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Orchestras are not just for film music

We should not define “accessible” by a genre; rather, “accessible” should be defined by how public and available the music is in our society.

Modern day orchestras are very much considering what “sells” and what is the bread and butter of the repertoire. Between these two programming considerations lie very few explorations.

Traditional programming in orchestras

The traditional programming of orchestras is based around a set of core values:

  • Classical music is a worthy part of our culture
  • The great music of the past needs to be shared and kept alive
  • Any programming outside of classical music is secondary to the main purpose of an orchestra
Orchestras and programming choices

The last bullet point may seem controversial, but it is the truth. New/contemporary art music is relegated to the back burner of the season’s programming. Pops concerts are meant to draw more diverse crowds and take in more money, but are not the primary purpose for an orchestra to exist. Outreach is a minor source for an orchestra to be more visible in the public and share the mission it seeks to uphold.

Yet, the aversion to new music subverts the very idea of an orchestra. Not playing new music is the reason orchestras are growing archaic.

New music vs. popular music

There is a difference between new music versus popular music that is widening in some instances and narrowing in others. I do not think it is accurate to say that new and popular music are very different or very similar, as it varies widely by the genre, artist, and subculture.

Yet, there is a difference when it comes to programming music in an orchestra, as this is a choice consciously made to share music with a particular audience.

What do I mean, exactly? Here is an anecdote to get at my goal.

A classical mixtape for orchestras

My friend Andrew and I recently met up for dinner, to catch up. He is a pianist and I am a composer, so the topic of music–particularly classical music–naturally came up.

We discussed our colleagues who were making bold programming decisions with their orchestras, not in terms of genre, but in terms of scale of works. One colleague made so many large-scale works appear on one concert program that I wondered how on earth he managed to learn the scores so fast and pull the performances off with only two rehearsals.

Yet, when discussing other programming decisions, we noticed how many orchestras prefer a classical “mixtape”–a “greatest hits” of classical music meant to attract audiences instead of to show depth. While crippling the depth of classical music and diluting the repertoire, this also feeds a desire by management to sell tickets.

As a person who works in finance during the day, I know that balancing the budget is the main goal of management. But, to further think on the idea of a “classical mixtape”, Andrew and I discussed how concerts featuring the music of Harry Potter or other film music are meant mainly to sell tickets and attempt to make classical music “accessible”. While I love film music, I fear this emphasis on music that is accessible invalidates the very reasons orchestras exist. Orchestral music of modern times is not only found in film music.

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Film music is not the only new classical music

When I tell my friends, family, and other people I meet in public that I am a composer, most people either ask if I score for film or what instrument I play. While I love scoring to picture and am in love with my guitars, I get the sense that the only thing people know that is composed is film music or other popularized, incidental versions of composed music. My opinion is that this is perpetuated by classical music programming choices and a lack of visibility in general of new music.

Here’s the wakeup call we need:

Film music is not the only new classical music

Why does this matter?

By excluding newly composed classical music from a diverse (gender, racial, geographical, cultural, stylistic, etc.) pool of composers, orchestras blind us to the reality of classical music: it was alive in the time of Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, and Stravinsky, and is still alive today. Why should we pretend that anything pre-Bartok (roughly) is the only real classical music? Why do we pretend the present is dead? By pretending the present is dead, an orchestra dies. Who wants to hear only of the dead, and nothing of the living?

And there is another kicker:

New music doesn’t have to be “accessible”. “Accessible” is a term conditioned by our society: our society deems “normal” music as the music on the popular radio stations. It is not the problem of classical music to become accessible. Rather, it is the duty of us as a society to redefine “accessible” as something that is available to the public. We should not define “accessible” by a genre; rather, “accessible” should be defined by how public and available the music is in our society.

Conclusion on all classical music (orchestras included)

By implying that classical music is only the past and the incidental, popular present, orchestras and classical musicians kill classical music and feed into the idea that classical music is not accessible.

Classical music is not inaccessible: we define it as such as a society, and that is the underlying problem.

By making more innovative programming choices and resolving as a society to redefine “accessible”, we will be able to appreciate the music of the past, the incidental music of the present, and the new classical music of the future.

Don’t give classical music a chance. Let society know that you don’t have to give it a chance, because it is already good enough for each of us.


Don’t forget to check out Searching for Now for a fusion of new and popular music.

One thought on “Orchestras are not just for film music”

  1. Just imagine if Bach was denied his music to be performed and heard when he was alive, would we be hearing it today?

    The people who program “classical” music in concert halls and on the radio and killing the future history of music today.

    They persist in only playing Beethoven, Brahms, and Mozart and almost never giving living composers a go. What of our time will be represented in the next three houndred years? Almost no music of today will be heard or known then, because today, greedy short shighted people are killing today’s “classical” music.

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