The Art of Making All Things New

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jan Nolting Carter is curating a mosaic of perspectives on the art of transitional ministry. How do we work with people and systems in the midst of change? What does transitional ministry look like inside and outside of the church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Stuart Malina

“Where are the young families?”
“Many people consider us irrelevant to their lives.”
“We need to adapt our offerings to a new world.”
“Our core constituency is old and aging. Who will replace them?”
“Why don’t you lighten things up?”

These are the things I hear week after week. But I am not a pastor of a church. I am the music director of a symphony orchestra. A few months ago, I chaired a committee at my synagogue (a Conservative Egalitarian congregation in Harrisburg, PA) that was charged with reimagining all aspects of synagogue life, and was struck again and again by the similarities of the challenges faced by houses of worship and orchestras across the world.

orchestra transitional minDiagnosing the problem is easy. Many people are disconnected from what we offer – be it great orchestral music or the worship experience. Some feel that it just doesn’t resonate with them or they find it boring. Others have never experienced it and just assume they won’t like it. Still others experience concerts or services as too old-fashioned, too formal and too restrictive. Many younger people consider what we offer to be the music (or spirituality) of old people. There are also too many other options for things to do on a Saturday or Sunday morning (or a Friday or Saturday night).

Coming up with solutions is much trickier. A lot of talk of late focuses on how we can make the concert experience more user friendly. Offer music in smaller bites. Add more audio-visual components. Have the orchestra dress more casually. Allow audience members to tweet during the concerts. And so on. All of these ideas potentially could bring in new people, but they all run the risk of turning off our core constituents. Even worse, they risk altering the essence of what we do.

At its core, what orchestras play, like what churches preach, is to a large degree immutable and sacrosanct. A Brahms symphony is a complete work of art, runs about 45 minutes, needs to be performed by 75 or so players, and is best experienced in a relatively quiet environment with few distractions. The word of God is the word of God.

I firmly believe in the power of great music. I strive to make every performance memorable and wonderful. I know in my heart of hearts that the works we perform have the potential to bring audiences to a higher spiritual plane. On the other hand, it is very dangerous to assume that because something is important to me it is of course important to everyone. I work tirelessly preaching the “gospel” of orchestral music. The ultimate challenge is finding ways to get people in the door once, and letting the experience speak for itself.

stuart malinaStuart Malina is the music director of the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the Florida Orchestra. He is also an active concert pianist and in 2003 won the Tony Award for orchestration with Billy Joel for the musical “Movin’ Out.” Stuart is a good friend of this month’s curator, Jan Nolting Carter, and has been talking with her about our common concerns for nearly a decade.