Big Tent Thinking

History is filled with people who have tried to define art.  They have all been wrong, and there is no reason to suspect we are any better at it than they were.

Changes to what experts call “Art” happen all the time.  There was a time when people questioned whether photography constituted fine art.  Some used to ask the same question about Andy Warhol, and today it’s Murakami.  These days film-makers such as Tim Burton are routinely presented as serious artists by mainstream museums.  The Smithsonian Museum exhibits video games as fine art, and video games are now part of the permanent collection at MOMA.  The New York Times has given them a distinct category in the Arts section.

Museums and others are taking popular culture seriously.  Orchestras should follow their lead and program repertory from film, broadway, and video games alongside traditional classical and modern music.  Like museums, orchestras should treat all symphonic genres as interesting and worthy American art.

The separation of genres is a damaging industry prejudice, and it is artistically unjustifiable.  This conceit that they need to be separated into classical and “Pops” divides more than just an orchestra’s resources and their audience, it also divides advertising considerations, fundraising goals, mission statements, and priorities over hiring musicians and conductors.  It even can divide an orchestra’s own name, like when the Boston Symphony magically morphs into the Boston Pops.

It is great news that the Minnesota Orchestra’s Sibelius recording was nominated for a Grammy — and that also makes it worth pointing out that there was another (new!) symphonic score nominated for a Grammy this year: the score to the video game  Journey.  While the Smithsonian, MOMA, The New York Times, and others treat video games as art, orchestras in America will likely ignore Austin Wintory’s popular new Grammy nominated symphonic score.

Perhaps someone will put it on a “Pops” concert?

Meanwhile, Time Warner Cable cut the TV channel Ovation from its lineup this week. Ovation was the only cable channel dedicated to Arts programming. It has been cut because it was one of their poorest performing networks. Three-quarters of its programming consisted of repeats of existing material. It was watched by less than 1% of customers, and it “costs too much relative to the value of service”.

Costing too much relative to value is a problem shared by orchestras, and so it is mystifying that no matter how marginalized they become, orchestras program concerts as if repeating existing material were the best way to boost attendance and donations. And apart from the money, is that even the best way to present art?

For those open to the new world, opportunities abound. The Cutting Edge Group announced this week that they have purchased the film soundtrack label Varése Sarabande for $100 million, and they intend to produce more than sixty soundtracks a year. The really interesting part is that they will make all the new orchestral scores available to be performed. They are not, however, doing this exclusively for the sake of art. To them, film music scores “are highly undervalued properties”.

Orchestras ought to come to the same conclusion.

Like global warming, these trends in the arts are obvious and they can be addressed.  As the traditions of symphonic writing evolve, orchestras need to be partners with all kinds of living composers rather than reactionary judges.  After all, no orchestra can seriously present people as artistically nuanced as Kurt Weill or Richard Rodney Bennett while at the same time disregarding so much of their compositional output.

Changes are coming. Musicians and management should acknowledge that whatever the new traditions turn out to be, they will challenge some deeply held artistic convictions.  Innovation is needed in orchestras’ artistic thinking just as much as in finance or presentation.  It is time for orchestras to stop repeating the same music each year, and curate concerts using the entire American repertory.  It is better for the art form, and better for the bottom line.


About the author

Peter Sachon
Peter Sachon

Peter Sachon has performed all over the United States, Europe and Asia. Mr. Sachon played in the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and has toured Europe and the U.S. with Pink Martini. He has played for the Broadway shows Fiddler on the Roof, The Light in the Piazza, High Fidelity, Legally Blonde, South Pacific, and Pippin. Mr. Sachon has performed with Audra McDonald, Victoria Clark, Deborah Voight, Rufus Wainright, Dee Snider, Billy Joel, Anthony Rapp, Judy Kuhn, and Josh Groban.


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  • My assumption would be that ‘score’ here refers to the musical portion of the recorded soundtrack, and not the written score that a conductor would read from.
    If the written scores and parts will be available, I’d be interested to know from whom and under what terms.

  • “The strategic advantage in joining with Cutting Edge, he said, includes an expectation that all or most of the five dozen films with which Cutting Edge is involved annually will now release a score via Varése Sarabande.”

    Cutting Edge also said in the same article that they would expand their events business, including having film scores conducted by the composers.

    The film scores will be available to be performed, although you are right to point out that in the article they mostly talked about packaged shows — still, it seems clear that they want to monetize what they view as valuable content. If a plurality of orchestras regularly sought this material out (not as pops concerts, which would likely buy the pre-packaged shows), but rather if orchestras sought this material out as repertoire I believe that would create a market where CE would make them available. Perhaps even in a “Signature Edition”.

  • Interesting post, and I agree with most of what is written. What caught my eye was the statement about The Cutting Edge Group, ‘The really interesting part is that they will make all the new orchestral scores available to be performed.’ This isn’t actually stated in the NYT article and I wondered if it was written elswhere. Were that the case, the value derived from the scores would likely come from packaged shows including conductor and film, or possibly just by building a rental library of scores and parts.
    To make it possible for orchestras to really take advantage of many of these wonderful scores, I wish they would take the example of the John williams ‘Signature Editions’ and make the original scores and parts available at a reasonable price.

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