There should be no surprise that we at Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy are enthusiastic about supporting innovative ideas for concerts. But though we are among the relatively few voices that acknowledge the absence of works by women and advocate for their inclusion on concert programs, we are in good company with many who would like to see more than the standard repertoire on season lineups. Though I don’t believe that classical music is dying or dead, I do feel that it could use a bit of perking up. With so many ensembles going through their own financial woes, lacking ticket sales and interested donors, the time has come to reevaluate which works are heard, and how they are presented.
That is why the Spring For Music festival was so commendable. The core of the festival was to allow orchestras to experiment and explore. The artistic philosophy was, in comparison to the Beethoven that we expect to see on every season brochure, a thrill to read:
Spring For Music provides an idealized laboratory, free of the normal marketing and financial constraints, for an orchestra to be truly creative with programs that are interesting, provocative and stimulating, and that reflect its beliefs, its standards, and vision. Spring For Music believes that an orchestra’s fundamental obligation is to lead and not follow taste. As such, programming needs to advance, and not just satisfy, expectations. An artistic point of view must infuse everything an orchestra does, with programs that not only reflect but validate that point of view. Great programs have imaginative, meaningful and deliberate thought behind the selection of pieces, the sequence of pieces, the program structure, and the presentation of pieces. This does not mandate a rigid program “theme” or simply a healthy dose of contemporary music; rather it reflects a stimulating mix of pieces, styles, artists and composers that engages the listener in an absorbing adventure – a journey that seduces, thrills, and moves, and where the program’s totality becomes greater than the sum of the individual pieces. A great program provokes gasps, sighs, tears or smiles, but above all creates a sense of the unexpected – the listener is never sure how it will actually turn out; it is imbued with an inherent risk of uncertainty.
As a result, the risks that were taken in the concerts that were presented included adventurous works and rarely heard performers – including a surprising percentage of women. In 2011 the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra presented a new commission from Maria Schneider (Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories for Soprano and Chamber Orchestra); the Albany Symphony performed Bun-Ching Lam’s “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and Tania Leon’s “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel”; and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performed Melinda Wagner’s Little Moonhead. In 2013 the Baltimore Symphony performed Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto 4-3. In 2014 the Rochester Philharmonic was originally invited to perform a concert which included Amy Beach’s Gaelic Symphony and other to-be-announced works by women, but the program changed when the conductor was unexpectedly removed and replaced. Spring For Music allowed conductors to take risks without worrying about how many tickets were sold or what the immediate donor base would consider. And the concerts themselves were designed to be very accessible with flat, affordable ticket prices.
The idea was inspired and deeply relevant to the need to change the current tides of classical music. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that Spring For Music was, ultimately, unsustainable. The intentions were excellent, and the concerts it produced in its four year run were superb – but there was lack of funding to continue the experiment any longer. As Alex Ross noted on his blog, “This series will be missed and mourned.”
All the more reason why I was thrilled to learn that the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts will collaborate to bring back a reimagining of Spring For Music in SHIFT: A Festival of American Orchestras. Read the full press release here.
There are key differences between the former and future iterations (participating orchestras will be chosen not just for artistry but for their demonstrated relationship with their communities; an overall stronger emphasis on education, including community events, workshops, etc.) but the core is the same – acknowledging, applauding, and encouraging more innovative programming.
The website for applications will be open as of next week, and we can anticipate the first iteration of the festival in 2017. I look forward not only to what programs and events/opportunities for engagement will be offered, but how this momentum from Spring For Music and now SHIFT can continue to encourage and inspire conductors and arts administrators that it is worth taking risks and offering audiences something new, exciting, and engaging instead of the repertoire we all may love, but have heard perhaps far too often.