Celebrating Music In New York

By Leon Botstein

This concert celebrates the role New York City has played, and continues to play as a center of national musical culture in the 20th century. At the same time, tonight’s concert marks the 60th anniversary of the American Symphony Orchestra. 

The ASO was founded by Leopold Stokowski in the early sixties. Lincoln Center—the not altogether wise (in terms of the character of cities) dream of bringing the major performing arts venues of New York together in one place—had become a reality. The old Metropolitan Opera House and Carnegie Hall were both slated for demolition. The New York Philharmonic had a new home, Philharmonic Hall, later Avery Fisher Hall and now Geffen Hall. However, in one of the first successful citizen-led protests in support of historic architectural preservation, Carnegie Hall was saved. Since it had been the home of the New York Philharmonic—the orchestra Gustav Mahler conducted there—after the decision had been made to keep Carnegie Hall going as a concert hall, it needed an orchestra of its own. 

Stokowski’s idea was to create an orchestra purely out of the growing pool of young first-rate American instrumentalists. He sought to demonstrate America’s post-war equality with Europe as a place where talent in the field of classical music could be nurtured. Stokowski also wanted to make ticket prices for symphony orchestra concerts low enough to attract an audience that, in terms of social class and ethnicity, mirrored the egalitarian aspirations of a democratic culture and would be less privileged than the public that supported New York Philharmonic. The Philharmonic’s founding and continued existence were linked closely to the moneyed aristocracy of the city. Stokowski also wished the ASO to promote a distinctive artistic mission. The ASO was charged with offering not only wider public access to the standard repertory, but also steady diet of new music by American composers and important but neglected works from the history of music.

Despite this promising and brilliant beginning, the ASO’s career as an institution was shaky. The philanthropy was insufficient, Stokowski’s departed for England too soon, and the orchestra made its debut just as the centrality of classical music was beginning to fade. It is a tribute to the musicians of the orchestra, who for many years took over the governance of the orchestra, and to many generations of patrons that the orchestra has now reached its 60th year. Consistent support from the municipal government has been crucial. Above all, there has been a loyal audience following in the city. 

But the secret behind the orchestra’s longevity is something unique about New York that rarely gets attention. No other city in the United States possesses such a rich and gifted pool of freelance musicians. They earn their living not by being employed by a single institution, such as the Metropolitan Opera or the New York Philharmonic, but by playing in several orchestras with shorter seasons, playing on Broadway, playing in churches and in chamber music ensembles. The life of a freelance musician is taxing and unpredictable. But the artistic rewards are high. The music making is less routine than that experienced by musicians whose careers are tied to a single ensemble and institution. The New York freelancer gains unparalleled skills in how to master new repertoire, put on fine performances with minimal rehearsal, and acquit themselves in the widest possible genres, from popular music, jazz and Broadway, to sacred music and contemporary music. For many freelance musicians in New York the ASO has been their anchor, and they have embraced with enthusiasm, ASO’s commitment to new and unfamiliar music. 

As has been already noted, the challenges experienced by the ASO since its founding run parallel to a gradual erosion in the public sphere, in America, of interest in classical music, both old and new. The weakening of the audience base led to a steady decline in the philanthropic support for classical music, not only in New York but throughout the entire country. The orchestra was founded in a decade when there was a glimmer of hope that public support by the government—federal, state, and city—would grow. But the politics of the country turned away from the support of culture and the arts. The idea of “big” government fell into disrepute, particularly following the presidency of Ronald Reagan. The ideal of paying of taxes as a privilege, and a fundamental obligation of citizenship in a democracy—so that vital goods and services, including education and access to culture could be shared by all—was shunned as a political platform. The rising cost of higher education throughout the country was passed onto consumers, and the support of museums, opera houses, orchestras, and concert halls was again relegated, as it had been, before the Depression, to the realm of private philanthropy. 

Despite the shocking inequality of wealth and the emergence of a fabulously wealthy elite, we, as a nation have permitted to occur, less of philanthropy than we might have hoped has gone to the performing arts and education. The fine public school music programs, even in New York, were allowed to deteriorate. In particular, the traditions and the future of classical and concert music no longer became favored objects of support. Tastes in entertainment among the very rich changed and classical music increasingly came to be regarded as not quintessentially American or democratic in character. 

The one place in the US where classical music has remained central to a local and regional sense of what constitutes the American character is New York City. As the dominant entry point of immigration since the late 19th century, it has always been the nation’s most cosmopolitan city. It is in New York that jazz flourished, the great tradition of musical theater came into being, and urban popular music found its home from the days of Tin Pan Alley in the extensive network of publishing houses and recording studios that thrived in the city. No other city in the United States could ever match the variety and density of the concert and opera life that evolved in New York City. 

It is this unique character of New York that this ASO concert seeks to celebrate tonight. The program opens with a work by one of New York City’s native sons, Aaron Copland, arguably the best known American classical composer of the 20th century who created a contemporary American musical sound and rhetoric. It includes a work by one of the finest and most productive African American composers, William Grant Still, to whom the ASO dedicated an entire program at Lincoln Center in 2009. It features a work by a remarkable composer and teacher (at Hunter College), a pioneering advocate of women composers, Louise Talma. The concert also offers a work by one of the most compelling and imaginative modernist composers of the last century, Jacob Druckman, who like Louise Talma, left an admirable legacy as a teacher of composition. 

The program concludes with an idiosyncratic arrangement of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, put together for the New York Philharmonic by its then music director, Gustav Mahler. Mahler was recruited in 1907 by the Metropolitan Opera to come to New York. He and Arturo Toscanini, who came to New York shortly after Mahler, were perhaps the most famous conductors in the world in their day. As fate would have it, Mahler’s years in New York were dominated by his work as a symphonic concert hall conductor and not by his conducting in the opera house, which in Europe had catapulted him to stardom. Toscanini drove him from the pit to the concert stage in New York. 

Written for

Celebrating New York