Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Future of Classical Music is . . . Band?

A guest post by my sister,
Gigi Sherrell Norwood

If you love classical music, you’ve probably asked yourself what a modern symphony orchestra should be: a music museum, or an incubator for a thriving art form?  

L-R: Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig von Beethoven, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (more notes about this image below)

The music museum folks want to preserve what they believe is the highest musical expression in human history. What could be more sublime than the music of Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven? They scorn pretty much anything that was written after World War II, and secretly long for the Edwardian era of tuxedoes and evening gowns.

Just-post-Edwardian-era Ballroom in a Hyde Park hotel, 1912

It’s artistic elitism at its worst, and often includes a dismissive attitude toward bands. Bands were, after all, spawned by the common folk, whereas orchestras were born in the royal court. Practically every high school in America has a marching band, whereas only the top schools have orchestra programs. Bands use only woodwinds, brass, and percussion. They have no strings, and everyone knows strings are better. Just ask a string player.

"Practically every high school . . . has a marching band." case in point is the 2010 Marching Lancer Band (Shawnee Mission East High School--my kids' alma mater). See and hear them in action

Symphony people complain that bands only play transcriptions of the great works, re-orchestrated to suit band instrumentation. Never mind the inconvenient fact that Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was originally a solo piano piece, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was written for a jazz band. The familiar orchestra versions of both are transcriptions.

But a strict diet of the Great Works in their original form can make the symphony the classical equivalent of a Beatles tribute band: fun for an evening out, but not a venue for artistic growth and experimentation.  And if an art form isn’t growing, it’s dying.

Beatles tribute band Abbey Road: a special niche--but not expanding the repertoire.

The most obvious way to keep classical music alive is to welcome new music.  But back in the 1960s, when Pierre Boulez programmed tons of avant garde music at the New York Philharmonic, audiences hated it, and fled. Caught between critics, who argued that any composer as accessible as John Williams was beneath contempt, and audiences who walked out when the orchestra played Bartók, symphonies stuck with what they knew best, and became hostile territory for young composers.  

John Mackey, an outstanding contemporary composer, outlined his struggle to break into the symphony scene in his blog post, Even Tanglewood Has a Band.

And that’s where the whole “band only plays transcriptions” argument falls apart. Because bands LOVE new music. At a recent concert by the University of Texas Wind Ensemble, nothing on the program was more than 40 years old.  Three of the five works were world premieres.  Band conductors learn reams of new music every season, with few of the comfortable old classics to fall back on.  In contrast, orchestra conductors may learn Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4* when they are in college, and conduct it again and again throughout their careers. 

Here's the University of Texas Wind Ensemble in concert, led by Jerry Junkin.

Young composers have discovered they can build a career writing for band.  And, if enough bands love their music, they transcribe it for ensembles with strings, making the leap into the world of symphony orchestras as an already beloved composer.

Want to ensure classical music continues to grow?  Throw open the doors and welcome talented young composers.  That happens every day in high school band halls, college wind ensembles, and professional concert bands.  That’s why I say, if you want to hear the future of classical music, listen to a good band.

*Might note the link for Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony takes you to an article that includes an audio file of the symphony . . . ironically, the performance is of a transcription for wind band. 

Gigi Sherrell Norwood
ABOUT GIGI: In addition to being my much-admired sister, Gigi Sherrell Norwood is the Director of Education and Concert Operations for the Dallas Winds (formerly the Dallas Wind Symphony), so, although she might be somewhat biased in favor of the importance of wind bands, she also is in a privileged position to observe the dynamic about which she writes in this post. In my experience, if Gigi takes note of something, it tends to be notable! Widow of the science fiction writer Warren C. Norwoodwith whom she sometimes collaborated on projects under his byline, Gigi also is a talented writer herself. She is currently working on several urban fantasy stories set in the historic Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas, TX. 

IMAGES: Many thanks to Netivist for the Bach-Beethoven-Mozart composite by "G_marius" (sorry, couldn't find a link!), based on Jorge Franganillo's image and other images of public domain. I'm indebted to the Vintage Everyday website for the 1912 hotel dance photo; they have a whole page of cool old photos from that era at that link. I'm grateful to SchoolTube for the glimpse of the Marching Lancers. A tip of the hat to the Long Beach Press-Telegram, for the photo of Beatles Tribute band Abbey Road. Many thanks to the University of Texas at Austin for the photo of their Wind Ensemble. Gigi provided the photo of herself. It is used with her permission. 

PLEASE ALSO NOTE: Gigi offers these links for young composers to watch: John Mackey, Austin Wintory, Adam Schoenberg, Andrew Boss, Steven Bryant, Eric Whitacre, and Joel Puckett.

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