Why is the Repertoire So Narrow?

From the inquisitive “Is Timid Programming Classical Music’s Biggest Threat?” in WQXR to the damning “America’s Orchestras are in Crisis” in New Republic, discussions of programming repeat an alarming diagnosis: performing groups choose repertoire from a rapidly shrinking list. The Republic’s Philip Kennicott thinks that managements cater to a caricature of an elderly audience who only wants to hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. “Many in the managerial class… care deeply about the rich, variegated, and complex history of classical music, but can find no practical way to offer that history to like-minded patrons,” he writes. “There are fewer and fewer safe pieces,” Opera America’s president Marc Scorca said.

What qualifies as safe? Beethoven’s Fifth will do, but what about Symphony No. 2? Can a Nielsen symphony take the place of Sibelius 5? Discussions of programming can quickly become charged with unsupported claims, so, in order to form a more detailed picture of one performance culture, I examined the mainstage concerts of 16 orchestras in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 2016–17 season, tallying more than 300 entries in a spreadsheet. The results? Whether ranked by number of unique works performed or by number of appearances, the most-represented composers were Beethoven (27 appearances of 14 unique works) and Mozart (22 appearances of 20 unique works). Trailing slightly behind were Verdi and Brahms, Shostakovich and Mahler, and a smattering of Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Copland, Stravinsky, and Haydn.

These findings—that 79 of the 107 unique composers are dead, that only 2 out of 28 living composers are women—aren’t shocking. In fact, Beethoven and Mozart reigned supreme in previous studies of American orchestral programming that analyzed the period of 1982–87 (by H.E. Price) and the 2003–04 season (by Jeffrey P. Thuerauf).

In a field that deifies dead composers, however, it’s surprising that even the most popular figures this season were represented by relatively few works. The Tchaikovsky works performed, in particular, could be the track listing for a greatest hits CD: the nine performances included Symphony No. 5 (three times), Symphony No. 6 (twice), the “1812 Overture,” along with the “Romeo and Juliet” and “Marche Slave” overtures; and the Violin Concerto. Why are these works performed so much more often than the early and unnumbered symphonies, the suites, incidental music? And why, in the 2016–17 season, did other composers from the classical era through the 20th century trail so far behind the top 12?

Canons strengthen through transmission, and many of the presidents, artistic directors, and conductors who help shape orchestral seasons earned degrees in music. For performance majors, who take years of private lessons, formal music history training often consists of just one or two years of compulsory survey, which simply isn’t enough time to cover every deserving work. Professor Leta Miller, of University of California, Santa Cruz, explains, “You have to be extremely selective because there’s so much to cover; there’s no time to cover it all.”

In the late ‘70s, when Miller began teaching, “everyone” used Donald Jay Grout’s A History of Western Music. Though a handful of other texts have since been published, many music programs continue to base their curricula on the book, which is in its ninth edition. I received three syllabi for the 19th-century portion of undergraduate music history survey, created by teachers from UCSC and the San Francisco Conservatory. Each uses Grout, and Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique,” which receives the longest description of the six symphonies featured in the sub-chapter “The Nineteenth-Century Orchestra,” is required listening for every course.

The textbook covers virtually all genres of Western classical music in just under 1,000 pages, so its coverage of symphonic works is, necessarily, limited. It’s reasonable that Brahms and Berg feature instead of Zemlinsky, for example, and that there’s just one paragraph on Elgar. Again, students only have so much time to devote to the classical orchestral repertoire.

The reach of Grout’s textbook, however, may well extend beyond the classroom. Miller cites textbooks, along with orchestral programming and the media, as “extremely influential” in canon development: “Hopefully, the people who are writing the textbooks recognize the power they have.” Indeed, the symphonic works that feature prominently in A History of Western Music, such as Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony, are among the most frequently performed. For example, two works used to explain exoticism are Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” and Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” concert staples that, during the Bay Area 2016–17 season, were each performed by two different groups. Works by Szymanowski and Enescu, whom Gramophone’s James Jolly describes as “just outside the continuum of music history,” are as exemplary of exoticism, but they don’t appear in the textbook, and weren’t performed.

Over nearly 40 years of teaching, Miller has made many adjustments to her curricula, notably, increasing the ethnic and gender diversity of the composers she teaches. Yet she acknowledges that, if the students seem engaged with the material, teachers may have little incentive to revise. “There’s a certain kind of inertia once you have a syllabus that’s working,” she says.

Orchestral students may not learn much more repertoire in their applied study. After all, excerpt classes aren’t meant to teach the obscure literature: the goal is to prepare musicians-in-training for the handful of passages—from “Don Juan,” Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, “La Mer”—they will have to perform, with impeccable technique and musicality, to win their first auditions. These excerpts, too, come from the popular repertoire.

If these young professionals begin programming as conductors or directors, naturally, early concerts consist of works they already know. One Bay Area cellist told me that, as a high school student in the early 2000s, he played in a youth orchestra whose music director had recently graduated from Curtis. This young conductor exclusively programmed famous and challenging works like Beethoven’s “Eroica” and Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” which were too difficult for this more recreational than competitive group of middle- and high-school students. “It felt like he fetishized these monumental works, like it was his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to conduct them.” In fact, this conductorship would have been an ideal time to explore smaller-scale works, which would likely be more enjoyable for students.

Because so many orchestral compositions exist, one concert may well represent a musician’s sole experience of a piece. But if “so many works, so little time” sounds like a healthy prognosis, many Bay Area orchestras, in fact, lack opportunities to program works at all. In a 35-week season, it’s no great risk, to pass over The Three Bs in a given evening. Indeed, in September, one San Francisco Symphony program featured Copland, Gershwin, and Steve Reich; the following week’s concert presented Haydn, Beethoven, and Sibelius. Patrons discontented with either program could feasibly attend the other and still have a favorable impression of the month.

But San Francisco Symphony, the most visible orchestra in the Bay Area, is also the outlier: the other orchestras perform significantly less often. One group performed three concerts in 2016–17, which, in a traditional overture-concerto-symphony program, translates to six works. Filling any of these slots with an obscure work represents a greater percentage risk, then, for these smaller groups than it does for major orchestras. It’s no wonder that the programs consisted of an early Haydn symphony, a concerto, and a major symphony—including both “Eroica” and Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique.”

In fact, these orchestras’ median season length is just 5 concerts. Some groups have always had short seasons; others have cut concerts, or even gone out of business, in the face of financial problems. Symphonies in Oakland, Sacramento, and San Jose that ceased operations between the mid ‘80s and early ‘00s have since re-launched under different names, but though excellent musicians populate these revived groups, their seasons are ghosts of their former selves. Googling “Sacramento Symphony,” which went bankrupt in the ‘90s and ceased operations in 1997, smoothly redirects traffic to the website of the Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera. However, the Philharmonic, though established within a year of the closure and retaining many of the same players, played six concerts this season—compared to a minimum contract of 10 weeks, and a 35-week season for salaried players, in its heyday.

Particularly when an orchestra’s survival depends on enthusiastic responses from its patrons, through ticket sales and individual donations, one logical approach is to program crowd-pleasing works like “Eroica” or Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, which seem to require minimal marketing to sell tickets. From a rehearsal perspective, too, it’s beneficial for orchestras to perform works already in their repertory. Using existing parts from a library saves not only money, but also, time: if the string sections’ bowings have already been worked out, for example, less rehearsal time is spent making sure interpretations match.

It’s common practice, in fact, to allocate less rehearsal time to well-known works. Last spring, San Francisco’s Classical Revolution performed the “Eroica” in a concert for which it charged admission. The sole rehearsal occurred mere hours before the concert: it was assumed that everyone had played it already and would execute their parts well enough to create an enjoyable performance. Pragmatism tinges the programs of even the most prestigious symphony orchestras. When San Francisco Symphony gave the local premiere of John Adams’s “Scheherazade.2,” a challenging 50-minute score, it seemed purposive that the second half of the program was Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The piece earned the orchestra its first Grammy with Michael Tilson Thomas, and has never been difficult to resurrect, one performer told me.

Considering the significant logistical advantages to playing often-performed repertoire, is it realistic to ask that an increasing variety of 18th through 20th century works be performed? Orchestras are only beginning to address the lack of non-white and non-male composers in their repertories, arguably a more pressing inclusivity problem to address than that of obscure old European composers. And even if a managerial team makes the effort to champion one unsung composer or work, countless others will be left behind.

Though German by birth, August Manns advocated for the advancement of British music throughout his nearly 50-year career as conductor of the orchestral series at London’s Crystal Palace. He programmed numerous works by composers like Sullivan, Parry, and Bennett—but, in 1880, when he polled more than a thousand audience members about which works performed during the season they’d most like to hear again, none of the British composers made the cut. Beethoven’s “Pastorale,” Mendelssohn’s “Scottish,” and Schubert’s “The Great” won the symphony category, amassing a combined 47 percent of votes. In another survey conducted seven years later, Beethoven and Mendelssohn were again the winners. For the Crystal Palace listeners, a canon was forming—one that didn’t reflect Mann’s own sensibilities.

Mann didn’t secure for Bennett a foothold in the local canon, but recently, several small and midsized operas companies in the Bay Area have effectively marketed obscurity. West Edge Opera programmed an alterative “Barber of Seville” and “La Bohème”—by Paisiello and Leoncavallo, respectively—as part of its “Opera Medium Rare” series, which highlights lesser-known works. Ars Minerva, a new company, has recreated two long-forgotten Venetian operas with musicians who specialize in period performance. And when pianist Nikolai Demidenko performed the rarely played Scriabin Concerto with Symphony Silicon Valley, critics acknowledged not only the musicians, but the management. “President Andrew Bales and Symphony Silicon Valley deserve praise for the programming of it,” The Mercury News’s Elijah Ho wrote of the performance. It brought tears to his eyes. ¶