Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 5.13.10

Playtime Over
Get back to serious music
By Brett Campbell

Our preview (4/22) of the Eugene Symphony’s Play! A Video Game Symphony  has provoked a thoughtful reply from the orchestra’s president, Paul Winberg (5/6). Eugene readers deserve to hear about the issues we’ve raised because they’re vital for keeping classical music alive.

As Winberg notes, the ESO, which like every orchestra faces the challenge of attracting new audiences while not losing the old ones, plays more new music than most orchestras its size. Yet it still devotes only a fraction of its annual programming to contemporary music, and one of those precious slots has been turned over to video game music. Normally, I’m the first to applaud when an orchestra departs from the endless repetition of 19th century warhorses. But a novelty such as Play! can’t replace something far more important to music culture — programming the work of today’s orchestral composers. 

I’m certainly happy that many listeners — some of them probably first-time visitors to the symphony — undoubtedly enjoyed the music they heard at the event. But the studies I’ve seen suggest that these kinds of modern pops programs do not build a sustainable audience for classical or postclassical music programming — new listeners seldom return for the regular fare. Why choose gussied-up video game themes to fill one of the rare slots devoted to non-stodgy repertoire when there’s plenty of eminently listenable music written by dozens of fine contemporary composers — some of them right here in Oregon — that could speak to today’s listeners and build a sustainable audience for contemporary sounds? 

Paying for one of these pre-packaged national programs instead of performing (better yet, commissioning) a piece by a Northwest composer is the musical equivalent of buying Twinkies at a big box chain store instead of locally gathered honey at the farmer’s market. The latter is an investment in homegrown musical culture.

 If orchestras are going to survive, they need to be growing tomorrow’s audience by connecting listeners to the best serious orchestral music that’s being created today. Instead of giving the city a choice between one-time gimmicks and museum programming, why doesn’t every Eugene Symphony concert (and those of other classical organizations) feature at least one work by actual living, breathing creative artists, as orchestras did in Beethoven’s day, and as other arts institutions (dance companies, theaters, etc.) and visionary symphony music directors, such as the ESO’s own conductor laureate Marin Alsop, are doing all the time? (Alsop has also presented Play! to her Baltimore audiences, but in the context of a much broader look at contemporary composers.) That would certainly attract listeners who seek more than the comfort of the familiar in the arts — and mention national attention for boldness.

 Certainly programming isn’t the only thing — maybe not even the main thing — that needs to change. Venues, nontraditional audience outreach, presentation modes (e.g. multimedia), contextualizing (via lecture demos, art exhibits, etc.), partnerships with other arts and community institutions, flexibility of ensemble size and makeup, financial arrangements and maybe most of all ticket prices — they all have to be in the mix too. But success depends on creating a product that new audiences want to hear, and more than once. 

As Winberg notes, the ESO has, commendably, embarked on some of those promising other ways to reach new audiences, such as community partnerships. That makes Eugene’s orchestra an ideal institution to educate current and potential listeners, and make the case for serious contemporary orchestral music. In the long run, it’s in the orchestra’s own interest, as well as the community’s, to bring audiences the serious music of our own time and place. 

Brett Campbell writes for EW and other regional and national publications. He currently lives in Portland, but still spends time in Eugene.