even challenging musical experience?
There are, even in a minority culture like a symphony audience, many
sub-cultures, each with its own wants. Obviously, they can’t all be satisfied,
no matter how the season program is shaped:

Many years ago, the
late William Schumann gave simple answer: The orchestra should play the music
written for orchestra! That includes not
only the standard classics, but fairly recent works of proven worth and
genuinely new pieces, heard for the first time. The sieve of history has
already given its stamp of approval to the first group-but, in the case of American music,
what has become of the second? Shouldn’t American orchestras regularly play our
own classics-those that have already proved their worth? How about Copland,
Ives, Schumann himself, along with so many others? Why do they so rarely appear
on our programs? Do we really believe that musical quality equals European
provenance? Are we really so convinced of our cultural inferiority?

With regard to
premieres, without them the sieve of history has nothing to sift, and the orchestra becomes a relic of the past, a
“Society for Old Music”. (In Haydn’s time, the Society had a strict rule: no
piece less than twenty years old could be played!!!!) Almost all music was, in his day, truly
con-tempo-rary, of the time (and place).

When an American
orchestra takes only European music on a tour of Europe, is this really
representative of American culture? We have some of the greatest orchestras in the world here (with our
Pittsburgh Symphony near the top); in addition, we have some of the finest
living composers: John Adams, Steve
Reich, Christopher Rouse,Joan Tower…the
list is long. Don’t they stand for today’s American culture in a truer way when
an American orchestra goes , for
example, to Vienna, than yet
another performance, no matter how excellent, of standard European fare of the
past? And shouldn’t American orchestras be proud to play Ives or Copland abroad
just the way Russian ones bring Prokofiev and Shostakovich to our shores?

These musings were
triggered by the PSO’s ’06-07 Season announcement. I look forward to hearing
lots of Theofanidis; to Turangalila, to an evening of Shostakovich, to Sofia
Gubaidulina. But I certainly wonder if we’ll ever hear Ives’ 4th
Symphony, or Copland’s Short Symphony; Schuman’s String Symphony or Sessions’ Black Maskers.
Perhaps Steve Reich’s Tehillim?

Joan Tower’s Silver Ladders? Or a “return visit” from one of PSO’s successful
commissions ? (Harbison’s Ulysses’Bow, Daugherty’s Spaghetti Western,
Rochberg’s Sixth Symphony?)

If the Houston Symphony can take a new piece by a Houston
composer to New York’s Carnegie
Hall, why can’t the PSO take something by Balada or Vali.. offered to our great orchestra out of hope for change,

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