The Museum Musician

I sit down in my chair, an exact replica of the black chairs used by the New York Philharmonic, plastered to the stage. The stage, constructed in the style of the main stage at Carnegie Hall, is encased by an *almost* perfectly transparent glass box that is designed to let 98% of sound through to the audience at its *almost* truest quality. This box protects the stage from damage and remains in tact throughout the performance. I look out at the empty hall–dark and silent. The audience seats are constructed like the Metropolitan Opera’s, with several levels of blood red velvet seats to the very top, about one hundred feet high. I’m the first on stage because I have a severe case of nostalgia this morning.

We play different programs every week, just as the orchestras did back in the old days–Brahms, Beethoven, Mahler, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Ravel, Debussy, Sibelius, Dvorak, Adams, Glass, Bernstein…the list goes on. Today we’re premiering a violin concerto by the Smithsonian Composer in Residence, one of the few left composing orchestral music. When the orchestra went out of fashion around the middle of the century, when listeners moved on, so did composers. They hopped on with the mixed chamber groups and crossover/cross-discipline ensembles (including a few orchestras, actually) who embraced the developing digital technology, namely virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR). We’ll play this program twice today, once at 11:30 AM and once at 4:30 PM. Nicer hours for orchestral musicians nowadays, that’s for sure.

Today is Monday, February 25, 2086. I am a clarinetist in the Smithsonian Symphony Orchestra, America’s only surviving symphony orchestra. I am seventy years old and in the final weeks of my career. I'm writing this today with a few tears in my eyes, looking back and thinking...what happened?

Nobody trains to play in orchestra anymore. When VR/AR and incredible sound equipment allowed people to hear every orchestra concert of the last several decades even better than they could’ve heard it in the hall, tickets stopped selling. My class was the third to last orchestral music class to graduate from Juilliard (now the Juilliard Institute for Integrative Arts Technology)…and well, here I am.

I look up to my favorite seat in the Dress Circle, front row just to right of center with hopes of seeing the clarinet section better. The exact seat for which I saved hundreds of dollars to see the final performance of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier at the Met, absolutely sobbing in the final trio, the end of two fantasies: (1) the painful moment when the Marschallin finally releases Octavian to embrace his true love for Sophie and (2) the final run of an incredible, longstanding tradition. An institution that crumbled in the face of the insurmountable wall of traditionalism, although it had held the power to knock it down. 

If I could go back fifty, sixty, seventy years even, to a critical time in the identity crisis of the American orchestra, I would pose one question: to what end are you willing to go to preserve tradition? And I’d say…because this is what it looks like…and then I’d hand them a brochure for the Smithsonian Museum of Arts and Culture in Washington, D.C. 

The problem is…musicians didn’t know just how vital a purpose they served in helping people reflect on the emotional landscape of the human experience. Technology has not yet been able to accurately recreate this experience, so young people aren’t really concerned with humanity because they’ve had no opportunity to encounter it.

Music is now a relic, and I would venture to say, so is the human experience. Why couldn’t we understand that tradition isn’t why people love music, it’s because of how human it makes them feel? When they sit in front of seventy musicians in one room participating in a higher purpose, the purpose of emotion and adventure and narrative and philosophy, and people literally feel the overwhelming sensory experience of a glorious climax, why couldn’t we see that this changes people? And that changing people is why orchestral music is so important–not because of concert halls or formalities or rules or traditions. Why couldn't we have held onto this essence and innovated around it more quickly? But it’s too late.

So I’ll go on today, just as I have for the last many years in this job, fighting to hold back tears as the most incredibly miraculous music is reduced to a lifeless artifact recreated for keen observation.