Good Things In Small Packages

Good Things In Small Packages

Two big concepts have been continually nudging me over the past few weeks. Such things are sometimes difficult to recognize and even when they’re obvious, we’re not always enthusiastic about letting others know about them. I happen to be in an enthusiastic mood, however, so here goes…

First: Things are looking up for new music these days, and chamber ensembles are leading the way.

Over the past few weeks and months, I’ve been pretty busy not only with my own work as an educator and teacher, but also traveling to several cities in the East and Midwest to interview composers for this big ol’ project I’ve been rattling about in this column. Whenever I’m in another location for such things, I try my utmost to make the most of my time and attend as many concerts as I can. In each city I’m only there for a few days and never get a chance to time my visit with any specific events, so it’s kinda like rolling the dice and hoping I’m lucky enough to catch something good.

Since April, I’ve had the good fortune of attending chamber concerts by Ensemble Dal Niente, Third Coast Percussion and Chicago Trombone Consort in Chicago, Brightmusic in Oklahoma City, Orchestra of the League of Composers and the Bang on a Can Marathon in New York City, as well as six new operas presented by The Figaro Project and Rhymes with Opera, two Baltimore-based groups that are both delving further into the traditions of opera while stretching its boundaries. Each one of these concerts were top-notch in quality and in programming–some balanced premieres with repertory works from the recent past, while others just focused on presenting newly minted music. Both models were well-received by the audiences (which were healthy in size throughout) and, in my humble composer/educator/new-music-guy opinion, were infinitely more interesting than those programs that most traditional concert ensembles present these days.

Are these organizations in need of funding? Of course they are. But while the major symphony orchestras and opera companies around the country demonstrate how best to shoot themselves in the feet, these and many other chamber ensembles are demonstrating that they can provide our society with a strong, vibrant, and entertaining repertoire even on shoestring budgets. The DIY model which Kronos Quartet planted the seeds for, Bang on a Can nurtured ten years later, and eighth blackbird and ICE made popular ten years after that seems to be spreading its roots pretty effectively in many parts of the country. As ensembles get more experience and busier, the new crop of management companies and PR professionals who are focusing on the new music scene are brought to bear, and the entire table upon which these ensembles reside slowly rises.

I taught a class on the Music of the 21st Century this past semester and spent the first ten class periods on chamber ensembles–even before I started talking about composers–because I felt that since the 1990s it has been the chamber ensembles that have been the driving force in pushing new music forward. As orchestras became organized as entities unto themselves almost 200 years ago, it will be interesting to see how the rise of the chamber group has an effect on the landscape of contemporary concert music in the decades to come.

Next week: Things are looking up for the future of new music these days too…

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5 thoughts on “Good Things In Small Packages

  1. Jon Silpayamanant

    I would be interested in numbers. Douglas Dempster, over a decade ago was saying similar things about the rise of Chamber music:

    it’s true that professional orchestras have struggled financially as they have reached various limits on audience size, cost-cutting, fundraising, and expansion of programs. However, at the same time that orchestras have struggled financially, chamber music is enjoying enormous growth in the U.S. While it’s not the whole story, the mobility and cost-effectiveness of chambermusic groups surely contribute very significantly to the comparative economic success of chamber music. The struggles of symphony orchestras are reported everywhere in the press, but one hears little about the growth of chamber music.

    Granted, smaller ensembles are a bit less likely to fall prey to Baumol’s cost disease, and have more flexibility than the larger ensembles, and mabe that’s just enough to give them an edge.

    Douglas Dempster “Whither the Audience for Classical Music?” Harmony: Forum of the Symphony Orchestra Institute (2000) <<>>

    1. Rob Deemer

      Thanks for the link, Jon! I’d love to see some numbers too…it’s one thing to have a general feel for such things and another to have hard facts. Maybe someone already has them out there and would be willing to share…

      1. Jon Silpayamanant

        You’re very welcome, Rob. And right–the paragraph I quoted was in the context of questioning the use of statistics to project a general decline in Classical music. In the paragraph that immediately precedes the quote Dempster says:

        I haven’t offered anything approximating an exhaustive survey of the known data on the classical music audience. But the studies reviewed here make it perfectly clear that critics have, perhaps in a spate of millennial fever, greatly exaggerated the demise of classical music at the end of the 20th century. Even worse, however, they have witnessed very complex trends in the culture of classical music and reduced them to the morally simplistic calculus of “rise” and “decline.” Musical and cultural critics misinterpret economic, demographic, and technological changes affecting the world of classical music as signaling some spiritual decay in the culture of classical music itself. The audience for classical music is not withering, but technological, sociological, and economic forces are reshaping that audience in important ways.

        and he also says, in the section about the recording industry:

        These complicated statistics tell us several things. First—and this should be no surprise—classical music consumption is heavily influenced by electronic technologies and media. Audiences have shifted, and will very likely continue to shift, their discretionary time and dollars toward new technologies for listening to classical music. Second and contrary to the critics, younger generations of Americans do seem to be “growing into” a more mature interest in classical music, but they will probably, much more so than their parents, satisfy that interest outside the concert hall. The audience in the symphony concert hall may be aging, in relative terms, but the overall audience for classical music is not. Third, the trends revealed by these demographic data have no special relevance to classical music; very similar trends can be found affecting a wide variety of other art forms and entertainments.

        We had discussed a number of these issues at Greg Sandow’s blog and he gave some data he’d informally collected in the past (scroll down to the italicized reply to my comment) about the state of Chamber music now or trends in that field. I’ll quote it below for your reader’s convenience:

        Data on chamber music — ticket sales and the like — is hard to come by. But I’ve assembled some, at least anecdotally.

        First, according to a Chamber Music America study some years ago, chamber ensembles have trouble making a living. Apart from a few very famous ones (in the US), most can’t survive without university residencies. Concerts alone aren’t enough to keep them afloat.

        And ticket sales to chamber concerts have apparently been dropping for quite a while. Which doesn’t mean that Kronos, for instance, doesn’t do well, or that some newer ensembles might be making a splash. But a few years ago I did some work with a long-established chamber series in a substantial city, and they’d been losing 10 to 20 subscribers each year for a decade. I once facilitated a day-long discussion among chamber music presenters in New England, and almost all of them didn’t feel happy about present or future ticket sales. I’ve spoken or emailed individually to people who run chamber series, and they’re not optimistic. The audience just isn’t being renewed.
        That said, my information may be partial, or out of date. There’s certainly been a lot of excitement with new-style ensembles, and new ways of playing, in clubs, for instance. Maybe at Le Poisson Rouge in NY, for instance, we might find a newer, more enthusiastic audience. But these gigs don’t pay much, so I’m not sure anyone knows how a chamber group could make a living from them.

  2. David MacDonald

    I couldn’t agree more. When I talk to composers, it seems that they aren’t even interested in orchestras. In some senses, they may have given up on orchestras (or is it the other way around?). But I think it’s more about the exciting work that performers are doing in chamber music that has us all geeked up about writing for them.

    1. Jon Silpayamanant

      David, I’ve been thinking about this alot lately, especially as the Orchestra in my hometown (Louisville Orchestra) is facing bankruptcy while it also has a history of being internationally acclaimed for pioneering new music. I think it’s difficult for composers to get excited about composing for an Orchestra when the chances of an Orchestra playing his or her work is slim.

      Ralph Kendrick’s blog about the Waterloo-Cedar Rapids Orchestra in Iowa is such a rare exception these days and even conductor, Jason Weinberger, bemoans the fact that his group gets so little recognition in the orchestral world.

      But if a WPA Orchestra like the Illinois Symphony can actually make a profit while championing new music during the Great Depression, what’s to say it couldn’t happened in today’s economic climate? Trick is to convince Orchestras that those old warhorses that they constantly program aren’t worth nearly as much as they think!


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