Commentary: The separate-but-equal programming by U.S. orchestras

Cellist Peter Sachon on his blog Thoughts On The Symphony, 9/14/12   

In programming, the choices available to orchestras are severely limited by the classical industry's insistence that symphonic genres submit to a caste system. Bread-and-butter classical symphonic music is naturally the top caste, with places in the middle for New York Times-approved composers. At the bottom you will find the untouchables -- movie music, Broadway, and video game music. A genre's caste level is inversely proportional to its popularity in the larger culture -- therefore, nothing can be both popular and "good" at the same time. This is not about adding another pops series or doing more pre-fab movie concerts; that's old-paradigm thinking. This is about using all the available repertory together, on each and every concert, to make orchestras more vital and relevant artistic entities. This caste system also limits whether a symphony can achieve meaningful musical experiences across a broad enough base of people who can fund its existence. With the current system, particular kinds of new music are meant for particular kinds of audiences. Classical subscription concerts are for traditionalists. Modern music concerts are for students and critics. Pops concerts are for other people. It's as if orchestras do not want the various audiences to be in the same room at the same time. This tacit snobbery is rotting the foundations of our American orchestras. Separate but equal is not the country that we aspire to be.  Anyone from Erich Wolfgang Korngold to Howard Shore are mostly verboten everywhere but pops concerts. No matter that Korngold was thought of by Mahler, Strauss, and Puccini as a prodigy akin to Mendelssohn or Mozart. Or, that Shore's The Lord of the Rings symphony is a cultural touchstone that is routinely selling out concerts in very large venues. Doesn't the symphony want those people too?  By allowing American symphonic music under a bigger tent and dumping the caste system we could not only see the symphony and our place in American culture differently, we can also make the symphony into an engaging cultural entity. It could lead to programming that is interesting, popular, and truly challenging. It could create new corporate and donor possibilities, and give orchestras the inclusive creative energy that's been long absent from the concert hall. That would benefit everyone. You say you want challenging programming. Try taking all of American symphonic music seriously. The audience already does.


Commentary: A separate-but-equal ballet program by female choreographers  

Theodore Bale, CultureMap Houston, 9/2/12 

As much as I dislike the name for Houston Ballet's second program of the upcoming season, Women@Art, I can't wait to see the show.  If you were lucky enough to see Twyla Tharp's Come Fly With Me at the Hobby Center in April, you'll be even more dazzled by this brilliant choreographer's peculiar take on classicism, The Brahms-Haydn Variations. I remember feeling dizzy from the density and details when American Ballet Theatre premiered it 12 years ago It is a perfect vehicle for Houston Ballet's talented artists, and an undisputed masterpiece in the ballet canon. Canadian-born Julia Adam created Ketubah, which focuses on aspects of a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony, for Houston Ballet in 2004. Since I know nothing about her, I am really looking forward to watching the piece, which apparently "showcases the natural humor and story-telling style of the affable choreographer."  Also from Canada but now based in New York is Aszure Barton, who is likely putting the finishing touches on her world premiere for Houston Ballet as I write. It will be intriguing to see what sorts of artistic matters she is concerned with at present and how the company handles her challenging style. But really, Women@Art? There is something about it that is worrisome, as if these ballets by female choreographers are best grouped together on a separate-but-equal program. As if they were created by Tweeting, Facebook-friendly femmes.  Wouldn't their work be better served if it were simply integrated into the general programming over an indefinite period into the future? Tharp's The Brahms-Haydn Variations, for example, could have been included in a Houston Ballet program titled Journey with the Masters, which opens in May. Oh, wait, that features Jiří Kylián, George Balanchine, and Jerome Robbins. Men, only men.


Museum addresses separate-but-equal experience for disabled visitors   

Barbara Mader,, 8/20/12  

The Boston Museum of Science is taking a unique approach to enable its exhibits to become more accessible to people with special learning needs. Anna Lindgren-Streicher, Project Manager, Research & Evaluation, [said]: "The museum began designing exhibits to be handicap accessible over 25 years ago.  The first area that was addressed was physical handicaps." Over the last 5-10 years the museum has actively addressed accessibility to learners with a wide range of disabilities, including autism, learning disabilities and cognitive disabilities. Lindgren-Streicher said, "In order to reach the widest possible audience, the exhibit teams at the Museum of Science and their associated contractors and collaborators employ a universal design approach to content development and design. A commitment to a universal design approach means that the exhibit teams will work to create experiences that are accessible and educational for a broad range of visitors along the spectrum of able to disabled. Universal design also acknowledges that the design of environments and exhibits can determine whether visitors are "able" to engage in an activity and learn from it. It also reflects a desire to create environments that promote inclusion, not "separate but equal" experiences for people with disabilities," Lindgren-Streicher said.  Currently the museum is experimenting with several design approaches to exhibits under development or refurbishment. To accurately gauge effectiveness of proposed designs and changes to current designs, the museum publicly asked for volunteers with a variety of disabilities to come to the museum and try out new design ideas. For a two week period, over 30 groups including visitors with disabilities are trying out design ideas with seven exhibits. The current exhibits addressed include the areas of health and human biology, energy conservation, natural history and collection, skill of engaging in scientific process, and the technology behind creating animated movies. Lindgren-Streicher said the object of the proposed changes is to "see if kids with special learning needs can or can't engage with the exhibits with peers and families. We want all people to have a socially engaging experience together." 


Commentary: Arts and sciences, separate but equal  

Jeffrey Bardzell, response to a post "Conservatives Killed Liberal Arts," 9/14/12  

The "two cultures" of the arts vs. (not and) the sciences is a major issue. For various reasons, our society takes sciences more seriously than the arts. (Just look at the reward sizes of typical NSF vs NEA grants, or salaries and employment rates of graduates of science vs. arts programs, or who we give H1 visas to and for what.) The wedge between the arts and sciences -- which is epistemological and political and waged from both sides -- makes them "separate but equal" in the historical sense of that phrase (i.e., not at all equal!). While the sciences make an obvious case for their own state support (technological innovation, etc.), the humanities have not been as successful since the 1960s. It used to be that people believed that teaching Great Books made us model citizens. But the humanities were among the first to deconstruct that argument as ideological. And they were right: there is a problem with only reading dead white men. But if we don't teach dead white men, then what can we teach that the public will agree should be taught? Multiculturalism and grand theory have been two answers proffered since the 60s, but (I'm stating a fact, not advocating for it) these have not achieved consensus in the way that dead white men had in the past. I also think that the humanities themselves have their more recent origins (since the 19th century) in upper class culture. If only well-to-do men could go to college, then all that Latin and TS Eliot and critical thinking was another way they could demonstrate their fitness for their white collar professional jobs over everyone else. But with college becoming more accessible since the 1950s, the class alignment has changed, and people have become more specialized in order to be competitive. Of course, a concerted cross-generational conservative political attack on critical thinking and the humanities hasn't helped. But neither has the hard turn to postmodern theories that to the public just sound it just seemed like a waste of public resources -- not saying I agree!  Anyway, my point is that we humanists need to make our own case for public support of what we can offer -- and this is a slow and long-term commitment. Critical thinking is a very good argument and I agree with it. I think we can strengthen that argument with a more compelling rapprochement with scientists and technologists than humanists and scientists/technologists have collectively done so far (it's a two-way street).

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