Y Music 10: Job or Vocation: What is an orchestra for?

When poet Dana Gioia gave the 2007 Commencement Address at Stanford University, he used the occasion to deliver an impassioned argument for the value of the arts and arts education.

“Art is an irreplaceable way of understanding and expressing the world,” said Gioia. “There are some truths about life that can be expressed only as stories, or songs, or images.”

The Arts have been the core of human culture for millennia, and the contemporary orchestra will do well to remember, and be inspired by, its own ancient origins. The “orchestra” was originally the space in front of the stage in ancient Greek theatre – the place where the chorus sang, danced and commented on the action of the Principals on stage. The word literally means “dancing place” (and didn’t come to mean an ensemble of instrumentalists until well into the Eighteenth Century). Ideally the contemporary orchestra is still a “dancing place” where humanity’s inner emotional, mental and philosophical life is fleshed out and made explicit by the intense cooperation and interaction of a group. This kind of orchestra can illuminate our lives and thus be a dynamic force for good in society.

Music has so many well researched benefits – heightened cognition, stress relief, ecstatic experience, recovery after surgery, improved spatial awareness, improved academic performance, increased empathy to name but a few. I believe the ideal orchestra of the 21st Century is a “dancing place” where all the benefits of music for society can be researched, developed, enjoyed and shared. To take just two examples, the orchestra is perhaps the most cooperative human system ever invented. It has an exquisite feedback mechaanism to which every member is attuned, and as such can be an inspiring model for organisations large and small, particularly in the business world. One of my own special interests – enabling great musicians from Eastern musical cultures to work with leading western orchestras on a deep level – demonstrates the role orchestras can play in cultural understanding. If we can explore in depth the issues the process of globalisation throws up in a safe artistic arena, the politics of globalisation are less fraught with danger.

Orchestras themselves need to live up to their potential to inspire. An orchestra should be a place which enables individuals to develop to their full potential. Crucially for both musicians and management it means that the orchestra is not just a passive employer of their skill. It should be a place where skill is utilised and developed both on the concert platform and throughout the community for the whole of a working life. The incredible integration of minds that takes place as a fine orchestra unfolds, for example, the human journey from darkness to light in Beethoven’s 5th Symphony needs to reverberate throughout the whole organisation and out into the community. The whole orchestra team need to be inspired by this level of human integration and cooperation if they are to inspire society. Then the orchestra can really begin to demonstrate all of the concrete benefits of music. I believe that once orchestras begin doing this in a coordinated manner, their relevance to contemporary society will be impossible to ignore, and if they really prove their relevance to society, they will become sustainable. They can then become “dancing places” again – a crucible for humanity to truly explore, reflect on and celebrate its place in the world.

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