“Shostakovich in South Dakota — A Manifesto for the Future of American Classical Music”

My “manifesto for the future of American classical music,” in the current issue of The American Scholar, attempts in 7,000 words to present a viable blueprint for change.

My main point of reference is a contextualized performance of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony last February by the South Dakota Symphony – which I write “may plausibly be considered the most genuinely innovative, most inspirationally forward-looking professional orchestra in the United States. It is also the happiest professional orchestra I know, and the most engaged.” 

On that occasion, Shostakovich’s 80-minute symphony was preceded by a forty-minute “dramatic interlude” with musical examples, beginning with music from the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – the lascivious bedroom scene that in 1936 so aroused Stalin’s ire that the composer was denounced in Pravda. The symphony’s seminal impact on Russian morale during the 1941-44 Nazi siege of Leningrad was explored. For many in the audience, this story evoked the resilience of Ukrainian resistance to Russia’s invading army today.  For a local clergyman, the  concert “renewed my confidence in the meaning of music, in the meaning of the arts.”

There were linked activities on two university campuses, including run-out performances of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet. It, too, was also elaborately contextualized. David Reynolds, who oversees performing arts at South Dakota State University, called the entire exercise “a wonderful opportunity to touch students who are growing up with social media and other nontraditional resources. These are the folks who will one day decide the role of the arts our public and private schools.”

In my article I propose three main prescriptions:

1.The role of the music director should be radically redefined. He or she should aspire to cultural leadership, armed with a mission distinctive to the community at hand – a case in point being Delta David Gier, who has been music director of the South Dakota Symphony since 2004. Gier moved to Sioux Falls and raised a family there. I cite as a counter example Andris Nelsons, music director of today’s Boston Symphony, who also leads Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra. This coming season, Nelsons will conduct 34 of 66 subscription concerts in Boston. (In the BSO’s heyday under Arthur Nikisch, Karl Muck, and Serge Koussevitzky — decades during which the orchestra was Boston’s cultural hub, and during which the Tanglewood Festival was established as [be it remembered] an American music laboratory — guest conductors were few and far between.)  

2.The concert format should be re-imagined, with emphasis on contextualizing the music at hand. Once you do that, with orchestras large or small, you wind up with events ideal for linkage to schools at every level, The orchestra becomes a humanities institution with education at its core – not a satellite operation.

3.American orchestras should – at last — curate the American musical past — just as American museums curate the American past in the visual arts. This would require some scholarly assistance.  

These recommendations do not begin with a mad rush to program a lot of music by women and composers of color. But – as the South Dakota example shows (see below) – an orchestra focused on serving its community will organically gravitate to serving diversity and inclusivity. 

Also, these recommendations do not begin with marketing and development strategies. Rather, they propose a template that inspires audiences to entrust an orchestra with cultural leadership. I write:

“Early in his tenure, Gier proposed that the South Dakota Symphony initiate an annual Martin Luther King concert. He was taken aside and informed that, in South Dakota, racial bias targeted Native Americans. He next hosted a lunch for Lakota and Dakota leaders. ‘I went into that with all kinds of ideas about how we could collaborate,’ he recalls. ‘But I was met with distrust—which in retrospect is not surprising. . . . It was my first lesson in learning to listen. At the end of that lunch, a man introduced himself and said, “You’re crazy. But I’d like to try to help.” That was Barry LeBeau, an actor and lobbyist. I spent a couple of years making intermittent trips around the state with Barry introducing me to tribal elders and leaders”. . .  Gier had arrived in Sioux Falls with the notion that “an orchestra should serve its unique community uniquely.” He wasn’t sure what that would look like—but he knew he had never seen it happen.” 

The result was the Lakota Music Project, which links the South Dakota Symphony to Indian reservations throughout the state. Magdalena Modzelewska, the SDSO’s principal second violinist since 1998, testifies: “It’s really stunning, what’s happening with those kids, the light that we see on their faces. For quite a few, it’s changed their lives. They were on the verge of something awful—and it pulled them through. Some have gone on to college to study music—where it was not even a consideration before.” Of the Lakota Music Project experience, Modzelewska says, “In Indian culture we’ve found such peace and goodwill. It’s truly remarkable how similar our musical goals are. We get to share something sublime.” 

My article includes a lot of pertinent history. I conclude this section by writing:

“The quintessential American orchestra was Leopold Stokowski’s in Philadelphia; it produced a seamless, kaleidoscopic, even cinematic New World sound that was sui generis, and that served sui generis New World readings of Old World masterworks. That many members of other major American orchestras retained German, French, or Italian musical roots was decisive. Here, the most striking example was the astounding Metropolitan Opera orchestra as heard on broadcasts from the 1930s and ’40s. The players were predominantly Italian. Some had played in the Met pit under Toscanini, even Mahler. They intimately knew the operas. . . . Today’s  Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, in comparison, is uprooted: faceless and tame. And the Stokowski lava flow is not even a memory. . . . 

“And so, South Dakota becomes a manifesto. I would never propose that the Vienna Philharmonic’s Bruckner performances add a 40-minute preamble. The Berlin Philharmonic performing Beethoven, the Mariinsky Orchestra’s peerless Shostakovich performances under Valery Gergiev are self-sufficient. But if you were to ask me whether the New York Philharmonic should perform the Leningrad Symphony sans commentary of any kind, I would certainly opine: those times are past. . . .  

“At South Dakota State University, every student with whom I spoke about the Leningrad Symphony performance [to which they were bussed by the university] mentioned the 40-minute preamble as a crucial ingredient. . . . My own 26-year-old daughter watched the Leningrad performance via livestram. When it was over, she phoned me from New York to say how she swished that her friends could experience ‘concerts like that.’”

My American Scholar piece concludes:

“As of this writing, New York City’s Public Theatre has announced that it will lay off 19 percent of its staff. The Brooklyn Academy of Music will reduce its staff by 13 percent. We will be reading about similar arts cutbacks elsewhere. Cycles of ‘emergency’ Covid arts funding by Congress have come and gone with nothing to take their place. The usual belt tightening will not suffice—and nowhere more than in the symphonic sector. 

“Quite obviously, mine are inconvenient opinions. You will not find them emphasized at meetings and workshops of the League of American Orchestras. They do not mesh with prevalent norms for administrative staffing. Orchestras lack resources to adequately scour and contextualize the American musical past. Conductors lack the skill, the time, or the interest to fashion the teaching tools deployed by Delta David Gier—or by Leonard Bernstein decades before him. For many of our larger orchestras, shrinking audiences will logically dictate fewer concerts. And new audiences, generally, will present new needs. 

“Five months ago, the NEH funded a fourth installment of Music Unwound, supporting thematic festivals curating the American musical experience. The concerts will elaborately contextualize the repertoire at hand. All six participating orchestras, including the South Dakota Symphony, partner with universities. Unbeknownst to many in the American orchestral community, a new moment is upon us: new templates for format and repertoire, templates tangible yet mainly dormant. They have in fact been awaiting our attention for quite some time.” 

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