This is the sixteenth interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series and leave your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this posting.
Interview with Diane Wittry
Allentown Symphony Hall
23 June 2010
IA: So the idea is that this is not your typical, you know, “When did you get into music?” kind of interview (even though I’m interested in that); the overarching question that I’m trying to answer is: Are we in a particular time period or stylistic era in the arts right now? And I’m doing this across the genres: I’ve been asking not only musicians but writers, painters, actors, directors.
DW: You actually would have been interested in the dialogue that was happening at the National Orchestral Conference (some of it may be available online). That dialogue was actually taking place all week, about where we are. I think what came out of that discussion and what I’ve thought for a long time is that orchestras really need to change. We of all the industries have not really changed the way we do business as much as others, as much as museums, as much as theatre groups, which have tended to stay a little bit more cutting edge. And in changing, I don’t think we need to change the music we play, though we probably need to spice it up more. I actually think we need to do more new music, more cutting-edge things. I think people are ready for that and are looking for something they can’t find on the internet. But the whole thing with YouTube has totally changed the way we have to think about how we look at orchestral concerts, because pretty much anyone who is interested can google any piece, any orchestra, any soloist, and get hundreds of selections that they can watch right there in their living room (with a variety of levels of quality); but access is incredible now. And so because of that, we have to find more ways of why somebody should come out for a concert, and I think we have to look at many different levels.
So one of the things I try to do is to make sure that the concert experience is something that is making connections either through the different types of composers we’re doing, through a thematic element (like we did with Romeo & Juliet, where we did four different composers’ looks at Romeo & Juliet), through a mixing of the mediums where we maybe involve ballet or actors or multi-media. I think that we have to look at all of these and that no longer can we just program a piece and say, OK, well, this is a great piece of music and therefore you should come.
IA: So that’s the old model? The old model is: These are the standards, these are the traditional classics, so we’re going to keep playing them even if our audience is aging and we’re not getting a new audience? Is that the old model?
DW: Yes. I think there are two models. The old model for orchestras was: Overture, Concerto, Symphony; the three pieces. I mean, this has been within the last, say, thirty or forty years, it’s sort of gravitated towards this. And then you have two different schools. You have the school that says: You must play mostly Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, because that’s what people want to hear. But I actually think that in some ways we’re selling our audience short by thinking that they only want to hear that. And once again with YouTube, people have access to all of that repertoire on so many levels that I think that, yes they do want to hear something they know and love, but I really think that what is going to get them out of the house is something that is a little bit different. And I think that we can look at the total concert experience and recognize it’s a social experience. It’s always been a social experience. Way back with the kings and the courts it was a social experience. And how do we give people sort of a double reason for coming: Great, great music looked at in an interesting way, but also with a social element to get them out of the house.
IA: In a way that can’t just be replicated at home with your computer.
DW: Exactly. And I think that’s the challenge. I think we’re going to also have to look at new technology and how do we utilize technology to get the concert—which I call the product—to get the product out to more people. Because even though we know there’s nothing like a live concert performance, and the energy that happens in there, there are some people that either can’t come—maybe they don’t drive at night, maybe they live too far away; is there a way to still reach them, through web streaming of concerts, through delayed broadcasts, through “best of” videos like the baseball replays—are there things we can do utilizing technology that will present the art form in a different way? Like the Met Opera broadcasts; I mean, that was brilliant! And, sure, it’s not like being there, you don’t have the energy of being there, but think of how many more people are being reached!
IA: So that’s why you’re involved in so many other aspects, you’re a conductor, but you’re also composing, and you’ve written a book, you do conferences on the book, and you’ve got an educational aspect—
DW: Oh, you’ve done your homework!
IA: Yes. Well, you’re very aware of where we’ve come from, where we are right this minute, and where you want to go to.
DW: I think so, yes. And it costs money, and I think that’s one of the problems. In order to do things differently, not only does the board have to buy in and raise extra money, the administration has to look at different types of staffing, different skill sets. We need much more awareness of the web and of technology. In the past few years we’ve done two concerts where we actually have had screens and we’ve had multi-cameras; that was above what we normally do, but in the future I perceive that that’s going to be standard and that we’ll have this type of knowledge in our staffing.
Sheila Evans, Executive Director, stuck her head in the door at this point and said, “What about staffing?”
DW: Oh, we’re just talking about future trends. We’re going to need more people in the technology area, more video people, more sound people, in order to produce it, to get it out there to a broader mass. Most orchestras don’t have those people on staff.
SE: Well, we don’t pay at the same level that those people who are also in standard for-profit make. And that’s a huge difference. Take social media guys? You can’t hire them for love nor money.
DW: And then the quality level of what we require, requires people that have a knowledge of music. Like even at the National Conference: they were filming, but they weren’t always filming the most interesting things.
IA: They should be able to read the score so that they can zoom in on whichever instruments…
DW: That’s the challenge for moving forward. I think on all levels it’s how do we change the product and then how do we bring it to people in an affordable way.
IA: Now, as far as the repertoire itself, in addition to programming maybe unusual pieces, things besides the old warhorses, you’ve also commissioned works, have you?
DW: Yes, and next season we’re commissioning five fanfares with local composers in honor of our sixtieth anniversary. And they’re fanfare overtures, so they’re like 3-4 minutes long each, and we’re dedicating each piece to someone in our history. So the composers are all calling and asking for more information about the person [their pieces are dedicated to]. But this orchestra, I think once or twice before has commissioned, but it hasn’t done a lot of commissioning, so this is for us a major step forward. These are all both nationally recognized composers, but also people who are in this area. I think that’s very special, when you have people who are teaching at the universities here. John Metcalf, from Kutztown, is going to do one of the fanfares. I think it’s going to be fabulous.
What I’m hoping that this will then spin into, part of my long-term plan, is that we—and it won’t necessarily be these five—but that we will develop some longer-term relationships with three or four composers. We’ve already done this a little bit with Behzad Ranjbaran, where we’ve done three of his pieces over a series of a few years, but so that we’ll work to bring some of these composers back. I would really like to see that they’re not just doing pieces with us at the symphony but I’d love to see if we could figure a system where the composer [plays throughout the community]. I believe that moving into the future, the whole thing is all hinged upon relationships and how we build relationships with both other arts organizations but also with the music people in the area, and so I’d love to see this composer not only be in residency at the Symphony, but have the Youth Orchestra do a piece of theirs the same year; have all five of the municipal bands do a band piece; have the high school orchestras do a piece—and maybe pick four or five [composers], like I said, or three people to do over the course of multiple years, but so that the community gets to know these people, gets to know their musical voice, and it changes the way that they look at new music.
IA: And especially if those people have a part in it, like you said: if the youth symphony and the high school bands and orchestras are playing it, then each of those individual students has a connection with that composer and with that composer’s future, and then with the Symphony, and so on.
DW: Right, right. And so it might be that we’re doing commissions, or it might involved a commission, but just the fact that we would be doing not just a one-time appearance, but where you really get to know more intimately that person’s music. I think it is those types of relationships that are going to help keep us relevant. I see all these people in the band, they play a band piece, they get to know it, and they say, “Oh, I’m curious what he would write for orchestra; I think I’ll go. Then there’s more momentum going back and forth. Same thing: symphonic people from here might say, “Oh, we liked this symphony piece; let’s go see what he does with the band, or let’s go see what he does with my child’s middle school orchestra, or let’s go see what he does with the Bach choir.” If this could be spun out through an entire community, I think it would be very, very exciting. And if you have a variety of composers, maybe three, it also gives choices, so it’s not just one voice. I think we could vote on them: I would narrow it down to maybe ten and then it would be interesting to actually put them up on the website with links to their sites and links to musical clips and then have the audience, have the whole community, narrow down from say, ten or twelve, to which ones we would focus on. Think of the education they’re having when they go and they google links to these people and they listen. That, to me, when we start engaging the audience in the dialogue, and utilizing the internet—it’s amazing what we can do, and we’re not doing it. How do we get actually get that dialogue going?
IA: Right. So you don’t see technology and the democratization of the arts as a threat at all. You’re just bringing it in.
DW: Oh, yes. It’s very exciting. And the only stumbling block, really, is just, like Sheila said, getting the money to really pay people what they need to be paid to do it right so that we can be competitive with that. And we’ve never put money into that area, so it’s a mental shift for us.
IA: Now, you’ve tried some collaborations in the past with other arts organizations. You had Shakespearean actors come in and perform, you had ballet troops. So how does that work, as far as building relationships with other arts organizations?
DW: I think really well, I think really well. It’s interesting because arts organizations, the old model, it tends to be very protective. Everybody’s protective of their mailing lists, their protective of their donors, they’re protective of their turf. I believe that you make more pie. That there’s always more pie. You know, they say everybody wants to protect their piece of the pie, and I say Let’s go get a whole ’nother pie! I believe that synergy is created by working with people and sharing lists and sharing interaction. It helps more to build the arts lovers across the community. You know, we certainly don’t do enough concerts, the orchestra doesn’t do enough concerts to fill the palate of someone who loves classical music. They’re going to go to Bach Choir, they’re going to go to Zoellner, they’re going to go to Philadelphia, they’re going to go to New York. I know that. So why not encourage them to keep their love of the arts in the Valley and encourage them to go to Shakespeare and encourage them to go to Bach as opposed to going outside that. To me, the more we work together I think the better. And I’m always looking for who we can partner with where both art forms are shown at their highest level. I think that’s the challenge, is neither can be put upon the other: it has to be where both are showcasing at their highest level.
IA: And by doing so, you’re even forging almost new art forms. For instance, you mentioned the one multi-media: you took the work of a painter and then you showed, what was it, different little selections from the larger work, details that went along with the piece of music?
DW: Yes, actually, I really liked that project; I’m may have to do it again. It was Grünevald, a sixteen-hundreds painter, and it was an altar for a church. We actually built the altar out of foam boards so that people could come in the lobby and they could open it, they could play with it, they could see it. I mean, it wasn’t huge, it was about this big [perhaps 4”X3”]--my husband actually is an artist and he built it for me. We actually to that to some schools so they could actually see how it was as an altar and open the panels and see how that was. But then what I loved about the musical example [“Mathis der Maler” by Paul Hindemith]: the three movements are actually titled for each of the paintings, so it’s very specifically relating. I never showed the full painting; I only took them into the inside of the painting, so it really was a different look. And I had a great time trying to figure it out; I found the musical moments that I felt something need to happen there, and then I tried to find within that the part of that painting that spoke to me of that color, that sound. I think it was quite interesting and quite powerful, actually. But a lot of work. And I think the challenge is many music directors won’t go the extra mile to do all this extra work, and then they don’t have the staffs to do it for them.
IA: It sounds like you did that yourself.
DW: Yes, I did, and luckily my husband’s my staff; whenever I need visuals, basically, we sit together and he helps me create them, because I can’t. And that’s another thing with changing: I tell Sheila we really need an intern who can help with the visuals, because I think they’re critically important. When we do Carmen here, we’re dropping a scrim behind the orchestra. We’re doing semi-staged, the orchestra will be on stage: the actors, singers, dancers, I have a chorus, I have dancers, I have opera singers, they’ll be in front of me [from the audience’s point of view]--behind me [while I conduct]; I want to have video sets. But I don’t have the skill to do it, so once again I have to find someone who can create cutting-edge so that we can have the feeling of a set without the expense and really be more modern. I saw this done, actually, in Slovakia, and it was great! They used a combination of some stationery sets in front, but basically a video backdrop, and then they could also have moving video.
IA: So you could be doing it in you symphony hall and also on site, in Seville!
DW: Yes, exactly! And so we can create, affordably, a whole different art form, and that’s what I find exciting, but there’s not a lot of time, it’s hard to do all the music and all the other stuff. Now, what I’ll do with this semi-staged Carmen is, we’re not going to do the whole Carmen; it’s a great opera, but most people coming to a symphony concert don’t want a three-and-a-half hour opera…
IA: If they want that, they’ll go to the opera!
DW: …they go to the opera! So what I’ve done is I’ve dropped out some of the auxiliary parts, we will drop out some of the busy sections that don’t really move the plot forward, but I’ll have a narrator instead. And I had to basically go through and put this all together, figure out what sections I’m doing, which ones I’m not doing, you know, get the translation for the narrator; the narration will be in English, all the opera singing will be in French, the original language, with supertitles, and then we’ll have to coordinate the supertitles and all that! So it’s huge, but I think it’s the wave of the future. I think that conductors and staffs are going to end up working harder than ever but the shows we’re going to produce are going to be great. The problem is, like when the Met does an opera, they can do it multiple times. Our problem is, we go to all this work and we do it twice. So my next goal is to figure out how we can perhaps go outside the hall to, say, Quakertown or Stroudsburg, or down to Bucks County, over to Kutztown; how can we, since we put the time and the money into producing something that we think is really quality, how can we actually get more mileage out of it? And I think that’s really the problem with orchestras: it costs so much to produce it, and if you only get one show out of it, it’s not cost effective. And that’s why if we can’t do it live, how can we then, through a video format or an audio format, still get that out to a larger group of people.
IA: That’s a big challenge. I have two other questions I’m thinking of, but they might be a little bit big, so we’ll see how far we can go with them. I want to go back first, to when you were talking about the composers you’re commissioning to write the fanfares, and get a little bit technical for a minute, and talk about their styles. Are they very very different? Do each of them come from a totally different musical language? Would you be able to categorize them in different schools of thought or describe their styles?
DW: Yes. They’re very different and I picked each for different reasons. The composers are: Doug Ovens, who’s at Muhlenberg; Paul Salerni, who’s at Lehigh; Larry Lipkis is at Moravian; John Metcalf is at Kutztown; and Steve Reisteter is actually a member of the orchestra. I wanted diverse styles.
Of those, I would say that Doug Ovens is probably the most complex in that he tends to write not so much tonally as musical gestures. But a very very fine composer, and very compelling music. I like his work. I was also very careful where I placed these on the program depending on what other pieces were going to be done on the same program.
John Metcalf’s style I don’t know as well as the others.
Paul Salerni actually is much more tonal, very melodic; I think a style that people relate to very very quickly. A fine composer, and known nationally and internationally and he’s right here, so that’s really nice.
I would say Larry Lipkis is a little bit between those two, between Doug Ovens and Paul, so Larry has had things premiered by Houston Symphony, major orchestras, but a little angular in his writing, but not as much as Doug.
And then Steve is much more sort of folk-oriented and does arrangements of things for the Allentown Band and more things that I think will be very appealing to the audience on a different level. So I think each of them is very different and I think that they represent the area that we serve. And I really thought it was especially great to have Steve Reisteter who is a member of the orchestra, I think that’s really nice to be able to encourage that also.
IA: That sounds like a great range. It sounds like it covers the various different thoughts about music and where it’s going now too: Are we going to continue going along the avant-garde, atonal road; are we going to go back more to folk roots?
DW: Well, and I think it’s already changed. Not so many people are writing in a very dense style anymore. But people are still utilizing new sounds, and I think what’s the next sort of era is how is the synthesizer, how is the computer sound, how is that all going to be incorporated, because that’s also out there, and because of costs, people are now doing a lot of stuff MIDI, and the MIDI sounds are getting better and better and better—I personally hate them myself, but if you know what you’re doing and if you have a good system I guess you can get them to a point where they’re not the same as the orchestra but they become an art form unto themselves.
IA: So then in your recent composition, I was reading about, you’ve got a lot of extended techniques and even what people would consider not instruments: you brought in sort of environmental sounds…
DW: My composing is very different, and it’s not really premeditated, so the sounds in my first piece, “Mist,” they just seemed like the right sounds for that piece and therefore I put them in there. It wasn’t really that I was trying to be avant-garde or trying to do something different, just those were the sounds that came into my head for that piece, so I wrote them!
IA: That’s how it happens! Great. And one last question; this is kind of jumping back to the multi-media we were discussing, and the new forms: Is this catching on? Are other orchestras, other directors, inventing new ways to do music with technology and with other art? Do you see that happening?
DW: You see it some. There’s a lot of talk about it. I think we’re going to see it more on the regional orchestra level, the small orchestra level, before we’re going to see it on the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra level. Some of that has to do with the unions and the union contracts, because certain things cost a lot more to do, and if you’re tied into a very strict contract, you don’t always have the money budgeted to do this on a different level. I think also on those higher levels the risk is greater and therefore, it’s like an elephant: you can’t necessarily turn him like this [quick 90° jerk to the right]; they’ve been doing a lot of things the same and it’s worked for them, their ticket sales are still good. So I think that they will make the shift, but it will be a very slow turn, like the cruise ship turning, and I’m in a little speed boat!
IA: They want to make sure the audiences are going to come along with them.
DW: Yes. And I think we have to, because I think we have to differentiate ourselves. We’re not the New York Philharmonic; we never will be. We’re not the Philadelphia Orchestra. We have to find what we do that’s different and at the same time I have to serve the area in the fact that there’s no other large orchestra. When we did the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra here, was that a month ago, as far as I know, that was the first live performance of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra in the Lehigh Valley! So I have to recognize that part of my duty is to do these pieces. I remember I had this orchestra in Beaumont, Texas, and we used to joke because it was very very standard repertoire like a Mendelssohn 4th Symphony or something, and we would look to see if we had done it before and we would realize Oh, they haven’t done it, and we would go, “Oh, this is an area premiere!” Because if you are in an area where you are the only orchestra serving that community, sometimes pieces that you think are very standard actually have not been done. And so we have to keep that in mind and look at the history of the orchestra itself to see where are the holes and what pieces should we be doing. So it’s really a puzzle. I’m in the process of surveying the audience right now and hoping to put together a five year artistic plan and it won’t be completely fleshed out, but I want at least some of the big cornerstone pieces that people bring up and say, “Oh, I really want to hear…” and I want to make sure that we can get those on the table now and plan for them. Because some of them may cost money or some of them may require things that we don’t have in place. And I think if we can further out it becomes much more exciting for everybody. But I really want to get some buy-in from the community, because it’s really their orchestra. They’re the other half of the equation. I can sit up there and make all this great music, but if we don’t have an audience, it’s really not much fun. So I want to make sure that they’re on board.