This post is the second-last in a multi-part Arts Fuse series examining the traditions and realities of classical piano concertos influenced by jazz. Steve Elman’s chronology of jazz-influenced piano concertos (JIPCs) can be found here. His essays on this topic are posted on his author page. Elman welcomes your comments and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Steve Elman
What more is there to say? A project like this one, attempting to put all the jazz-influenced piano concertos into a chronology and to draw conclusions from that effort, is doomed to be outdated as soon as the last part of the series is posted. I have no doubt that there is someone writing a concerto right now that deserves a place in this chronology. I am not clairvoyant enough to predict that anyone will have the chance to see it as part of a tradition. My crystal ball does not even allow me to say whether this as-yet-unknown concerto will ever get a hearing in a concert hall.
But my work of the past several years leads me to a few safe generalizations: There is a satisfying history of jazz-influenced piano concertos. Many of them are well worth hearing over and over. Classical piano concertos will continue to be written, and their composers will feel confident that they can use jazz elements in their work without being considered frivolous or outré. And classical composers of this and future generations will be more knowledgeable about the jazz tradition than composers of previous generations have been.
It is also clear that musicians making their primary living as jazz performers will have more opportunities to write music drawing on the classical tradition, and that their hybrid works will have greater acceptance among classical listeners and critics.
So much for the long view. This series has also caused me to confront some short-term issues that range well beyond the limited repertoire I’ve been reviewing. Here’s one general question that might serve as a coda: How might American orchestras adjust their programming philosophies so that JIPCs and other appealing if unfamiliar works can be heard more often?
In the next decade or so, no one should expect the context of classical music to be any different than it has been for the previous hundred years. If anything, the focus of the more established ensembles may narrow in the years to come. Classical music is likely to remain, for the most part, a discipline in which standard repertoire is king, virtuoso players are the stars, and young composers succeed to the extent that they excite the interest of gatekeepers in the musical media, the world of grantmaking, and the management of major orchestras.
I do not see any indications that these gatekeepers are developing an interest in championing the greatest music of the past forty years. The last composer to achieve a lasting place in US concert halls is Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975). The centenaries of two towering composers, Benjamin Britten and Witold Lutosławski, passed in 2013 with barely a ripple of attention from America’s orchestras. Composers of lesser renown but equal (or greater) talent – like Olivier Messaien and Elliot Carter (born 1908), William Schuman and Samuel Barber (born 1910), and Gian Carlo Menotti and Alan Hovhaness (born 1911) are fast fading from the consciousness of the general public; for the lucky ones, the name of a single work still adorns their tombstones – Britten’s “War Requiem”; Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”; Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors”; Hovhaness’s “Miraculous Mountain.”
2015 marks George Perle’s hundredth birthday; who will program his works this year? The BSO deserves great credit for marking Henri Dutilleux’s centenary with three works in the 2015-16 season, but who will commemorate Milton Babbitt in 2016, or Lou Harrison in 2017? It is probable that Leonard Bernstein’s centenary will be widely celebrated in 2018, but you can expect to hear orchestras play the familiar works you already hear regularly, the ones with popular appeal.
Despite the old saw to the contrary, familiarity breeds contentment. Nearly all the works that have become part of the basic orchestral repertoire have benefited from repeated hearings, and in fact, less familiar works of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert have come into their own as a result of repeated listenings. However, as I’ve noted before, there are a vast number of pieces by lesser composers (and especially composers of the twentieth century) that are not programmed at all. Sad but true: works that are not programmed, even if they are great works, will be doomed to be forgotten, except possibly in academic circles.
There is much hand-wringing about a crisis in classical music. Even though symphony attendance is still a significant part of the arts economy, concert attendance, recorded music sales, and space for classical criticism and commentary in the larger media continue to shrink. According to an Americans for the Arts 2012 report (citing data from Scarborough), attendance at symphony performances in the 81 US markets surveyed totaled 25.6 million, down 4% from 2011. These are the second-worst symphony attendance figures in the past decade, and the latest in a series of gradual declines. By comparison, attendance in 2012 at country, rock, R&B, and hip-hop performances totaled 58.7 million, up 7.5% from 2011 and up 21% from the report’s index year of 2003.
For jazzpeople, the situation seems even more discouraging. When you compare the print and on-line space devoted to classical music (small) to the space devoted to jazz (much smaller), it appears that the mass media have all but given up on jazz, with the exception of fleeting phenomena like Damien Chazelle’s film Whiplash. Even the statisticians show little interest; the Americans for the Arts report cited above does not mention the word “jazz” even once.
But the data for donations to cultural organizations may provide a slightly more optimistic picture. An analysis of charitable giving from Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy notes that contributions to “arts, culture and humanities” organizations in 2012 increased 7.8% over 2011, to $14.4 billion. And this is hardly a large number when compared to giving in other categories: Americans gave twice as much money to “health organizations” in 2012 and almost three times as much to educational institutions. There seems to be room for arts organizations to grow their funding if they make a stronger case to potential contributors. However, thinkers like pianist-composer Kurt Ellenberger (in a post on NPR’s “A Blog Supreme” are much more pessimistic. (And the 2012 Lilly School figures may be a fluke; a new report is due later this month which may shed more light on the trends.)
In addition, because of the advancements in technology and on-line distribution, there are more works available to hear now than there have ever been before, and hundreds of new pieces of music are going into the cloud every single day. It is also easier for today’s listeners to hear them than it has been for listeners in all the previous centuries of music appreciation.
Some of the above might lead you to think that unusual and marginal works in classical or jazz have a better chance today of finding their audiences than they did fifty years ago, but that is almost surely not true. What we know of mass-market choice actually suggests the opposite: the more choices a person has, the more likely it is that the person will be dissatisfied with any one choice. In different words, the closer the world comes to satisfying the ideal of “What I want when I want it,” the more narrowly the consumer will tend to define “What I want.” And the availability of music on-line does not necessarily give people incentives to go into the concert hall, despite the fact that hearing live music is a much more deeply involving experience than hearing it in any other form.
Can the standard concert repertoire make room for more marginal pieces like jazz-influenced piano concertos? The answer is yes, but it will only happen if orchestras and audiences can embrace and harness two abstracts: courage and trust.
First, courage. The changes in the audience and in the delivery systems they use mean that arts programmers have to be willing to rethink everything they do, to risk, to experiment. Fortunately, some seem ready to embrace the challenge. In the Boston area, we have seen ArtsEmerson build a series on short runs of diverse theatrical projects that have succeeded in other markets; whether this will work in the long run is hard to say, but the first few seasons have been bracing, and critical reception has been encouraging. The American Repertory Theater has built a second space (Oberon) for more experimental productions, and its Donkey Show has proven an enduring Saturday night event in that venue. In March, the Celebrity Series inaugurated its Stave Sessions concerts at Berklee’s Café 939, marketing contemporary classical and new music as if it were indie rock. Groupmuse continues to bring chamber music concerts to private homes, and the buzz about its work remains strong. All of these ideas ought to inspire more bold strokes.
(Time for disclosure: I occasionally fill in as an announcer on WCRB, which sponsors Stave Sessions and Groupmuse events.)
Along with courage, there must be trust. Programmers must work harder to earn their listeners’ trust, and they must learn to put more trust in their listeners. Every great experience of live performance helps to build the confidence of a listener that something similar can happen in the future. So programmers have to be ever-sensitive to the impacts of the events they present, and they have to strive for greatness in every presentation. Conversely (though this may be wishful thinking), they can hope that listeners will remember the great events and forget about the disappointing ones.
With the above in mind, let me offer a few suggestions for the programmers and managers of American classical orchestras. Some are being tried already in one form or another; some are moonshot ideas that will cost a lot to implement. They hardly represent a coherent program of reform, but they may inspire some practical applications.
• Learn from on-demand video. Get musicians’ unions to agree to expanded opportunities for the potential audience to listen. Stream concerts live. Allow unlimited access to concerts via the net and social media for at least a month after performance. Solicit comments from listeners and drive more listening with the rave reviews.
• Use new media tools to involve the audience in the programming. Poll listeners on their favorite performances from the past season and stream them in a countdown format as a lead-up to the next season. Present audio samples and workshop performances of proposed repertoire on-line and let listeners voice their interest (or disappointment); then program the works that garner the greatest positive response. Nominate “Works Deserving of Wider Recognition” on your websites with samples; select works for a forthcoming season based on listener reactions.
• Develop more thematic programs and market them more effectively. Perhaps I can illustrate this point best be keeping my focus local. The Boston Symphony’s marketing in the past few years has been hamstrung, first by James Levine’s questionable status and then by the absence of a music director. These limitations have actually created an opportunity: it is now time for the BSO to be courageous, to show its audience a vision that is dynamic and exciting with concerts that are not just “one from column A and one from column B” – but sensitively constructed concerts of works that speak to one another. At the same time, the BSO needs to communicate its vision and the thinking behind the concerts with captivating advertising and public relations; simply listing the works on the programs and the people who will be playing them will not broaden the orchestra’s listenership.
• Inaugurate truly casual nights. Have one concert a month where the dress code is jeans and sneakers (even for the conductor and the orchestra!), and the first beer is free.
• Start “visiting teams” tours. In the spirit of competitive pro sports, build a framework for out-of-town orchestras and music directors to bring their A games to local venues. Why shouldn’t the New York Philharmonic come to Boston every year with a concert designed to knock us on our heels? And why shouldn’t the Boston Symphony make an annual trip to Carnegie Hall to show how many musical touchdowns it can score?
• Play new pieces repeatedly during a season. If you go to the trouble and expense of commissioning a new work, program it at least four times during a season so that listeners can experience it more than once, different conductors can shape a variety of interpretations, and the orchestra can “season” it with experience.
• Unite or die. America has too many major orchestras right now; many teeter on the edge of bankruptcy. Given the competitive nature of cities, their governments, and their institutions, it may be unrealistic to imagine a single major orchestra serving DC and Baltimore, for example, or Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. However, it may become necessary for orchestras to become regional rather than city-specific, and it would be better for them to be seen as visionary rather than reluctant.
• Break down the traditional compositional walls. Innovate processes in which composer, performers, conductor, and representatives of the audience can collaborate on shaping a piece of music. These processes might even result in pieces with a collective compositional identity.
• Learn from public radio’s “story programs.” “This American Life,” “Snap Judgment,” “The Moth,” “The TED Radio Hour,” “Radio Lab,” the “Serial” podcasts, and other offerings with more limited distribution have created a fraternity of listenership. Their mission, in a few words, is to address a hunger in American listeners for real-life truths in an offhand, casual style. I don’t for a moment mean to suggest that these programs present specific approaches for classical concerts. But music directors and governing boards might ask themselves, “How can we bring some of that story-telling spirit into the concert hall? How can we connect the music we play to the lives of our listeners? How do the producers of these programs inspire people to be quiet and listen?”
• And program some jazz-influenced piano concertos. You just might be surprised.
More: To help you explore compositions mentioned above as easily as possible, my full chronology of JIPCs contains detailed information on recordings of these works, including CDs, Spotify access, and YouTube links.
Next in the Jazz and Piano Concerto Series Ave Sine Vale.
Steve Elman’s four decades (and counting) in New England public radio have included ten years as a jazz host in the 1970s, five years as a classical host in the 1980s, a short stint as senior producer of an arts magazine, thirteen years as assistant general manager of WBUR, and currently, on-call status as fill-in classical host on 99.5 WCRB since 2011. He was jazz and popular music editor of The Schwann Record and Tape Guides from 1973 to 1978 and wrote free-lance music and travel pieces for The Boston Globe and The Boston Phoenix from 1988 through 1991.