No one could blame Gil Rose for smiling when he learned who was among the 2016 Grammy Award nominees in the Contemporary Classical Composition category:
“Norman: Play,” Andrew Norman, composer
(performed by Gil Rose and Boston Modern Orchestra Project, [affectionately known as BMOP])
He won’t know whether the recording will win the Grammy until the February 15th ceremony, but it would be a welcome 20th birthday present for BMOP, which he founded in 1996 with the intention of keeping the classical repertoire vibrant and relevant in today’s culture.
Rose—who earned his master’s degree in music performance (conducting) from Carnegie Mellon University in 1991—focuses on newly composed music or seldom-performed works from the past 100 years. He has been recognized as one of the new generation of American conductors shaping the future of classical music. With a stable of contract musicians, BMOP has 150 performances to its credit over the years, including the premieres of 100 works, 30 of them commissioned. In 2008, Rose launched the acclaimed record label BMOP/sound, which has released 50 titles and garnered five previous Grammy Award nominations.
Despite BMOP’s substantial track record, it’s an ongoing struggle, he says with a rueful laugh, claiming he has the scars to prove it. No multi-million-dollar budget here. BMOP is lean and nimble—three employees in addition to Rose. “The fact that I have a staff of three, not 30 or 300, makes day-to-day work hard. We all get frustrated or feel like we’re really up against it. But then I remind everybody we’re doing God’s work here.”
Sometimes doing God’s work gets recognition. In addition to the Grammy nomination, this past October BMOP was named ensemble of the year by Musical America, which is one of the leading resources for the performing arts, as more than 24,000 musicians and professionals in nearly 100 countries actively engage with the organization’s news, information, and data. Suffice it to say, “It’s a big honor,” Rose proudly states. He can’t help pointing out that BMOP is the first orchestra to receive the award. “The New York Philharmonic didn’t get it. The Boston Symphony didn’t get it. We got it. And the reason we got it is because we are doing something different.”
To give a sense of how different BMOP is, look no further than a November 22 performance. The date was chosen to mark what would have been the 90th birthday of composer Gunther Schuller, who died last June. Schuller was a Pulitzer Prize–winning composer and conductor and former president of the New England Conservatory of Music. The centerpiece of BMOP’s concert was the staging of The Fisherman and His Wife. One of only two operas written by Schuller, it had been staged only once, nearly half a century ago.
“These kinds of resurrection projects have challenges. This one especially had more than its share,” says Rose, adding that the orchestra parts and the scores are full of questions. “But it’s a major theatrical work by an important American composer, and if I wasn’t performing it and hadn’t done the heavy lifting to secure the funding needed to record it, I can guarantee you that it would not ever see the light of day.”
It deserves an audience for several reasons, he points out. Besides the score by Schuller, the libretto was written by John Updike, and the lone performance was conducted by world-renowned impresaria Sarah Caldwell on May 7, 1970: “Whatever tension or product is created by the collision of those three personalities is definitely worth the hearing.”
Besides being an advocate for a bolder repertoire, Rose has fashioned BMOP to restore the balance between the composer and the performer. In fact, he says, BMOP is his attempt to recreate what he calls Beethoven’s recipe, where the composer writes the piece and organizes the concert. “Not composer goes to existing organization to try to get that piece played on subscription series,” he says. “There was no such thing as a subscription series. The subscription series has done more damage to classical music than almost any thing I can think of. And it’s dying.”
He elucidates: “Composer writes piece, composer organizes performers to perform piece, composer markets piece, composer sells tickets, composer takes part of gate. Composer goes off, and players disband and get paid, hopefully, and composer writes new piece. That’s what created a Beethoven symphony—so something about that recipe had to be right. Of course, you had a great composer. You also had an interesting time. Pieces were written about, or greatly influenced by, the events of the day and the aesthetic of the day. You have a public who understands that the composer has something to say, so they go to the concert. And the composer moves music forward, and such excellent things result from this that even today they have something to say to us. They’ve become universal.”
Elizabeth Bloom, classical music critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, herself a percussionist, believes that Rose may have a point when it comes to the future of classical music in regard to subscription series: “I see a lot of parallels between the industry that I work in and the industry I cover—classical music and traditional print journalism.”
Both entities, she says, have always measured themselves in terms of subscribers. But with the rise of technology, cultural changes, even changing immigration patterns, the traditional ways that people consume culture have changed. Talk of graying classical music audiences is nothing new, she says, pointing out that before the end of the 1920s, the average age of a classical music audience member was 30. “What’s so bad about old people anyway?” she laughs. But she then considers what will happen when the longtime subscribers are gone: “Assuming they’re not going to be replaced on the sort of wide level that supported subscription bases for much of the 20th century—which I think is fair to say—then how do you address that?”
No worries, Beethoven’s not going anywhere, predicts Denis Colwell, head of CMU’s School of Music. In fact, not only is Colwell optimistic about the future of classical music, but he’s looking forward to being surprised by the shape it takes.
Like Rose, he sees an important role for the artist-entrepreneur. “Nowadays, I’m more concerned about our students having a more creative, all-encompassing breadth of vision about what classical music can be or should be or how can it be delivered in a new way,” he says. “Beethoven will speak to people 150 years after our deaths. Just as he did 150 years ago. It’s that powerful a music. It’s that brilliant a piece of art. The older I get, the more classical music I hear, the more I understand the language, the more I speak the language, the more powerful that message becomes. It’s when you get stuck there that bad things happen. There are living composers who are also writing things that are powerful, but we don’t get a chance to hear them.”
Colwell has had a few chats with Rose over the years on the outlook for classical music. He calls BMOP/sound the most important recording project in classical music in the past 30 years. “Gil is doing an enormous service not only to the composers that he’s serving, but the public, who will then have these pieces preserved in a very high-quality way in perpetuity. My hat is off to him. What he’s doing is nothing short of remarkable. I want our kids to think this way.”
Colwell’s “kids” are what he describes as among “the most talented and ambitious” musical students in the world; and, at CMU’s School of Music—“a conservatory of the highest order,” which is among the top music schools, according to several respected rankings—the students are under the tutelage of world-class performers and teachers who Colwell says know first-hand how to achieve success in a changing, challenging marketplace.
Of course, he says, there’s no shortcut to musical artistry:
“It’s still going to take the same number of hours to learn to play the violin properly as it did 50 years ago. And here’s the critical part—and it’s not well understood—but in order to become a musician, all those hours with that particular violin, you’re not only learning the violin, you’re also training yourself to understand the language of music. You’re learning to speak that language. You’re learning to manipulate those sounds so they will have an impact on the listener. Those hours still need to be put in there. But it’s not enough.”
CMU, he says, wants a person who plays violin very well, but who can also think. “And then we want to educate them, starting with the instrument they’re playing, but then extending more into a broadly defined education, taking advantage of what this university can offer. This is a place where someone can come and study violin or piano, at a very high level, and if that’s all they want to do, yes, they can do that. Nobody’s going to bother them in their practice room. But we encourage them by many different methods to take advantage of what else the university has to offer. And be smart about it.”
The IDeATe and BXA programs at Carnegie Mellon, for instance, allow students to combine music with a major or minor in another area. “You could have an emphasis or concentration in sound design, for example,” Colwell says. “Now, you could ask, ‘Denis, what are you going to do with a violin performance degree and sound design minor?’ I have no idea! And that’s the beautiful part about it. It’s like the Wild West. You can’t predict what you’re going to do with these seemingly disparate skill sets. You’re supposed to connect those two things in ways that no one expects or no one can see happen. You invent a new path. It’s that sort of thing that we aim kids toward. We want them thinking much more broadly than we were ever taught to think so many years ago.”
He won’t go so far as to say, as Rose does, that the old institutions are crumbling under their own weight. “I wouldn’t put it that way. But they are becoming marginalized. So we need our students to plot their own paths and become entrepreneurial and creative.”
Colwell will get no argument from CMU artist-lecturer Lance LaDuke, who jokes about having so many different roles at CMU that his business card is “8.5x11.” He teaches euphonium and music business, coaches brass chamber groups, and is the coordinator of creative and special projects—an indeterminate title that allows him to tackle boundary-pushing kinds of projects. His versatility also makes him the perfect person to advise the freshman class of musicians. He talks to them from day one about developing what he calls a “portfolio career”—the vocational version of a diversified investment portfolio.
“Let’s say you play with a regional orchestra, and you do some teaching on the side, and you have a chamber group. The regional orchestra is really fun but doesn’t pay that much. The teaching thing might not be as fun for some, but it’s very dependable,” he says. “I’m always preaching until the kids’ eyes roll back in their heads. It’s about living indoors and eating food. That’s what your mom and dad want, and that’s what you’re going to want before you get out of here,” he says. “And then you have this chamber group that is the art. You can’t wait to get back together with this group. And if you make it big, then great, you can make a career of it. If not, you still have steady income streams, and you’re still making music.”
LaDuke believes the classical music industry is “ripe for disruption.” And CMU—where students say things like: I want to become a virtuoso pianist while also building robots—has an opportunity to be the source of that disruption and innovation. “If we look back on this time in even 10 years, I think we’ll see new models, new ways of enjoying music, new ways of experiencing people performing instruments live,” he says. “The paradigms are such that when people think of classical music they think big orchestral concert, which leaves all the recitalists out. It leaves opera out. It leaves chamber music out. It leaves new music ensembles out. It leaves hybrid ensembles out. It leaves crossover ensembles out.”
In LaDuke’s fertile imagination, future audiences of serious music might enjoy that music with the help of experiential design. Holograms, virtual reality, and robots aren’t out of the question. “We have all the tools we need right here on campus. It’s ripe for the picking.”
Haydn, Handel, and holograms? Just like Gil Rose’s musical pursuits, it’s not the same old, same old.