Symphony Orchestras in the 21st Century
Why Music Matters
by Franz Welser-Möst
(Excerpt from the companion book to A New Century)
When The Cleveland Orchestra celebrated its Centennial season in 2017-18, I gave a presentation in which I asked “What should come next for this celebrated ensemble?” I answered that question in several different ways, ultimately saying that the final answer was up to the audience.
The people of Cleveland created The Cleveland Orchestra and have sustained it across more than a century. They are the shareholders. No orchestra exists for its own sake; each must serve the people of its community.
Going to a much larger view, we might rightly ask what is the point and purpose of symphony orchestras in today’s world? Are we relevant? Is classical music simply one of many styles we hear in movie soundtracks? Is the local symphony mostly a museum of masterpieces by great composers of the past, written by Beethoven and Mozart and other composers long dead? Is it a luxury that only some people can afford to enjoy?
While there may be small kernels of truth in the implications of those questions, for me the primary purpose of an orchestra — and of music as an artform — remains clear. And I affirm my answer four-fold, directly tied to the intrinsic values that music can bring to our lives.
First, music is about education and learning. My siblings and I each learned a musical instrument when we were young, and even those in my family who didn’t choose music as a career benefited from it. From personal experience and from so many scientific studies across the past fifty years, we know how valuable music can be to young people in the midst of their vital learning years. Making music by learning an instrument or singing is also especially valuable, in teaching about working together, sharing and communicating, and striving toward common goals. Symphony orchestras everywhere demonstrate what a large group of musicians can achieve together. Continuing interest in music as adults — whether hearing or directly participating as a singer or instrumentalist — adds dimension to all of our lives, our thoughts, and our thinking, through the nuance and meaning that music offers as a language. Music helps us grow.
2. Music reinforces us each day, giving us strength and understanding. In today’s terms, it provides a soundtrack to our lives — energizing us for tasks ahead, transforming our moods, and offering solace and reflection in more difficult times. We should never discount how important this aspect of music is. Hearing a favorite work or discovering a brand-new piece is transformative for each of us as we evolve and develop our personalities, and in sharing with the people around us. Music makes us who we are.
3. Music — and all art — directly reflects who we are as a society and as human beings. The arts filter life’s many unanswerable questions into a substance and form that we can react to both directly and indirectly. Music and the other arts offer us insight into who the artist is, what the artist sees, and what common threads bind us together. This is true for music with or without a storyline or text. Sometimes the meaning of a piece is obvious, sometimes it is more mystical and uncertain. Both aspects offer us insight into being human, into decisions and choices we make each and every day. Music is a mirror of our shared humanity.
4. Lastly, the symphony orchestra itself represents the human achievement of high art. By this, I do not mean something elitist or that in any way excludes anyone. Quite the contrary. I am simply referring to the way an orchestra functions as a supreme amalgamation of many parts working effortlessly as one. If you think about it, the symphony orchestra is, in fact, a microcosm of human society, with differing roles and viewpoints striving and working together for a common goal. In many ways, I see this as a spiritual aspect of music, of once again reflecting humanity. Others will see in this high art, and especially in some specific musical pieces, a divinity called God. Music is a universal language.
The full book (available in the Deluxe CD Box Set of A New Century) explores the continuity and change at The Cleveland Orchestra, across musical leaders, changes and enhancements to the ensemble’s home concert hall, and the rock-steady influence of a hometown community that constantly demands and responds to great musicians playing great music with new and refreshing perspectives.