Divisions in Classical Music Thought
Multiple Versions of what the future of classical music looks like
The idea that people differ on what the future of classical music will sound like is nothing new. Schönberg and Stravinsky didn't get along and had very different (almost explosive) views as to what classical music should be, or where it was headed. Prokofiev felt there was room for both "intellectual" music and for "popular" music in the pantheon of pieces available. Earlier there were those like Liszt or Paganini who felt music should be written for the performer and as complex as possible or the counterpart with composers like Mendelssohn who felt melody reigned supreme. Both schools of thought created great music, but the approach to the final product was very different. So whether your a serialist, minimalist, neo-classicist or some other "-ist" yet to be defined - don't feel the difference of your opinion with someone else's is revolutionary.
I say this because of a recent discussion around Steve Reich's comments in The New York Times "The Score" about the orchestra of the 21st century being a museum, an archaic ensemble form. I don't want to take his words out of context and what he was saying is not that the orchestra was destined to die. Rather, a new wave of smaller ensembles should be just as prevalent - for the most part I agree.
The symphony orchestra has been around since the days of Bach reaching a zenith in the early 20th Century with Mahler. There is still plenty of contemporary music being written for the orchestra, but not to the same scale as what Mahler demanded. John Williams is a prolific composer that loves the orchestra and uses it effectively. Howard Shore, Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer all are film makers that make their living composing orchestral scores. Yes, a film orchestra is considerably smaller (during the recording process) than a standard concert orchestra. But when these pieces are performed live that are not propped by synthesized sounds so full (even larger than normal) orchestras are required. The tour of Star Wars music is a testament to just this sort of event. Yes these are film composers, but only an example of some very famous current composers who write for orchestra.
There problem is most people are taking it that Steve Reich says the orchestra is or should be dead. These “most people” are generating a lot of noise as to how ensembles will look in the future based - and part of this is in relation to the shape of music being composed. Certainly there is a trend for modern atonal composers to want to allow for space and scarcity in their scores. John Adams (a modern composer) writes beautifully, yet sparse for the orchestra. Ever since Webern allowing tonal colors to be isolated and appreciated is more and more common. However, Webern utilized a full orchestra for many of his pieces as do other "atonal" orchestral composers of today. There are just fewer instruments playing at any given time to allow for the sound to have space.
It is easier to have this sort of space using smaller ensembles, fewer voices to concern yourself with. If you're using extended techniques, often these techniques doesn't produce the same volume of sound as standard performance practices so there is a need for less orchestration during these moment. With atonal music the concept that all pitches have equal weight is easier to hear with smaller ensembles, not that this is limited to atonal music by any means. All of this points to the use of smaller ensembles, but this doesn't mean these ensembles are the only version of the future of classical music. That would be like saying now that we have electric guitars there is no use for acoustic one – when even amplified acoustic guitars sound different than electric ones. Symphony orchestras are a different sound than small ensembles. Intimate music doesn’t translate very well to the large ensemble of the orchestra, and by the same token, full forces are hard to match with a small ensemble.
So what of electronics and the use of synthesized voices? While this is effective for "simulating" orchestral sounds for use in film and background music, it isn't to the point of replacing live performance sound. Non-orchestral electronics, taped, synthesizers and other such have been used with orchestras for some time now, but what I don't feel is real for live performance is simulated orchestral sounds to limit the number of players necessary on stage.
There is also a lot of great ensemble/chamber music that doesn't tend to get the 'featured' performances as symphony orchestras get today. Part of that may be the sheer numbers of performers in an orchestra, so to "break even" an orchestra needs to have a much larger hall with a lot more paying audience. But some great performers, Hilary Hahn did a recital tour last Summer with Valentina Lisitsa on piano at much smaller venues than when she was performing with the Baltimore or Liverpool Symphony Orchestras. These were still stunning performances.
The orchestra isn't dead, or even dieing – nor is it a museum piece. Maybe, with the economic climate, it may be more difficult for orchestras to make a profit (or even keep the lights on). Many are taking voluntary cuts to keep functioning - because the desire to have them still exists. Beyond the professional orchestras, there are a plethora of amateur orchestras which are really. If symphony orchestras were museum pieces we wouldn't have so many people want to both play in them and go to their concerts. As the Scot's would say, "There's always room for one more."