Guest Column: Embracing the Classics.Exploring the Future.

There is a discouraging trend afoot – that of declining interest in classical music. Many professional orchestras are facing musicians’ union disputes, financial troubles, declining audiences, and some have even folded entirely. It is not within the scope of my ability to proffer a comprehensive theory as to why this is happening (as Frank Zappa observed: “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”), but I would like to provide some discussion about what the Austin Civic Orchestra (ACO) is trying to do to help alter this troubling course.

One of the most important responsibilities conductors shoulder is to support, commission and publicly present new music. Music of our time. Much of the music that we consider to be “classic” was once new; it spoke directly to the people of the time and reflected the issues of that time. To this end, we’re moving in a different direction this season to try and draw some new and younger fans to our concerts. “Embracing the Classics. Exploring the Future” is the orchestra’s new motto.

On September 29th, we presented the Texas premiere of David Amram’s “Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie.” Guthrie, of course, wrote the folk song, “This Land is Your Land,” and we celebrate his 100th birthday anniversary in 2012. Amram, a composer, conductor, and author, is known in classical, jazz, and folk circles and for his collaborations with Jack Kerouac (together they helped form the Beat movement), Leonard Bernstein (Bernstein chose him to serve as the first composer-in-residence with the NY Philharmonic), Charlie Mingus, Oscar Peterson, Willie Nelson… the list could go on for gigabytes.

Amram’s tribute to Guthrie sets the famous melody in ten different styles, all of which reflect America’s rich and diverse musical heritage: blues, gospel, swing, Native American, Latino, Mexican, middle eastern, klezmer, a hoe-down, and even a nod to the Salvation Army Band. We were very honored to have Amram present for the premiere and also to have his input during the dress rehearsal. This man is a living part of American history and at 82 he shows no signs of slowing down!

The experience of working with a living composer is always very exciting because the collaborative effort is extremely rewarding for all parties involved. The excitement of “giving birth” to a new work of art, especially in the presence of the creative force behind it, is truly unique to this environment and I am always privileged to serve as the midwife.

The most important outcome for this concert and for all programs in which we’ve been able to feature new music, is that we were able to bring in some new and younger audience members and to blur the boundaries between musical genres. There was an almost giddy sense of excitement in the air after the performance, something promising and immediately passionate, something one cannot get from an iPod or YouTube.

Dr. Lois Ferrari
Professor of Music
Music Director, Austin Civic Orchestra

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