Orchestras are a lot like football: TON at Bard’s Fisher Center

The Orchestra Now musicians Philip Brindise, Zachary Silberschlag and Szabolcs Koczur (photo by David DeNee)

The Orchestra Now musicians Philip Brindise, Zachary Silberschlag and Szabolcs Koczur (photo by David DeNee)

In academia’s version of Reagonomics, new theories developed by the light-course-load genius class trickle down via “praxis”: the teaching processes and practical applications developed by those who were trained by the hotshot theoreticians at the graduate level. Ultimately, over the course of decades of teachers infecting students and the exponential branching of those streams, the theories with the greatest virulence, robustness and backing enter the groundwater of popular culture, where their precepts are absorbed as assumed truths – unwittingly, for the most part.

Thus, by the 1950s we were all Freudians, even if we couldn’t tell Sigmund from a sea monster. Or in a perfect-storm example, the copy/paste/transform theories of art and culture first called Postmodernism in the ’60s finally reached the streets in the ’90s, where they were put into action by a generation armed with new digital tools that seemed tailor-made for job. Or so goes my theory.

It’s an imperfect system, and a lot can go wrong along the way. When I was a fledgling academic in the early ’90s, the theories of interdisciplinary learning were hot and gathering force and funding. What was not to like about the idea of breaking the disciplines out of their boxes and allowing history, science, social sciences, business and art all to talk to each other as if they were part of the same intellectual reality? What could also be more congenial to the concurrent movement of multiculturalism? Like most great theories, interdisciplinary learning had the power and appeal of an intuitive truth.

But things got tricky in the trickle-down. School administrators who had not really thought through the radical implications of the theory (and who, in any case, lacked the wherewithal to undertake meaningful programmatic change) foisted the hasty betas of new practices and structures on mostly untrained and understandably resistant practitioners, leading to a lot of buzzword-dropping lip service and general confusion as teachers tried their best to fire the new ammo with the old weapons.

I remember one actual junior high language arts program that spent about three months drawing science and history lessons out of a single text: a bland and neutral adolescent novel from the ’50s. It was a literary starvation diet that also left a lot of science teachers saying WTF. But it was “interdisciplinary.”

I also remember that amidst all the politicking and half-baked, gimcrack reform, Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking stood like an oasis of depth, substance, realism and patience. It was a place where the good work really was happening: theory meeting praxis, unharried and experimental. Teachers emerged from their workshops on fire with the ideas and armed with a very clearheaded sense of the challenges of implementation, in it for the long haul.

Bard College remains a beacon of mature interdiscipliniarianism, a world-leading steward of a Really Good Idea. The new graduate music program called The Orchestra Now (TON) is yet another focused, practical and elegant expression of this ideal. The program combines trial-by-fire training and experience in orchestral performance and preparation with curatorial studies and with intensive focus on the historical contexts, functions and significance of the orchestra. TON thus intends to produce qualified orchestral performers who are also equipped to curate the canon of the future and to help manage and sustain culturally relevant orchestral institutions.

Orchestras are a lot like football, except for the billions in revenue. They are expensive, complex, resource-intensive and thus prone to a conservatism that is practical more than ideological. They are inherently institutional in a way that soccer and garage rock are not. The idea of the reinvention and renewal of this institution-in-crisis looks good on paper, but the actual challenge promises to be a doozy: refreshing repertoire, repositioning the traditions, rediscovering audiences, streamlining the economics and administration and replenishing the player supply in a singularly grueling discipline. Sounds like a job for Bard.

Music director Leon Botstein will conduct The Orchestra Now in a winter weekend concert featuring young Chinese violinist Tianpei Ai and vocalists Susan Platts and Charles Reid on Saturday, February 13 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, February 14 at 3 p.m. The concerts are part of the Orchestra’s inaugural performance season in residence at Bard College. The program is predictably ambitious and off the beaten path, featuring the German late-Romantic Max Bruch’s four-movement Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra and the orchestral-and-voice work Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), by Gustav Mahler, a composer both revered and reviled for his grand ambition and for the difficulty of mounting his works.

Both concerts take place in the acoustically pristine Sosnoff Theater. Ticket prices begin at $25. The Sosnoff Theater is located in the Fisher Center on the campus of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson. For more tickets and more information, visit https://fishercenter.bard.edu. For a splashy look into The Orchestra Now, visit www.theorchestranow.org.


The Orchestra Now performs Bruch & Mahler, Saturday, February 13, 8 p.m., Sunday, February 14, 3 p.m.; $25+, Sosnoff Theater, Fisher Center, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson; https://fishercenter.bard.edu.

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