JULY 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 8

JULY 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 8
July 10, 2020 leonard slatkin

“The nature of the Internet and the importance of net neutrality is that innovation can come from everyone.”
—Al Franken

Change is not easy. It is built on a foundation of pre-existing ideas that people deconstruct, rearrange, or reshape. For the short time that we have been a nation, America has tried to find the path to the future by looking back at the lessons of history.

It is human nature to seek out stability and security, and to hold on to traditions. With the tragic consequences of the COVID epidemic, we are forced to tread carefully as we plot our return to that safe spot. We are staying conscious of the need to get back with an eye to the future. Perhaps we have been a little too conservative.

For the time being, many musicians have found novel ways to reach the public, whether through individual lessons, private concerts, or all manner of clever audio and video presentations. I have seen how creative we can be, considering that we are not actually creating the works that we perform.

At the same time, I have my concerns about whether orchestras are reaching the broadest communities possible. It seems as if our only viable means of communication is online. A lot of content is being presented, but has this moved the needle forward? I see the usual parade of participants that grace our concert platforms during the regular season. In the desire to hang on to the conventional concertgoer, we may be missing an opportunity.

Let’s take all those young composers whose latest orchestral creations will be delayed for quite a while, stalling their careers. Why not put their names out front and center? My thought is for commissioning orchestras to ask each of these musicians to write a short piece for an individual instrumentalist. This piece would then be available for all to see and hear, provoking more anticipation for a performance of an orchestral score by this composer.

Some of my participation online has involved watch parties, video chats, and sometimes even pre-concert lectures on social platforms. Most of the musical material presented comes from performances over the past seven years or less. This seems to be the case for most orchestras. Newer is better, right?

Not really. All those broadcasts that began in the 1940s and have not been heard since are fantastic fodder for a public hungry for something different. Orchestras, small and large, usually have some audio archives that they can draw on. Concerts featuring the legends of the podium and the stars of the soloist circuit would be of high artistic value today. Many younger musicians are not familiar with several artists’ names that were on the lips of every concertgoer generations ago. It is an excellent time to reconnect with the past.

This set of thoughts came to mind when I got a note from my brother, the first cellist with the New York City Ballet. I had come across a set of reissues that contained thirteen discs featuring our father as the conductor. It seems to be available only in Japan and the UK, although one can order it from the label, Scribendum Limited, and have it shipped internationally . Fred wondered if we would be getting residuals for these releases. That is when it hit me.

I propose that virtually all orchestras make as much of their recorded material available to the public for free. To accomplish this, the AFM rules would have to be deferred. Our orchestras are under pressure to cut salaries and benefits, so it is understandable that there would be objections to not receiving fees for work that was done years ago.

However, in my view, history such as this should not come at a cost. There is no one left who played in Toscanini’s NBC Symphony, Stokowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra, or Monteux’s San Francisco Symphony. Much of their broadcast legacy can easily be found on various websites with no monetary output on the part of the consumer. But it can be made much more interesting to entice listeners with slightly more recent performances.

I have heard Bernstein’s Mahler 2 with the Cleveland Orchestra, Carlos Kleiber’s debut with the Chicago Symphony, and Kubelík performing Martinů with the Boston Symphony. These and thousands of other performances exist in orchestra archives. But most have not been made available to the public for various reasons. There are many of my collaborations that I have never heard, particularly some world or American premieres. The list is endless. Perhaps some of you wish you could enjoy a particular concert you attended again.

Now is precisely the time to get this material into the public’s ears, and if a video is available, eyes. In some ways, it is the same thing as those musical instruments that sit in museums or private collections, going unplayed. There is no point in looking at them without hearing them, just as there is no point in having an audio treasury that no one can listen to.

Wouldn’t it be fascinating to have commentary from today’s conductors, composers, and orchestral musicians speaking about the value, or lack of same, of individual performance? Listeners could have discussions through the chat function while each work is played. And why not make this an international project? Perhaps people from all around the globe will tune in to hear pieces and performances that have not been available until now.

We could rediscover those incredible symphonists from the ’30s and ’40s and explore serialism, experimentalism, neo-romanticism, and neo-impressionism. We could revisit composers once heard often who have disappeared from our orchestral radar. There are many possibilities, and they do not exist today for one reason: a lack of vision guided by monetary gain.

As mentioned, most of the musical workforce is doing yeoman’s duty in holding on at a time when all levels of income have been minimized. Orchestras could potentially realize a tiny revenue stream from such a project, but using this idea as a platform for raising funds as we move forward seems a much more robust approach.

Present the past so that we may help solidify the future.