Some thoughtful words from Lawrence Dillon

Lawrence Dillon recently put up this post on Sequenza 21.  It’s a short, but powerful assessment of the state of the orchestra today.  I am in the beginning stages of a new work for orchestra, and Dillon’s piece definitely gives me pause.  Click on the link above, or read on:

A recent red-eye from LA to Philadelphia gave me a few fitful hours to muse about a concert in REDCAT I had just attended.  On the program: five works from the last fifteen years, performed by the Idyllwild Symphony.

There is a lot I could say about the concert, the performances, the audience.  But I want to focus for a moment on the five works by Peter Askim, Vijay Iyer, Pierre Jalbert, Aaron Kernis and me.  Here are sound-byte encapsulations, necessarily leaving out a lot, but fairly accurate within themselves:

  • Askim: Still Points – muscular, poetic concerto for trombone and orchestra
  • Dillon: Figments and Fragments – fantastical reimagining of past musics
  • Iyer: Interventions – gorgeous blend of spectralism, electronics and jazz
  • Jalbert: Les espaces infinis – ethereal, rhapsodic evocation of spaciousness
  • Kernis: Too Hot Toccata – frenetic, virtuosic dance

Five pieces, five different attitudes toward the orchestra and what it can do.  What they all have in common is a high level of skill and imagination in handling the orchestral medium, and the devotion their composers and the orchestra showed in bringing them to life.

As much as these five pieces diverge from one another, they don’t even come close to covering the range of work being created for the orchestra in our time.  Thumping film scores, peaceful ambience, retro serialism, retro Romanticism, noise – you name it, somebody is doing it, and doing it well.

The beginning of the 21st century has been filled with pronouncements about the death of the orchestra.  For artistic and economic reasons, the orchestra is often portrayed as an artistic medium unsuited to our times, quickly losing relevance and on the verge of extinction.

These pronouncements are backed up by the data.  Audiences for orchestra concerts are declining.  The cost of mounting an orchestra concert is far out of proportion to most other forms of music-making.  And the orchestra as we know it was devised to serve societal suppositions that can no longer be taken for granted.

So, is the orchestra on its way out?   It’s a good question, and not one I can pretend to answer.  For me, the death of the orchestra is a scenario I can readily imagine – but it’s only one of several possible outcomes from the current scene.

Setting aside predictions, though, let’s seriously consider for a moment that the orchestra as we know it is now breathing its last.  Let’s assume that the enormous variety and vitality of music being produced these days for the orchestra is a sign of its imminent demise.

If this is how the orchestra dies, then let it be a lesson.  We are all faced with death, and faced with the question of how to die well.  Do we go out kicking and screaming?  Do we fade slowly from sight?  Are we cut down unaware and unprepared?  Do we give up the last beat in our brows with a grateful smile?

The richness of music being created now for orchestra far surpasses that of any period from the past.  If this is how the orchestra dies, then I envy the orchestra.  I would like to die like this, flaming in full crimson, like the maple leaves in autumn, stunning the senses and imagination with infinite variety and splendor before dropping gently to feed the ever-hungry, impassive soil.

posted on 06.08.10  |  category: Uncategorized

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