Brevard Music Center Summer Festival

The Symphony as Occasion

A necessary criterion of any concert experience is: Does it create a sense of occasion? 

In the early heyday of the American orchestra, Henry Higginson’s Boston Symphony, which he founded in 1881, created a sense of occasion every time it performed. There were no radios or recordings: You couldn’t hear an orchestra in your living room. There were only two world-class orchestras in the U.S. at that time: Boston’s and the touring Thomas Orchestra. Higginson’s audience was eager to hear new music like Dvorˇák and Tchaikovsky, as well as the latest works of Boston’s own composers like Chadwick and Beach. The Boston Symphony embodied the culture of the community. So where are today’s success stories? I know of three.

The South Dakota Symphony Orchestra

The South Dakota Symphony Orchestra’s Lakota Music Project

1. The South Dakota Symphony Orchestra

When Delta David Gier became music director of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra in 2004, he discovered himself in a place rife with tensions between Native Americans and non-indigenous inhabitants. He created the Lakota Music Project to link SDSO with half a dozen Indian reservations. I arrived in 2016 as director of Music Unwound, a consortium funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities that consists of orchestras, universities and music festivals pursuing cross-disciplinary thematic programming as an instrument for audience engagement and institutional collaboration. This kind of humanities-infused programming, often taken for granted in the museum world, is a direction orchestras must explore if they are to innovate. 

The first SDSO Music Unwound program took Dvorˇák’s “New World Symphony” to the Lake Traverse Reservation in Sisseton, S.D. This was part of a mega-concert that included a lusty Lakota singing group and a Native American composition combining everyone on stage. The same program explored the relationship between Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha” and Dvorˇák’s symphony. It remembered the “Indianist” movement, of which Longfellow and Dvorˇák were part, in which composers attempted to use Native American lore to fashion artworks that would embody the American experience.

The challenges and opportunities were many and rewarding. I share a single vignette: the long bus ride from Sioux Falls to Sisseton. For the musicians of the SDSO, this was simply business as usual. Their attitude, so far as I could tell, was one of interest and curiosity. I know many other orchestras that would not willingly undertake a three-hour bus ride. 

The Music Unwound “Dvorˇák and America” show investigated programmatic aspects of the “New World Symphony” that remain virtually unknown, not least to conductors and players. These same SDSO musicians, encountering new information about a well-known masterpiece, were exceptionally inquisitive. I would say they were the most engaged musicians I have encountered in a professional American orchestra. The Lakota Music Project is one reason. SDSO also happens to be a non-union orchestra, which means that it enjoys unusual flexibility in figuring out ways in which orchestral musicians can serve the community. It transcends adversarial contract negotiations. It feels like a family. (I add, parenthetically, that the SDSO sounds terrific, tackles a lot of new and unfamiliar music and is currently finishing up a complete Mahler symphony cycle.)

A large open-air venue hosts an orchestra

Brevard Music Center

2. The Brevard Music Center

This is another Music Unwound story. Brevard is an idyllic enclave for aspiring orchestral musicians – rather like Aspen, Tanglewood, Interlochen, etc. It also happens to be driven by a couple of innovators, CEO Mark Weinstein and artistic administrator Jason Posnock. By joining the Music Unwound consortium, Brevard opted for humanities-infused festivals and pedagogy. We started last summer with “Dvorˇák and America,” which included a multimedia symphonic program with a scripted story, an actor and a visual track. The audience devoured it – and the coming challenge is to bring more young musicians on board for a learning experience that transcends music. 

This summer, Brevard undertakes a summer-long Kurt Weill festival. It includes a full production of Weill’s 1946 Broadway opera, “Street Scene” – Brevard has a remarkable opera program. The gifted student vocalists participating in this show also investigate the 1929 play of the same name on which the opera is based. Brevard is an institution in the throes of rapid transition.

The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) String Quartet performs at the border.

The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) String Quartet performs at the border. Photo by Armando Trull for his story “Music at the border, music at the wall”.

3. The University of Texas/El Paso (UTEP) in collaboration with the El Paso Symphony Orchestra

UTEP is a miracle: the American Dream embodied. Ninety percent of the 23,000 students are Mexican-Americans local to El Paso. More than half are the first members of their families to go to college. These students are the hungriest I have ever encountered.

Music Unwound came to El Paso at the invitation of Lorenzo Candelaria, UTEP’s associate provost. Candelaria is also a member of the El Paso Symphony board. The result was instantaneous symbiosis: El Paso’s community-wide Music Unwound festivals seamlessly bind UTEP, the El Paso Symphony and the El Paso public schools, including three in semirural “colonias.” Colonias are certified by the State of Texas as “residential areas along the Texas-Mexico border that may lack some of the most basic living necessities, such as potable water and sewer systems, electricity, paved roads, and safe and sanitary housing.”

El Paso’s recent Music Unwound festival was “Copland and Mexico.” EPSO gave two multimedia programs recounting Aaron Copland’s 1930s Mexican epiphany, in which the example of Mexican artists’ impact on social change helped turn him into a populist. Principally, however, we celebrated a master Mexican composer: Silvestre Revueltas. The iconic film of the Mexican Revolution, “Redes” (1935), was shown with Revueltas’s astonishing score performed live. The cinematographer for “Redes” was Paul Strand, perhaps the greatest American name in the history of photography. This program was also taken across the border to Juarez. And so the festival, situated at the very flashpoint for Mexican/American relations, revisited a galvanizing instance of Mexican/American collaboration.

The Juarez audience was unlike any I have previously encountered at a symphonic performance. Many families attended, filling the hall, an exemplary 10-year-old facility on the campus of the university. Everyone was raptly attentive as we explored the story of the cultural efflorescence that drew figures like Copland, Strand, John Steinbeck, Sergei Eisenstein and Langston Hughes to Mexico.

Another vignette: at East Lake High School, in the East Lake colonia, 500 students sat in the auditorium for a 90-minute presentation about “Redes” and the upcoming EPSO concert. It was my privilege to undertake this assignment. The students were hypnotized by the film’s saga of impoverished fishermen asserting their human rights. Afterwards, I was overwhelmed by their expressions of gratitude.

El Paso next tackles “Kurt Weill’s America.” The core topic is immigration – Weill was a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany. The disciplines of the participating UTEP students and faculty span music, theater, history, Jewish studies and American, British and German literature. This dense pedagogical network feeds the EPSO concerts, which contrast Weill before and after his arrival in the U.S. in 1935. There will be additional museum events and visits to three colonias. 

As surely as when Henry Higginson’s Boston Symphony performed Beethoven or Chadwick, the sense of occasion created by these three exemplary orchestras is certain to uplift and bind.

This essay raises more questions than it answers. My blog “The Unanswered Question” ( has multiple entries on South Dakota, Brevard, El Paso and Music Unwound. 

Joseph Horowitz

The author of ten books, Joseph Horowitz is the pre-eminent historian of classical music in America. Previously Executive Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic at BAM, …more 

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