Greg Sandow, the classical music critics and composer over at ArtsJournal, has been pondering how Sufjan Steven’s BQE performance at BAM is changing the face of classical music. “Why shouldn’t shows like this be part of the future of orchestras?” he wrote last week.
Yes, this isn’t the kind of orchestral music normally heard on classical concerts, even when new works are on the program. But is that a problem? And who’s to say, once we open this door, that more pop musicians won’t write serious orchestral music, and — here’s the key point — get better at it, as they continue doing it? The classical music world doesn’t understand the culture outside it very well, especially the culture of younger people. Rather than look down our noses, saying, “Oh, it’s all right in its way, but it’s just not us,” we should understand that this is exactly the central point — it’s not like us — and open ourselves to what it is, taken on its own terms. Otherwise people like Stevens will move into classical territory outside the classical world, and leave us gasping alone, like beached whales.
In today’s footnote, he adds that other indie pop stars, like Ben Folds and Nick Cave, have gone before Stevens in their classical pursuits. But pairing indie pop stars with an orchestra doesn’t always deserve satisfactory results.
I also know a well-known American orchestra where one of the top administrator wants to co-produce concerts with pop people, precisely by having them both play, and curate the events. And I’ve heard that the music director of yet another orchestra is interested. All this is tricky, obviously. You need to have a pop artist with enough knowledge and imagination to think up viable and interesting things for an orchestra to do. This is more than simply having the orchestra back up the artist’s songs, as the Baltimore Symphony has done with Ben Folds. Not that I’m minimizing how important even that can be. (Though note this, from the newspaper review the above link takes you to: “The setting was a bit awkward and unusual at first, but eventually the conductor and orchestra lightened up and looked like they were enjoying themselves as much as Folds and the audience were.” Some orchestras, possibly, might never relax.)