The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has put out an important study the past few years called “By The Numbers.” In these studies, they track what music is being performed each season by a number of American orchestras (2014-2015 they tracked 21 of the top orchestras; in 2015-2016 they tracked 89 major orchestras).
I think the most significant thing taken away from the data collected in these studies is that living composers are underrepresented by our American symphonies. And our female and non-American/non-Western-European composers are even more grossly underrepresented. (You can check out the data for yourself in the links above…).
Obviously there are a myrid of reasons for why this is the case today and why it has to change. But when I read articles like this I always recall a conversation I had with my first clarinet teacher. I once asked her her thoughts about new music, and she said something along the lines of this:
“The composers who write new music are the voices of our time. They are dealing with the things we are dealing with. They are writing about the things that are important to us, the things we are struggling with, the things we celebrate, suffer, and lament over. The music of the past is wonderful and important and moving. But as artists today, we have a responsibility to be the vessle to deliver this new music; to be a voice of expression and change. New music can sometimes be difficult to understand, but it is the music of our time and it is important, and it is meaningful, and it is necessary that we make an effort to perform it.”
This conversation was hugly formative in my understanding of music, and art in general – because this idea applies to all the arts, not just music. While art of the past is hugely important and exciting and special (and I think many artists would be very sad to see it simply disappear forever), we have to understand that we have a responsibility to make the voices of the present heard. We can’t allow our culture and societies to stagnate; we have to keep moving forward and thinking and feeling and communicating. There are a lot of composers, musicians, dancers, writers, painters, actors and directors in the world today, and they all have something to say. They all have a vision to do something – whatever that may be – for our world. We have a responsibility to their work and to our communities to make sure that work is shared.
I will love Beethoven and Mozart forever, but our orchestras have just as much of a responsibility as solo artists, chamber musicians and educators to perform and advocate for our contemporary composers and their new music. “By The Numbers,” I think our orchestras need to be doing more to share the voices of our time, and I think this concern needs to be addressed for the sake of our art form.
I’d like to add that I believe if we make a strong effort to engage new music (and art) in our arts organizations, there will be an equally strong revival in the interest, engagement and excitement of our audiences. It takes commitment to make and share new art, and people will respond to that commitment, that vision. Our arts organizations, audiences and communities will come together to participate in the art, conversation and human experience, and the good feelings going around will be exponentially beneficial for the entire community. I hope this is the case, and I hope we can start taking steps towards this vision sooner rather than later.