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An Orchestra Fit for Harvard

By Leigh M. Wilson, Contributing Opinion Writer
Leigh M. Wilson ’22 is a Chemistry concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

“Harvard’s arts department [has] got no clout except for association with Harvard like please HRO sounds worse than my high school orchestra. if you were really that passionate about being an artist you would have went to a conservatory.” – Harvard Confession #3108

This anonymous opiner raised an argument we’ve all heard before: that student art is low-quality and that the arts departments (including Music, Art, Film, and Visual Studies, and Theater, Dance & Media) aren’t worthy of Harvard. Several of Harvard’s undergraduate music barons assembled in the comments to condemn this unfortunate post and offer their rebuttals. (Here are five quick counters.)

And their defense of HRO matters: while we can’t know the confessor’s motivations, picking out the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra is an affront to the performing arts at large. HRO stands for the whole, the way a football team might stand in for a school’s entire athletics program.

At Harvard, our musical standard-bearer suffers from an identity crisis: The Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra is an Undergraduate Council and alumni-funded student organization, a 2.0-credit class (Music 10a and Music 10b), and a 501(c)(3) nonprofit all at once. The HRO is also nominally North America’s oldest continuously-operating orchestra, though in its early years it took part in “serenading” more than any kind of serious musical study.

Harvard doesn’t operate a conservatory, and HRO is not a conservatory orchestra, and yet its steely culture at times imitates one. It’s taken for granted that Harvard’s orchestra should exist and put on four concerts a year, but for what? Even for its members, its mission is unclear.

What the HRO does not do is prepare students for careers in music. Few HRO members have plans to play professionally, and giving only two concerts per semester, its schedule would be too light to be an effective training program. Besides, like our disgruntled confessor said, if we had wanted that, we would have gone to a conservatory (although a few of us do).

But HRO is also not purely extracurricular. An HRO tenure signifies some above-average dedication to music, one that won’t disappear after the final concert of senior year; music will certainly play a lasting role in these students’ lives.

HRO instead teaches its musicians the value of live music. That might seem obvious, but as HRO members graduate and enter diverse fields of work, their tenures in HRO will lead them to become patrons of the arts, serving on boards of directors, donating to arts organizations, or simply buying tickets to concerts and shows. This class of supporters, i.e. former musicians, is crucial to the perpetuation of the industry. It makes up audiences in concert halls, consumers of commercial recordings, and classical music advocates out in the world.

Of course, HRO is not the only group that plays such a role on campus. All student music organizations have this same duty to turn their hundreds of members into music supporters. It’s their job to be fun for students, to generate lasting enthusiasm. This is true from the jazz program, to the Harvard Choruses, to the Harvard University Band, the Harvard Wind Ensemble, the Bach Society Orchestra, the Harvard College Opera, and so many more.

Being fun is an elusive ambition, one that happens more often by coincidence rather than by design. Fun in the Harvard Pops Orchestra (“Harvard’s Funniest Orchestra”) will be different from that in HRO (a strong contender for Harvard’s Least Funny Orchestra). HRO’s lack thereof is reflected in its class ratios: at the end of the 2019–2020 season, there were six seniors out of about 80 on the roster. Freshmen and sophomores usually make up the bulk of the group, a sign that HRO loses its appeal as students become upperclassmen. If we let musicians lose their faith, it’ll be a disservice to the future of classical music.

Musician enthusiasm at the college level almost certainly depends on two factors: repertoire choice and institutional support. For various reasons, HRO’s repertoire choices are influenced by considerations other than the will of the musicians. Unengaging music leads to absences, halfhearted commitment, and an enervated culture, and vice versa. To make matters worse, Harvard’s art establishments, including the Office for the Arts and the Music Department, take a relatively hands-off approach to orchestras; few from the outside advocate for HRO, leaving most up to the students themselves.

An orchestra as fine as Harvard’s shouldn’t be taken for granted. HRO at its best sounds like what it is — a group made up of conservatory-level players who happen to also have a penchant for academics. By performing — live or virtually — they serve as an example of what a great amateur orchestra can accomplish. And of course, great performances are the surest way to combat orchestra detractors.

HRO is in a lot of ways representative of the entire classical music industry — filled with extreme talent and potential that often gets, as some say, “no clout.” But attention is free to give. It’s on anyone who enjoys music to support the arts — at Harvard and elsewhere — by tuning them in, instead of tearing them down. Because if an orchestra plays in the forest, and no one is around to hear them, how will we really know they sound worse than your high school’s?

Leigh M. Wilson ’22 is a Chemistry concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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