Everything New is Old Again: Minna Choi, Kapellmeister for the 21st Century

There has of late been much hand-wringing over the future of the orchestra.  And for good reason.  Orchestras are filing for bankruptcy left and right – and not just mid-level orchestras like Syracuse and Honolulu, but top-tier orchestras like Philadelphia.  In recent months, WQXR asked five experts to address the question, “Are American orchestras are an endangered species?”  Joseph Swenson told The New York Times, “huge institutional orchestras are like imperialist armies that have over-extended themselves.” And Norman Lebrecht at the British magazine Standpoint declared a crisis of global proportions: “Realists are demanding to know exactly what a city of six million wrestling with post-industrial decline gains from having a costly and cumbersome musical pantechnicon.  Who needs a symphony orchestra?  That’s what they are asking, the world over.”

For every doomsayer predicting the extinction of the orchestra in this discussion, there is an optimist declaring the orchestra immortal as the jellyfish.  In the above mentioned WQXR video, Raymond Hair cites data that Americans continue to spend money on the performing arts, and concludes that the survival of the orchestra as we know it simply requires better management.  According to Norman Lebrecht at Standpoint, we need orchestras now more than ever because “the symphony orchestra is our relief from the communicative addiction”:

the symphony orchestra will always survive — not on the weary old argument that it is somehow “good for you” to listen to “good music”, nor on any cod theories that classical music breeds clever kids and better citizens, but simply because there is a cogent human need for what an orchestra adds to the relief of city life. That need becomes ever clearer as the world speeds up.

Sounds good.

Except for the reality that the symphony orchestra as we know it is an institution of the industrial age, and we are living in an information age.  The former prized monumentality at any cost, fidelity to the self-expression of the artistic genius, and the eternal perfection of the work of art; the latter prizes efficiency, sustainability, interactivity and the particularity of now.

Which is why the future of the orchestra may look something like this:

The Magik*Magik Orchestra, as their website says, “is a modular orchestra with a focus on collaboration.”  By modular, they mean that they play in any configuration, from a soloist or string quartet up to their full roster of 60+ musicians.  By a focus on collaboration, they mean that they play primarily with (rock) artists seeking instrumentalists for their recording or performance projects.  And by orchestra, they mean what you would expect: an organization of conservatory-trained musicians on classical Western instruments, who play together under the direction of a conductor – in this case Minna Choi, also the orchestra’s founder.

Here’s a sample of the Magik*Magik Orchestra in action, in concert with the Dodos (please forgive the sound quality):

Now, before you dismiss Magik*Magik as a back-up pops orchestra, not a real orchestra, consider Minna Choi’s response to an interviewer at The Bay Bridged, who asked “What do you think separates Magik*Magik from other orchestras, musically or culturally, or in terms of the organization’s aesthetic?”  Situating her orchestra in relation to the type of orchestras now declaring bankruptcy, Choi replied:

Most orchestras today exist as stand-alone entities. They perform season concerts, and sometimes have guest artists come in to play with them, but almost everything they do is just the orchestra. Magik, however, is almost entirely collaborative, so we’re always supporting or playing with a band, we rarely perform just by ourselves. Also, it’s one of our goals to be as accessible to everyone as we can, and I think that people see us that way–a band who has never worked with orchestra players before can come to Magik and get an arrangement written for their song, and an awesome group of players to track the song.

Magik*Magik is now the “orchestra in residence” at Tiny Telephone, a studio frequented by indie rock artists for whom Choi writes chamber/orchestral arrangements to order, and leads her musicians on demand.  This indeed sounds nothing like the orchestra of the industrial age, with its regular schedules and timeless works.  But it sounds quite a bit like the orchestra of another age – the one we call the Age of Enlightenment.

In the eighteenth century, composers and musicians were employed by courts or churches to provide music on demand, whether the occasion be a religious service, a political ceremony, or a social entertainment.  The composer who wrote the music for the occasion also directed the performance – he was in charge of the musicians and responsible for satisfying the musical needs of his employers.  Such a director was called a Kapellmeister, and it was as Kapellmeister that Bach composed his Brandenburg Concertos, and Haydn his Farewell Symphony (to give just two examples that, by later standards, transcended their immediate purpose) .

Minna Choi is the Kapellmeister for the 21st-century.

In the late eighteenth century, the court orchestra went into decline.  This decline resulted from the same factors that enabled the birth of the orchestra as an independent, public institution (namely, industrialization and the rise of the middle class).  Just as Haydn’s princely employer dismissed the staff of musicians from the court at Esterháza, a musical entrepreneur contracted Haydn to present new symphonies in public concerts in London.  Court patronage and ticket-purchasing public – at the end of the eighteenth century, the latter replaced the former as the economic foundation of the orchestra.  Now the pendulum swings back to patronage, with the difference that indie rock artists, rather than royality, are the patrons.

By being the Orchestra of the Information Age, Magik*Magik revives a long dormant tradition of orchestral music made to order, on demand, for the moment.  Whether this model will take over from the symphony orchestra as we have known it for the last century, will coexist with that orchestra, or will remain a unique experiment remains to be seen.  But to use Joseph Swenson’s words, the Magik*Magik Orchestra suggests one way that “the new modern symphony orchestra will once again be a living, breathing, flexible and curious organism.”

The Orchestra of the Future?

2 Comments on “Everything New is Old Again: Minna Choi, Kapellmeister for the 21st Century”

  1. Great writing! I look forward to reading more of it.


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