The Future of The Orchestra

by William Bolcom 
August 2013 

It is well known that small audiences are commonplace nowadays in orchestral concerts. It’s pleasant to talk about outreach programs as possible solutions to audience indifference, but one of the most used outreach efforts in the last several decades was the increase in “pops” programs, which have rarely reaped the hoped-for financial benefits (and were tough on orchestral morale). Something more fundamental to the orchestra’s existence needs to be addressed. We need not only to rethink the orchestra’s position in society; it might be a good time to rethink the makeup of the orchestra itself. 

There is a landmark moment in which the evolution of the orchestra was brought to a standstill. In the early 20th century, many parties were interested in including the saxophone in the orchestral ensemble as a permanent member; Cecil Forsyth’s landmark 1914 book “Orchestration” opined that the saxophone would form an effective bridge between the brass and woodwinds. I think, however, that the instrument’s humble beginnings in ensembles – saxophones were notable in French military orchestres d’harmonie, and they were becoming a growing presence in lower-rung jazz ensembles (in New Orleans pawnshops, saxes were much cheaper than clarinets) – had much to do with the disdain regular symphony players had toward saxophonists in the 1910s. This was still manifestly true as late as 1984 when, for the premiere of my “Songs of Innocence and of Experience” in Stuttgart, the two young saxophonists the orchestration calls for stepped gingerly into rehearsal for the first time, in much less well-fitting jackets than the orchestra musicians. I shall never forget the sneer that rose unmistakably from the German opera orchestra, which insisted on putting glass partitions between the two hapless youngsters and the rest of the players – which were kept there for the piece’s two performances. 

From what I understand, similarly prejudiced orchestra players, conductors, and symphony board members may have pressured the AFM around 1913 to help codify the disposition of the orchestra (three flutes and the like), with the unspoken proviso of “No Saxophones!” About then, other instruments like saxhorns and sarrusophones lost any foothold in the orchestra – though saxhorn parts exist in Richard Strauss’s “Till Eulenspiegel” and as late as Darius Milhaud’s 1923 “Oresteia” – but the real push by standard musicians was evidently to keep the saxophone out. 

This closed the door on not only a timbre, but also an important developing instrumental culture. It had a chilling effect in the U.S. musically, and would turn out to be a full stop (excepting the expansion of percussion and the intermittent addition of variety instruments) to the constant evolution of the ensemble up to that time. That freezing of the orchestral ensemble has had the effect that today’s orchestra – not only in the U.S. but practically everywhere else – is a Collegium Musicum of the World War I period, stopping essentially with Mahler in development. The result is that a huge pool of virtuosity – involving currently-banished instruments composers could have helped utilize and add to the ensemble (as we can imagine Mahler would have had he lived) – has been snubbed, and thus impossible to integrate into the orchestra as had happened until then in the orchestra’s existence. 

We composers are now writing for an antique ensemble when we write for the orchestra. To add to our isolation, there is a standoff now between popular and art music more pronounced than any time I can remember in my 75 years, inhibiting the flow between the two which had been the case till the current schism – and that may also relate to that fateful decision to exclude the saxophone in the 1910s. (It would eventually mean that the coming electric-instrument revolution would have little or no influence on the ensemble’s makeup – although it is perfectly possible to mix electric and acoustic instruments in concert, which happens all the time today.) This exclusivity goes against the vernacular part of the orchestra’s history, made up as it is of violins (the lowly street version of the aristocratic viol), horns (brought indoors from the hunt), and noisy open-air shawms and sackbuts (refined into oboes and trombones), just for a few examples. Two needs – improved instruments and virtuoso instrumentalists – had to be met for inclusion in the symphonic ensemble; the saxophone was ready. Its exclusion was a political act, which would contribute to the orchestra’s being frozen in time. 

I say this with a certain regret: I love writing for the traditional, unmodernized orchestra, a miraculous instrument even as is – but. And there are numerous “buts” from the composer’s point of view, including shrinking rehearsal time for one bitter example. But – equally serious – a comparison of orchestral programming today, against say the Boston Symphony’s of the 1910-1920 period, shows that, even with recent composerships-in-residence and the like, recent orchestral programming is sparse for new music; this is of course a continuation of a tendency beginning in the late 19th century toward older and older music in programming across the board. But orchestras now are particularly lax even compared to a short hundred years ago in presenting new works. It may be that the 1890s orchestra fits the 2013 sensibility less and less, especially for a number of young composers. 

Commissions from orchestras often include strictures like ten-minute time limits and banning the use of non-standard instrumentation. The attitude behind these stipulations all too often relegates a new work’s premiere to definite second-class status against tried-and-true program fare. (Yes, there are exceptions. But let’s admit these are exceptions.) 

When there is insufficient rehearsal time for a new orchestral piece (as is the usual case), the resulting performance is all too often scrappy and superficial, almost a public sight-reading – no wonder a new piece is shoved aside quickly! – and the standard works on the program can also seem tired and overworked because there wasn’t sufficient rehearsal time to delve deeply enough to rediscover these recognized masterpieces either. 

Subsequent performances of new works after a premiere are rare, often because there is not enough foundational support nor critical interest in a second or third reading (which might even be a vast improvement over the debut: think of the number of beloved masterworks that misfired at the first performance, and remember that we have them in the repertory because of those second chances). 

We need to rethink the ensemble of the orchestra. Its traditional function as the microcosm of the musical world is no longer an accurate description. It will take more than additional money to save the notion of the orchestra, and we union members, composers, orchestral players, managements, music schools and conservatories need to think in concerted dialogue if we want the ensemble to flourish.