AT ITS Wolf Trap concerts the New York Philharmonic Orchestra played Beethoven's Coriolanus Overture and the Mahler Fifth Symphony on Wednesday night. On Thursday they played Beethoven's Seventh Symphony and Violin Concerto.
How's that for programming? Well, by the standards set forth by no lesser figures than Leonard Bernstein and William Schuman at the recent American Symphony Orchestra League convention in New York City, neither program is acceptable.
Why? Because American orchestras should offer their audiences a better balance among a) the standard repertoire, b) some of the more familiar music of the past 50 years and c) new music. These and other proposals made during the convention by the two leading American musicians generated massive controversy among the more than 1,500 representatives of symphony orchestras.
Bernstein bluntly urged symphony boards of directors to remember the American composer: "I assure you he is out there in quantity and quality." And he even raised the possibility of eventual decline in the quality of our orchestras if the musicians do not receive new musical challenges, Schuman proposed that an average orchestral program should include approximately 50 minutes of the great literature of the past, 30 minutes of established contemporary music and the introduction of new works.
The orchestra representatives met in New York City the week of June 16 to work their way through seminars and workshops covering every aspect of the symphony orchestra in the United States today. At the same time, over a hundred music critics held their own convention in conjunction with the ASOL meeting.
The combination of the two made things hotter at times and duller at others. But the messages from Bernstein and Schuman to the ASOL stood out.
Bernstein, introduced as "composer, conductor, pianist and often our conscience," came out of what he called "a year of not lifting a baton, as a nonconductor, transmogrifying into a composer and becoming a very private person" do deliver a keynote address full of pertinent observations and suggestions.
He began by referring to a recent magazine article by Gunther Schuller in which the composer-conductor-educator strongly lamented the apathy that has become prevalent among American orchestral musicians. "I am firmly in large part in his camp," said Bernstein. "Every point he has made is true." Bernstein recalled the tyrants of a generation ago -- Toscanini, Stokowski, Reiner, Szell, Koussevitsky, Rodzinski -- all of whom are now gone. "There was often antagonism against them," he said, "but there was no apathy."
Bernstein pointed out that as the symphony developed in form, so did the orchestra, from Mozart to Mahler. After World War II, he continued, and specifically since 1945, "no symphonic history has been made." This remark was immediately misquoted and misread by those who thought Bernstein was saying that no one had written good symphonies since then, which is a very different thing.
"If the symphonic form has declined, is the orchestra also in decline?" Bernstein asked. Answering his won question, he said there is a striking paradox in the fact that 1) in the past 35 years; the orchestras of this country have been in a heyday, "Never more alive and kicking. In part museums, they are glorious living treasuries of art." And 2) When the form seemed to disappear, it was not the end of orchestral writing. "Composes have struck out in many directions."
Bernstein ended his keynote remarks with a series of guidelines:
To conductors: "Develop a keener understanding of your response to your artistic colleagues in the orchestras and in your community. Do not neglect American music. Don't travel so much. And if you do, take your orchestra with you."
To players: "Cherish your love for music. Guard your standards of excellence. Don't get too involved in management. Learn from management."
To management: "Many things: Remember the American conductor. I assure you he is out there is quantity and quality. Prize the orchestra not for ts sound, but for the composer's sound. Do not neglect American music. This you can only do with American conductors with American roots."
To personnel managerrs: "Serve music with all your powers."
To union officials: "Little -- but loaded: Remember a symphony concert is not a gig!"
To board members: "Invent, learn from your musicians."
The morning after the Bernstein speech, William Schuman, the famous composer who is this year celebrating is his 70th birthday, gave a dynamite address to a general session called to discuss the "Purpose of a Symphony orchestra." At first Schuman bitingly fantasized: "At a meeting of the Ssol held in 1990 in Euphoria, US.A., it was reported that the number of the minority sex has increased by one percent. . . . In the average symphony of one hundred, there are 88 females to 12 males.
"That, in a country with literally hundreds of first-class orchestras, we have no foreign-born conductors . . . After all, what sophisticated hostess would want to entertain a conductor with a foreign name when she could produce a Smith or Jones? . . . . We realize that the day could never come when an American orchestra could be led by an Italian, a Pole, an Englishman, a Hungarian, a. Frenchman, a German, not a to mention a Japanese and an Indian."
Schuman continued his fantasy: "During the season just past, our symphony orchestras chose works centered in our standard American symphonic literature. oAlthough there was an occassional performance of so-called music by Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky, these works not unexpectedly created howls of protest from our more conservative listeners. Let's face it -- those who want to hear such music are in the minority."
Schuman came out of his cloudland to make specific suggestions, realizing fully that every symphony orchestra is looked at differently by the players, the conductor, the audience, the managers and the boards of trustes. But "since the purpose of the symphony orchestra is to reveal the literature composers have created for it," Schuman suggested that orchestras "should have a philosophy on programming and choose a conductor who is sympathetic to taht philosphy and who will give it living meaning in his choice of repertory."
Then he made the proposals about balancing programs reported early in the story.
As an indication of the need for some revision of our present programming, Schuman gave statistics showing that "during the season of 1979-80, out of 1151 programs, the total number of American-born composers represented reached a resounding 6 percent." That is, for every 100 composers played, only six were American.
A suggestion that National Endowment grants to orchestras should carry a stipulation that American music be played was quickly labeled "government interference." But Maurice Abravanel, long the music director of the Utah Symphony, recalled that in France the government avoids that dilemma by simply giving money to its orchestras on the basis of the amount of French music basis of the amount of French music they play.
Peter Kermani, president of the Albany Symphony Orchestra, and chairman of the session at which Schuman spoke, asked why it was that -- only 150 miles above New York City -- the Albany orchestra regularly plays contemporary and American music to audiences that receive it enthusiastically. He made a strong-arm proposal to all board members that boards themselves should take the initiative in hiring conductors who will play contemporary music, with a good proportion of it American.
One speaker at the Schuman seminar recalled that a few weeks ago at a press conference with Sir Georg Solti, conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a reporter noted that Serge Koussevitsky had made the Boston Symphony a great orchestra at the same time of new music. Solti, with flaming arrogance, snapped, "Get him back!"
While it is unlikely that the Chicago Symphony's board of directors would consider replacing Sir Georg, there was wide agreement that a conductor needs to know a large repertoire in order to choose recent music his audiences will enjoy, and that only American conductors are likely to be well acquainted with American music.
The fights that began at the New York City convention are going to be carried on in some of this country's concert halls and board rooms. But in how many and with what results?