Orchestras – start living more dangerously! ( seasonal “bah humbug”)

A 21st Century orchestra – Photograph: BBC – Sydney Symphony/BBC

With apologies to Ebenezer Scrooge, I’m surprised how much this puerile article by Igor Toronyi-Lalic in the 13 December issue of The Guardian (UK edition) rankles my otherwise cheery Christmas bonhomie.

At best it is about the worst submitted op-ed piece I’ve read all year; most probably, to drive reader traffic toward the author’s currently running performance project in London, the Contemporary Music Festival. Conversely, it maybe just be a manifestation of woeful ignorance if not outright stupidity?

The basic argument put forward in the article is that composers who have not studied with the ‘right’ people or at the right school or university, or without the right publisher or, heaven save us, have the wrong profile (what does that actually mean?) remain outsiders ignored by both the orchestral establishment and classical music publishers – who apparently according to Toronyi-Lalic constitute a cartel – and can therefore, by definition, clearly be up to no good whatsoever.

Why there is a picture of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra attached to this piece when clearly the author’s criticism is supposedly linked to UK orchestra sector is a further anomaly.

At this point, the article seems to diverge into an unsubstantiated critique of composers not working within the orchestra idiom being shut out from being performed by the identified same denounced orchestras.  The avant-garde composer, Jennifer Walshe is cited as an example with linked reference to her chamber opera XXX Live Nude Girls as evidence of “living great” composer being sidelined.  At this point, we’re on pretty shaky ground.

Preposterous as this article is, it is this quote that finally sends me over the edge: “Music too, it seems, has fake news. It seems to me a perfect example of the kind of straw man set up by marketing departments, whose vanquishing can be used to claim an orchestra is being groundbreaking.”

Why am I so incredulous? Because this is the non-sequitur that follows this admonition: “It’s an attitude that is based on the presumption that the audience is dumb. If orchestras believed that audiences were normal, curious human beings, like you and me, they would not spoon-feed them or talk down to them. They would not think that music constantly needs propping up with screensaver films and light shows.”


Firstly, fake news is a calculated attempt to make a lie a fact.  If you have read any of my previous posts, you will be aware that I am not particularly enamoured with orchestra marketing departments as a rule (for reasons that have nothing to do with this article’s attempt to besmirch) but I have in 35 years never seen one deliberately attempt to be obfuscative, let alone deceptive.  Marketing departments of orchestras also do not assume an audience is dumb.  This would be fatuous in and of itself but, more importantly, overlooks the real and complex problem faced by marketing departments in recognising contemporary audiences lack in knowledge – but this missing knowledge is not borne of any intellectual incapacity!

I’m not buying this as you can easily infer.  It’s all from the same dystopia that brought us the concept of ‘alternative facts’.

And then this remarkable paragraph:

“Sure, bodies such as the PRS Foundation and Sound and Music have started to force festivals to put their house in order with admirable programmes that compel orchestras to ensure a 50:50 gender split but there still doesn’t seem to be a full understanding of why you might want to open up this art form. That it isn’t just a question of morality; that it’s an aesthetic disaster to think it is OK to ignore the wisdom of Oliveros, Éliane Radigue, George Lewis, Julius Eastman, Galina Ustvolskayaor Alice Coltrane. That many of the most original ideas of the past century have come from female or BAME composers because the normal channels were closed to them. Aesthetic plurality and social diversity are entwined.”

One could easily be led to think that these contemporary composers mentioned are the only individuals to be ignored by orchestra managements and that their absence from concert programmes represents not mere oversight but some inherent crime given their collective wisdom.  As it turns out, orchestra managements are often well aware of the work of contemporary composers such as mentioned.  If they choose not to perform their work it is, again, not borne of turning a blind eye to the imminent “aesthetic disaster” that surely must follow but because of reasons that have nothing to do morality, aesthetic plurality, gender or even ethnic origin.  It is because the orchestra CAN’T SELL THE PROGRAM to their existing audience base.

Mr. Toronyi-Lalic would rather that this fact was not the case and just another occurence of so-called ‘musical fake news’ but, alas, the truth hurts.

In fact, orchestras around the world are performing quite extensive amounts of new music, taking enormous risks, prioritising diversity and expermentation (in all its guises) but it is very difficult for any work to become established as part of the consolidated canon of repertoire.  Perhaps M. Toronyi-Lalic is just miffed that his favourite composers are not the favourites of everyone else?

We move on, because it justs gets better and better.

“Like banks, most orchestras are too big to fail: self-preservation trumps exploration. They have forgotten that they are there to serve the art form and the artists, not themselves.”

Are you kidding?  Let me count up the number of orchestras that have shuttered over the last 10 years because no-one told them they were too big to fail.  Naivety is no excuse for blatant ignorance.

And so, at last, we come to this little nugget from the developed manifesto of the author:

“Composers who’ve never written for the orchestra are NOT to be feared”.

I’m afraid that they most definitely are to feared. There is nothing worse than a composer who has not the slightest notion of how to write for the orchestra.  It is not a trade or vocation that supports on-the-job training or in-situ work experience.  It takes real dedication, learning (the equivalent of a player’s 10,000 hours of private practise on an instrument to reach full proficiency) and a concomitant commitment to that artform expression.  And if you think not, it makes a mockery of the really great contemporary composers who have wood-shedded all those hours in pursuit of being able to create a work that will stand up to the intese scrutiny that such works inevitably endure.

So, good luck Igor in your endeavours.  Based on your dialectic, we’re not with you.

To everyone else, have a joyous and peaceful holiday season.


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