Philip Kennicott has his first new article in three years up over at the New Republic, and it’s a doozy. It ostensibly covers the 2013 edition of the annual meeting of the League of American Orchestras (the management counterpart to the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, or ICSOM) [full disclosure, I serve as the webmaster for ICSOM]. Curiously, the lede concerns the Nashville Symphony’s recent financial woes (including the near foreclosure and auction of its new concert hall) and predicts “complex and rancorous negotiations” with the musicians. This about a week after a tentative agreement was reached in Nashville. Surely this could have been edited for the online edition (I would assume the print edition went to press at least a month ago).
This quibble aside, the article is a good guide to how orchestras in America have come to view their primary ‘product’ – serious classical music – as something of an albatross, and have increasingly turned to pops and specials to prop up their business model. Increasingly, according to Kennicott and the League attendees,
many top orchestra leaders acknowledge that many of their innovations—educational programs, diversity and outreach efforts, musical healing events at hospitals and hospices, community concerts away from the orchestra hall—have not yielded anything encouraging when it comes to enticing new audiences. “But it’s the right thing to do,” they say, regardless.
Orchestras are also faced with increasingly cumbersome and often self-contradictory CBA’s (if you’ve ever had to parse an orchestra’s contract between its musicians and management, you know what a Sisyphean task this can turn out to be, due to the accumulation of layers and layers of clauses negotiated by years of insults to each side, both real and imagined), and a swing away from subscription to single concert sales models (which cost up to three times more to market).
Kennicott takes the novel tack of comparing the current state of the American orchestras to the Catholic Church after the adoption of Vatican II. It’s a very cogent look at the problems facing orchestras in American these days, but it deserves an equally accomplished look at what the potential solutions might be.