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By Laurence Vittes | From the September-October 2022 issue of Strings magazine

During a conversation earlier this year with Didier Schnorhk, secretary general of the Concours de Genève, we discussed how tastes in classical music and musicians drift together and apart. European orchestras love American brass and American orchestras love French woodwinds. An increasing number of top soloists and conductors are popular in both markets. But the music being composed now in the U.S. and in Europe, Schnorhk said, “is absolutely not the same; it’s not that one is best.” There seem to be several currents in European composition: the heirs of Pierre Boulez, post-serial, and neotonal. Among the younger composers, however, there is a yearning for the freedom of being decompartmentalized. And many look to the U.S. for new models in composition and programming, which American ensembles take with them on tour.

While the masterpieces of European music will always be part of our world, there’s definitely a moment happening now that’s about creating a more level playing field between the past and our very vibrant artistic present. And I think it’s exciting.

Indeed, Simon Woods, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, describes an industry “on the cusp of rediscovering a historical American classical music identity that has lain too hidden for a long time, at the same time as building a new future that is much more reflective of our society and our people. While the masterpieces of European music will always be part of our world, there’s definitely a moment happening now that’s about creating a more level playing field between the past and our very vibrant artistic present. And I think it’s exciting.”

It’s exciting, and notable, that the Philadelphia Orchestra will have American music on its stands both here and abroad. “In the past, we might have spoken about interests or tastes in music in national terms, or European vs. American interests, in composition and sound,” the orchestra’s president and CEO Matías Tarnopolsky says. “But in today’s global and digital musical society, the borders are blurred or even erased. Our music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin regularly conducts in Europe and collaborates with composers beyond borders. He asks which composers of the past should have been better known, and who should be embraced today.”

The orchestra will visit the BBC Proms and the Edinburgh International and Lucerne festivals during its August-September European tour with programs including Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 (its Grammy winner for Deutsche Grammophon), Valerie Coleman’s This Is Not a Small Voice, and An Andean Walkabout by the orchestra’s composer-in-residence Gabriela Lena Frank.

Another East Coast orchestra, the Knights, will take American music and an entrepreneurial energy to Europe in October on a 12-city tour of Germany beginning at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. Their Kreutzer Project, devised by artistic directors Colin and Eric Jacobsen, includes a “mini suite of the things about Beethoven that feel timeless and without borders,” arrangements of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata and Janáček’s Kreutzer Sonata featuring Ray Chen, Anna Clyne’s Shorthand (inspired by Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata) with cellist Karen Ouzounian, and folk songs drawn from Janáček’s archival field recordings. Avie will release the recording.


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Eric talks about “the American dream, the concept that you can build something but may really have to elbow your way into an environment. A composer who wants their music to be represented and an ensemble that wants to spread their wings have to figure out a way to carve out their thing.” He describes American ensembles, composers, conductors, and orchestras heading toward a place “where they need to build their own, and therefore fund their own, build their board, create their infrastructure—really trying to carve out a niche. And that niche is not going to look as much like the composers and ensembles that are consistently represented in Europe.”

There has been a tradition in America for the last 100 years to consider the vernacular, which brings an immediacy to American ensembles and presenters wanting to make real strides in terms of representation within classical music.

Colin has a theory about why the United States is the home to so many innovative ensembles. “You can grow up here because there’s more room in the weeds and the cracks in the system for things to sprout up. There also has been a tradition in America for the last 100 years to consider the vernacular, which brings an immediacy to American ensembles and presenters wanting to make real strides in terms of representation within classical music. We’ve been chipping away and widening the openings with the Knights and Brooklyn Rider for years. And now it’s becoming a real push, industry wide.”

Colin hears that a lot of European quartets coming to the U.S. “are suddenly being asked to change their programs to include more women composers and more composers of color. So it’s definitely a topic in Europe, too, even if it doesn’t have quite the same urgency that it does in the States.”

Concerning musicians in Europe and the U.S., Rob Hilberink, head of the new International Conducting Competition Rotterdam and the International Franz Liszt Piano Competition in Utrecht, sees no gap. “Look at the conductors who have chief positions on both sides of the Atlantic, or singers who appear both at the Met and in Vienna, or quartets like Emerson, Brentano, and Dover who are as famous here as in the U.S.”

Hilberink believes the contrast between American and European tastes is not so much great as “more differentiated.” In any event, he says that “tastes have always varied from location to location, and still do, but world domination for classical musicians is a misconception. Only a handful of musicians are actually known worldwide. Even here, musicians that we in the Netherlands consider ‘stars’ are unknown in Germany and vice versa.”


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Jacques Marquis, his counterpart at the Cliburn Competition, points out, “the reasons lie deep. We do not have the same halls in Europe and U.S., nor the same audience, fees, music education in the schools. It is indeed difficult to compare.”

Hilberink admits that, overall, musicians “tend to build more local careers, with regular concerts usually in five to ten different countries, say a combination of the U.S., South Korea, Japan, France, and the Netherlands or Italy, Switzerland, Canada, Norway, and Spain.” Even then, he says, “within the country, preferences can vary enormously. Just look at whom the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and Concertgebouw Orchestra are inviting as soloists and conductors; it is a completely different cast of persona.”

The drift may be transforming the management sector more than anticipated. Hilberink says that in today’s environment, where every self-respecting city has a decent concert hall, “from inland China to a provincial town in the northern part of Norway, it is much easier to build a sustainable local career with enough performance locations to make a living. At the same time, the mystique around musicians has disappeared, as we can compare every performance online, we can reach out to them personally most of the time. This means that the power of management has disappeared, and presenters can now easily do their own research and bookings directly. Also, as the number of competitions has multiplied, the global impact of these institutions has diminished as well, although they do have a bigger national impact.”

Speaking of continental drifts, it’s definitely a new world for composers like Sean Hickey, the new managing director at Pentatone. “I know plenty of composers and performers that have success in their home market and not elsewhere, or in one foreign market and not at home. It’s nothing new. Concert presenters are bound by the fixed locations within which their businesses thrive. The record industry, on the other hand, has the benefit of platforms that recognize no sovereign boundaries, where artists find fans in places they’ve never been. Mexico City and Taipei are my top two markets as a composer,” Hickey says with wonder in his voice, “and I’ve been to neither.”