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Why Are American Orchestras Afraid Of New Symphonies?

David Robertson, a passionate champion of new music, conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on tour in Berlin.
Dilip Vishwanat
St. Louis Symphony
David Robertson, a passionate champion of new music, conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on tour in Berlin.

This summer we've been chasing the idea of the Great American Symphony. Is there one? Who is still writing symphonies? And does anyone care about the state of symphonic music in this country? David Robertson cares deeply. He's the music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and a passionate champion of new works. In a conversation with NPR Music's Tom Huizenga, Robertson takes the pulse of orchestral music in America — how to nurture it and how to balance it with classics from the past. You can hear (and download) an abbreviated version of that discussion, with musical examples, at the audio link.

The young American composer Kevin Puts just wrote an honest and personal essay, making the case for why he writes symphonies today. He says, "Symphonies are where I can express the spiritual, the epic, the heartbreaking." But also in his essay, he states, "Every composition student is told never to write a long piece for orchestra because it will never be played, and this is good advice." Is that really good advice, or is that just saying, basically, "Well, we don't really need any new symphonies any longer because no one is interested in playing them and hearing them?"

I think what Kevin is referring to is the very practical problem of music life at the professional level, which is that you have often a very limited number of rehearsals and that's the first hurdle with regard to people playing a piece that hasn't been performed before.

For the composer who says, "I am going to write a work that is breaking through the 15-minute barrier," the famous 15-20 minutes that a new piece of music tends to be, they are taking a real risk and I think that most composers tend to wait until they know that they're calculating this risk in a way which works in their favor. Even an experienced composer like Steve Mackey or John Adams or Chris Rouse has these same difficulties confronting them that confront younger composers who are just at the beginning of their career. And that is that the marketing department will look at this and break out in hives at the idea that you're going to end a major symphony concert with a work that nobody's heard, and possibly by a composer that is familiar only to a small handful of people.

I think this is harder now than it was, say, in the '20s, '30s and '40s, when there were still roadblocks to getting your new piece played, but there were fewer of them than there are today. This means that most of today's composers tend to write for groups that they know, or chamber music groups that are interested in pieces of music. So the symphony has taken its place as this kind of mythic Mt. Olympus that you can scale at your own peril.

So it sounds like you're saying that as audience members, we're afraid of the new.

The marketing department will break out in hives at the idea that you're going to end a major symphony concert with a work that nobody's heard, and possibly by a composer that is familiar only to a small handful of people.

Yeah, I think that's very true because the thing is once you're confronted with the new, you are thrown back on yourself in a way which I find really fascinating, but which is daunting for a lot of people because it's not a situation that they're used to having very often. Or perhaps one could better say that this is a situation they meet too often in life, where things are out of their control and they're not certain of what's going on, or how long something is going to last. Or how long am I going to be waiting to hear my flight has been rebooked? Or what's going on in the checkout line with that person in front of me who has a credit card that's not working? These are all daily experiences. So the idea that you go into a concert hall — particularly when you have paid good money for the ticket — and you are then going to sit and be subjected to something where you don't know what's going to happen, this seems a bit of a stretch for a lot of people.

It sounds like the landscape for the possibility of growing new American symphonies sounds pretty bleak.

I think we should ask authors how many novels are rejected every week and every month by major publishing houses. We've seen a lot of self-publishing going on, and it's a similar type of dilemma.

Let's talk supply and demand. There was a time in this country when American orchestras were clambering to play the hot new symphonies. Do we have a demand for new symphonies today?

In certain pockets, there are people who are really passionately interested about a new symphony or about a new piece of music. But the amount of energy it takes, in terms of sheer manpower, to get something played today and the expenses involved with this tend to push most people away from adventurousness. You know, I'm seen by many people as having horns and a forked tail because I actually love to discover something that has not been played before.

One of the things that I've found, however, is that when it comes to these questions of symphonies, you really come down to the question of, "What is the highest quality?" So you can have a really fabulous symphony from the end of the 19th century, such as the First Symphony by Vasily Kalinnikov, which is in G minor, and anyone who likes Tchaikovsky — anyone — is going to adore this symphony on first hearing. But I have had to use extremely creative measures to get this symphony performed. And in fact, I have been unsuccessful except where I've been music director, because there's this notion of, "Here's this big unknown symphony by someone whose name sounds like an automatic rifle."

So what we come down to is: People feel that their time as audience members is extremely restricted and they really just want the best. What that tends to mean in concert organizations is that the concert organization will stick to something that Virgil Thomson referred to many years ago already as "The 50," which is 50 works that the largest number of people can agree are great masterworks of classical music. And those are the ones that get played with the greatest frequency.

Well what about trying to be a tastemaker? We were asking JoAnn Falletta about some of these questions of repertoire, what to choose and how conservative to be. She maintained that with her orchestra in Buffalo the audience sees her as something of a tastemaker in that some of the new works are the ones most appreciated. She says it's actually selling tickets.

I agree. We performed the Doctor Atomic Symphony of John Adams in St. Louis, and that was the end piece on the program. So there were plenty of opportunities for people to leave. And, in fact, we got a standing ovation right at the start, and that has become one of our signature pieces. We recently ended the concert with City Noir of John Adams, and the hall was extremely well attended and we got a similar type of reaction of enormous enthusiasm.

I think it's essential for a healthy musical diet to understand not only the works of the past, but our placement with regard to those works of the past in our present circumstances. And one of the best ways to do that is to play music that is written by people who are living through the same things that we are living through, who are reading about the uprisings in the Middle East, or have lived through 9/11, or who have seen great strides in technology. These are people who share our concerns, who live with us and who transform the ideas that are floating around in the air into something musical in a way that no one else can do, that's really unique. So the problem is to find the works that you believe in, and then to program them and play them and everyone then knowing that you really believe in them — and that it's not just being done as some sort of "quota" system.

Is there a particular American symphony of the last 10, 25, 50 years that really demonstrates the potential of what a symphony can be for you?

One of the breakthrough works for me is John Adams' Harmonielehre, which goes right to the heart of this. I think if he had called it "Symphony," it would have been much harder to have it performed, because when he was writing it in the mid-'80s, symphony was looked on by a lot of sophisticated people in the musical world as something of a dead form. And by calling this Harmonielehre, which refers to Schoenberg and back to earlier times, there are lots of interesting ideas that are brought out immediately without the rather dry term of "symphony." And when I heard this piece the first time, I was bowled over by it and I was struck precisely because it was able to expand past the notion of a genre or a style. It went beyond the idea of what minimal music was supposed to be capable of expressing and added a type of richness while remaining true to Adams' personal style.

And it also looks backward, too.

Any work that you write — any piece of music, in my book, no matter how new it is — is always referencing the past. When you write for the violin as, say, Steve Mackey or Thomas Adès does for a violin concerto, you are writing for the same instrument that Vivaldi wrote for, and if you are a composer worth your salt, you know that. You have to be aware that when you are writing a large symphonic work, that you are stepping into a river that is already flowing with many pieces that are coming down the line.

And so Adams very clearly relates his work to pieces of the past. The kind of hammer blow chords at the beginning could refer to something Beethovenian in terms of their rhetoric. But he immediately takes it and says, "This is a gesture that I love but it came to me in a different way which is very personal, and I am going to turn it into something which is very personal." Between the kind of energy, the poise, the lyricism of the first movement, the really deep suffering that is evoked in the second movement and the sense of — to use Kundera's phrase — "the unbearable lightness of being" that we have in the last movement, which becomes this boiling sea of orchestral sound that is almost like a single measure of Beethoven, but just remixed exponentially. You have a work which feels distinctly American, which sums up a period of time in a way that suddenly becomes timeless in the same way that Beethoven's symphony can feel as exciting now as it did in the 1820s.

This is the type of work which all of a sudden can go on the second half of a concert program and have a huge success with the public on many levels. On the visceral, it's great to listen to music level; on the emotional, it stays with you for a long time level; and on the expressive level, which frankly to me is the most important. And that is the level in which a piece of music says something that cannot be replaced by any other piece of music. That, I'm afraid, is a very high watermark to apply to any work of art.

Do you think that the symphony in America has any cultural power today? Jonathan Franzen, let's say, writes a dense, difficult new novel and everyone is talking about it — at least in the media. But that kind of thing really isn't happening in the symphonic world, is it?

No, but that's because of the way in which classical music has been shunted to the side by much of the media discussion that goes on nowadays. And part of the reason that happens is because the support system that was there before — in terms of broadcast organizations, in terms of the relative singularity of classical music, in terms of being seen as something which helped in the betterment of the human condition — all of that has been exchanged for much more of a use-earliest or drink-youngest-available type of culture. So that one of the things that happens even in a work of literature is that you can reduce various aspects of it to a sound bite. And this is very important when we're dealing with attention spans of present-day listeners.

You have classical music organizations not realizing that they're often putting together a program which would make perfect sense 100 years ago.

I feel frustrated sometimes talking about classical music because most people pretend that classical music nowadays should work the same way it did during the time when we had an NBC Symphony Orchestra. And classical music is alive and well, and all over the place, but it is not following models of previous generations because it is following the models of today's generations, which are radically different.

And this is one of the things that is often surprising to me, when you have classical music organizations looking, for example, at concert programs and not realizing that they're often putting together a program which would make perfect sense a hundred years ago, when no one could get to the concert hall by car and there was not a radio. And so all of these things that we have now that are competing for our attention are one part of what classical music is dealing with.

We saw a similar phenomenon to something like Jonathan Franzen's Freedom when [Henryk] Górecki's Third Symphony came out and all of a sudden, there was this huge amount of interest on a piece like that.

Are the systems just broken, when you talk about marketing, rehearsal time, prejudice against the new, short attention spans and financial problems in American orchestras? Is the symphony, perhaps, just dying a slow death — and that's okay?

No, I don't think it is, but I think part of the real problem is when we talk about the Great American Symphony and we compare it to something like the Great American Novel, each person — if you say, "What is the Great American Novel?" — is going to say, "Well, for me it's Moby-Dick." "For me, it's To Kill A Mockingbird." "For me, it's Infinite Jest." "For me, it's The Recognitions." "For me, it's Babbitt." And you keep getting all of these different answers because in fact the whole nature of our experience as human beings is multifaceted and unending. And we look for people who are able to express something in a way that is unlike any other that's been expressed. I know that there are pieces being written nowadays which do precisely this. I recently heard one by Andrew Norman and I've put it in the programs in St. Louis and I cannot tell you how exciting it was to hear that piece and suddenly say, "Wow, this is it. This is a piece." Now, the fact is, you can get very upset that it's not a symphony. You can get hot and bothered that it's 15 minutes long, but it is 15 minutes that is handled perfectly. There is not a single note that is out of place.

And so when we talk about The Great American Symphony, I mentioned Moby-Dick because you can't let the concern about this destroy you like looking for the great white whale. You have to realize that there are these amazing pieces of music being written all the time.

This discussion about where The Great American Symphony comes from, or how we can help nurture it, is one where I think really we need to focus less on the question of any one particular form of music and work much more at the kind of grassroots levels of how we can increase the deep listening — whereby audience members feel, at the end, a sustaining presence that the music gives them, which they can then take into their own unique experience.

Nicely put. Do you think we'll still be in concert halls listening to symphonies 50 years from now?

I think so, because there are things about pieces of music that you really can't replace. Part of the reason that you could have symphonies performed more frequently in the '30s was that you actually allowed musicians to have a living standard, which was really not very good. No orchestra went full-time all over the year, so members of world-famous orchestras in the United States would sell insurance or used cars, or would be real-estate brokers, during the time when they were not playing with the symphony. It's a tricky thing to get in and say [that] the present state of economics of symphony orchestras is untenable, in the same way that if you were to say, "Well, is higher education untenable? Is scientific research untenable?" Yes, it's untenable until you actually find some discovery that is going to revolutionize the way we think of things.

When one talks about doom and gloom in terms of the Great American Symphony — and it's hard to get them out and you write one and it's never played — it is true that it has never been that easy to get your work performed immediately. Beethoven's concerts with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the Fourth Piano Concerto, that same concert was promoted by Beethoven himself, at his own expense. So I think that that's something that is always going to bedevil any creative artist. I'm just thinking of Philip Glass, having to drive a taxi to pay for the bills from Einstein On The Beach.

At the same time, we now live in a period where a couple of technological miracles have allowed composers, if they do get an orchestra and a sympathetic music organization to front them, they can actually make a recording of their symphony which can be heard by people all around the globe in a way that was not possible at all even 50 years ago. In addition, many composers nowadays are very conversant with MIDI technology, which is musical instrument digital interface, where on your computer, for very little money, you have programs that allow you to write and imitate the sounds of symphony orchestras and get a very close approximation of what your piece actually is going to sound like. And you can go on something like YouTube for no money, other than an internet connection, and see dedicated people who are working at helping budding composers learn how to make better sounds and better recordings of their pieces. And so this is something which has allowed a composer who otherwise might live in complete obscurity to find other people who really think the music that they're doing has worth and is interesting. And I think that's a hugely positive beacon on the horizon because it allows all of us to have the possibility to interact with music in many different ways.

David Robertson is the music director of the St. Louis Symphony and the chief conductor designate of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Australia.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.