The ASO at Fifty

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Fiftieth Birthday Celebration, performed on Oct 26, 2012 at Carnegie Hall.

Tonight’s concert is not just a season opener; it marks fifty years of concerts by the American Symphony Orchestra.

The founding of the ASO was an act of vision by the great conductor and charismatic personality, Leopold Stokowski. In 1962, the New York Philharmonic moved to the new Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center, leaving Carnegie Hall, New York’ s historic, endangered, and magnificent concert venue without a resident orchestra. The ASO was formed to fill that gap.

But Stokowski sought to do more than compensate for the loss of the New York Philharmonic. He realized that a period of European hegemony in the training of classical musicians in America had come to an end. In 1962, America resembled the China we see today in terms of classical music. The talent born and raised in the United States was outstripping that within Europe and the rest of the world. But most American orchestras still defined themselves in terms of musicians from Europe and European traditions. Stokowski created the ASO to give young American musicians a chance to launch their professional careers and be part of a new American venture that celebrated American traditions (as well as others) in classical music.

Stokowski also recognized an opportunity to return to his own singular artistic vision as a music director. He had been a pioneer in orchestral programming and created a distinctive orchestral sound during his tenure at the Philadelphia Orchestra before World War II. His international reputation was based in part on his courage with respect to repertoire, not just his ear for sound and his theatrical gifts. He envisioned the ASO as a new beginning.

Stokowski had just turned 80 and he wished to impart to a young orchestra his irreverent sense of adventure and innovation. He wanted the ASO to reach well beyond the standard repertory. The American Symphony Orchestra in its first seasons premiered and recorded many works other conductors rejected. We have continued this practice and gone further by making most of our live performances available for download on the internet. Stokowski made history in 1965. He singled out a work by America’s most controversial and original composer of the early twentieth century, one that had been deemed un-performable: Charles Ives’ Fourth Symphony, a work you will hear tonight. Tonight we link that ASO world premiere with one from Stokowski’s Philadelphia years, his celebrated first American performance in 1916 of Mahler’s massive Eighth Symphony (which he repeated in New York at the Metropolitan Opera), a work, despite its monumental architecture, that remains controversial even within the now highly popular canon of Mahler’s symphonies.

In addition to assembling a young American membership and offering cutting-edge concert programming, Stokowski introduced a third dimension into the mission of the ASO. This idea was to offer concerts at prices that could be afforded by all citizens in a democratic society. New York had witnessed many similar attempts at this ideal. But by the 1960s most had disappeared. Only in the summer months were there still wonderful and inexpensive regular outdoor concerts at Lewisohn Stadium at City College. Stokowski’s founding of the ASO was indeed prescient, for the summer series at Lewisohn Stadium would come to an end by the close of the decade. The AS0, with considerable effort, has struggled to remain true to this mission. We honor Stokowski’s intention tonight precisely by offering this concert at the same ticket price as at the opening concert of the American Symphony in October 1962.

Stokowski’s idealism seemed in tune with history. The 1950s and 1960s were years of unprecedented prosperity in the United States. The general economic and cultural optimism (including President Kennedy’s creation of the National Endowment for the Arts) was felt with particular intensity in the business of classical music. With the advent of the long-playing record, advances in radio and broadcasting, and the arrival of television, it appeared as if the traditions of concert music could be extended to a wider audience than ever before in a practical fashion, and that an enthusiastic and sufficient consumer market for it could emerge.

During the Cold War, the Iron Curtain countries had made live concert music affordable to anyone through state subsidy. Concert life thrived throughout the Soviet Empire, though with oppressive state control. By the early 1960s in the United States and the rest of what was deemed the “free world,” it was thought that economic prosperity might produce a similar result in a free market environment. In America, symphonic music had always been an extremely expensive art form requiring patronage from the social and financial elite. But in the decades following World War II, multiple income sources from performances, recordings, and broadcasting seemed profitable enough to carry this expense in a more commercial manner and more independent of philanthropic largesse. That the ASO opened with strikingly inexpensive tickets reflected a widespread belief that orchestral music could be emancipated from dependence on patronage, whether by a monarchy, an aristocracy, or direct subvention from the modern nation state, democratic or authoritarian. In other words, a symphony orchestra could thrive as an open-market commodity in a democratic society.

In the fifty years that have passed since 1962, these premises and ideals upon which Stokowski modeled the ASO’s mission have only partly been realized. The United States continues to produce first-class musicians, but that is because of the excellence of its institutions, its conservatories and universities. The largest source of talent for these American institutions, however, comes now not from North America, but from Asia. Nevertheless, from a global perspective, his instinct was on the mark. There is no question that the quality and number of musicians prepared to play in first-class orchestras today are unprecedented. As in sports, the technical standards of performance have reached the highest levels in history.

Furthermore, Stokowski was prophetic in identifying the need to diversify and expand the repertory. That need, if anything, has become more urgent since 1962. When Stokowski founded the ASO, Leonard Bernstein was the music director of the New York Philharmonic. The New York Philharmonic programs Bernstein presided over reveal a range and enterprise that were exceptional. The same can be said of Bernstein’s immediate successor, Pierre Boulez. Yet the trend from the 1970s on has been increasingly conservative. For many reasons, orchestral programming around the world has become far more risk-averse and conventional than it was in 1962.

But the hope that has most distressingly failed to materialize is the expectation regarding the economic conditions of the orchestra. The changes in technology and communication that were supposed to expand the economic viability and commercial market for orchestra music have, it turns out, undermined it by producing an overwhelming competition in alternative media—cinema, television, video games, internet, mobile devices—in a way that Stokowski’s audiences could never have imagined. Today, technology has altered the very concept of audience, as well as the phenomena of fame, popular demand, dissemination, and critical influence. Instead of developing a wider market for orchestral music, the sea-change in media has put many orchestras in danger of becoming fossilized in a reactionary construct of tradition and a standard repertory, a powerful but distorted representation of the history of music.

Hector Berlioz once lamented that composing symphonic music was an irrational activity because it inevitably required the largesse of a very few people in order to be heard. In the immediate post-World War II years it was thought this circumstance could be changed. But Berlioz has turned out to be right. Already in 1966, William Baumol and William Bowen published their now legendary study on the inherent unsustainability of the orchestra in a market economy. A recent study, economist Robert J. Flanagan’s The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras, gives a compelling account of the probable fate of orchestras if forced to operate solely on a commercial earned-income basis. Flanagan makes it abundantly clear that if orchestras are to survive (and many will not), there can be no expectation that they will survive on the basis of ticket sales or standard models of business efficiency. The legitimate requirements of a living wage among musicians have driven the cost of orchestras well beyond what can be reasonably passed on to ticket buyers. If orchestral music is to be made available at reasonable prices to a diverse public in a democratic society today, then orchestral music and opera once again will require, as Berlioz observed, massive patronage, philanthropic largesse from the wealthy, the state, or alliances with not-for-profit institutions that serve the public good.

The challenge facing classical music today is not a depletion of audience or potential audience, or the aging of the audience. The real problem is that the very wealthy no longer consider it their civic responsibility to contribute to the traditions of the symphony orchestra. Their attentions have turned elsewhere. The great patrons of orchestral music, especially in the twentieth century, were often lovers of music and amateurs, but even those who were not felt it their duty to enhance the quality of life in the cities in which they lived. Civic leadership meant the creation of great artistic institutions that would make the city great. It is ironic that one single donor—Samuel Rubin—made the ASO possible in 1962, just as one single donor made Carnegie Hall possible in 1891. When Rubin died, the ASO almost died with him. The tradition of philanthropy that Rubin represented is fading. If orchestras are to survive this century, they will have to build innovative partnerships with like-minded institutions such as universities and foundations, which function to preserve and promote the non-commercial pursuits, discoveries, and accomplishments that define our cultural heritage.

In the face of crushing constraints, the ASO during the last twenty years has sought to perpetuate Stokowski’s vision. The ASO owes a debt to its loyal audience, to its donors, and to those institutions that have partnered with it, particularly Bard College. In the past twenty years we have focused mainly on two objectives. The first is a reconsideration of the rich history of orchestral music in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We have brought back unjustly forgotten repertoire. Precisely owing to the changing character of culture and education, the ASO has tried to expand the audience for symphonic music by programming in a new way, highlighting the enormous diversity of all that is out there, rather than simply repeating the works that audiences seem to know best.

In a universe of such wide-ranging repertory, it becomes more difficult to dismiss orchestral music as a remote, arcane field. We believe that rejecting orchestral music because one may not like Beethoven is akin to rejecting reading because Shakespeare seems obscure, or deciding all cinema is useless because one saw a few ghastly movies. The ASO does not passively accept the idea that concert music can be represented by just a few works, or that it is an activity detached from the conduct of ordinary life. Even the greatest music will not be interesting if listeners see no connection between it and their own experience. Therefore the second objective has been to reinstate the link between music and other aspects of culture such as the visual arts, politics, literature, and history itself. ASO subscribers will have a better perspective on the Pussy Riot incident (which, incidentally, took place in the Church for whose dedication Tchaikovsky composed the 1812 Overture) if they saw the several programs we presented on music under Soviet rule. Fans of The Twilight Saga might be fascinated to know that an opera written back in the nineteenth century (Marschner’s Der Vampyr, which will be performed this season) was based on one of the original great vampire stories.

ASO’s aim during the past two decades has been a variation on Stokowski’s original purpose. Our intent has been to show that orchestral music is still connected to many concepts and issues that continue to engage us today. Listeners can get unique insights on such matters (including their favorite standard works) from listening to music framed in its proper and varied historical contexts. There has been, thankfully, a growth in the number of ensembles devoted to new music. Therefore, the ASO has focused on music from the past, with a view that the way we represent history is as much a part of the present as the performance of new music.

At the same time, the ASO has stayed true to Stokowski’s vision of moderate ticket prices to ensure wide accessibility. The ASO also continues to explore new ways of linking performing arts organizations with the university community, particularly by integrating the worlds of scholarship in music with traditions of performance. That kind of relationship has characterized the “early” music field for some time, but only recently has it begun to establish itself in music of later periods. And ASO has actively established award-winning educational programs, collaborations with high schools and middle schools.

As we look back over the last fifty years, it becomes clear that the period of enormous expansion in the number of performances, orchestras, summer festivals, and concert venues is coming to an end. Particularly since the financial crisis of 2008, the prospect of contraction for any orchestra is real and inevitable. These circumstances have given rise to a general sense of fear and pessimism regarding the future of orchestral concert performances. There is a lively, burgeoning world of new music, particularly for smaller ensembles, and to a limited extent in theater and opera. But the daunting scale and cost of orchestral concerts has placed the symphony orchestra and its work on a precarious path. ASO has tried to resist the natural tendency to respond to such fear and uncertainty with increased conservatism and risk-avoidance. Instead, with the enthusiastic support of its musicians, the ASO has continued to pursue the new and the unexplored, in keeping with the spirit of Stokowski. We try to design every concert to be enjoyable for the novice, for the connoisseur, and for everyone in between.

To mark our fiftieth anniversary we are performing Ives and Mahler because both had a unique relationship with Stokowski and therefore the history of this orchestra. But there is more. Ives and Mahler were contemporaries. There has always been a suspicion that on his last trip home to Vienna from New York in 1911, Mahler carried with him a manuscript of Ives’ music. Both composers experimented with music as an instrument of memory and the perception of time. Both evoked memories of childhood and reflected on modernity through the lens of a critical nostalgia. They were concerned with the idea that the past was refracted by missing and distorted memory. Both had a self-conscious reaction to the conceits of late Romanticism and the notion that music should be understood along the lines of a narrative, realistic novel. Both experimented with instrumental sound and symphonic form. That the ASO has been a New York City-based orchestra makes the pairing of these two composers a natural act of remembrance. Charles Ives lived and worked in the city of New York during the years that Gustav Mahler conducted at the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. It was during Mahler’s New York years, in 1910, that his Eighth Symphony had its premiere in Munich. Whether Mahler and Ives actually ever met, no one will ever know, but it is certain that these two historic figures—one a central European Jew, the other a Yale graduate and son of a Connecticut bandleader—intersected on a level of influence and memory, just as we hope that by pairing them in performance they will intersect in your memory and experience tonight in a new way.