another crisis article – where are the solution articles?

newrepPhilip 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.


8 Replies to “another crisis article – where are the solution articles?”

  1. Those with the expertise and answers are smart to keep some of the cards to themselves… as there is an overabundance of failed schemes and ideas out there. Big budget orchestras have, in a lot of cases, alienated themselves from their local and outlying communities by their own pedestal creation. Local freelance musicians are often the most “snubbed” by these behemoths. A few “chosen” musicians are used in a substitute pool (orchestras use at any given time 10-20% subs without benefits…freelancers). There can evolve an active insurgency in the local musician population against these “haves” and the free-lancers…”have-nots.” Try getting a gigging sax player in any metropolitan area to care about the plight of the contracted orchestra musician… my understanding is that was the rift that broke the Seattle Symphony Orchestra members away from the AFM in the 70’s…(don’t quote me… I was ten and still a dreamy eyed kid imagining the joy of being a musician when I grew up).
    Any musician that has subjected him or herself to a battery of audition processes knows the ludicrousness of that process. The unhappy orchestra musician often uses the analogy of what a community pays to have a baseball team in their town, but that’s a flawed perspective (in my humble opinion). It would be better for the modern orchestra musician to ask what an auto technician makes doing your brakes or water pump… and work from there… not many people sympathize with how much a horn costs, how expensive your lessons were even before conservatory, and how many years you’ve lived off ramen… we are not baseball players (even if a section cellist thinks the neighbors should like them as much as a baseball player).
    Musicians are not united… there are plenty of fiddle players out there ready to undercut the next person… that is what really needs to be talked about. There is no loyalty… because we all know that (if you’ve ever done brake work… which I have) even Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra or a summer playing Wagner… still beats the hell out of brake work at almost any price…

  2. wow, that’s quite an article!


    shhh, it’s NOT more pink, storm, boz & pinkie pickin’ the same old tired grin. all dat stuph provides is temporary till pimp that briefly band-aids the entrance to the tar pits.

    as for a REAL solution, heck, it could be to unplug the artificial life support, scale back & take it from the top . . .

  3. Not quite apropos of your post, Charles. But I wanted to say belatedly that I really enjoyed this past spring’s Classical Up Close, where I got to hear rarely performed music (Dvorak wind serenade!). It was also brilliant PR / outreach that underlined the relationship between musicians and listeners. Could the OSO have an ongoing chamber series? Other orchestras do. Instead of the pop music extensions, OSO could expand into other forms of classical music (“core competency” in business argot): “non-standard” chamber music of instrumentalists & voice ensembles (i.e., not just string quartets). There’s a huge amount of great literature, which rarely gets played. Only the short CMNW summer season in Portland provides something comparable — and these concerts often seem to sell out. Maybe include visiting soloists? My 2 ¢s.

    1. Hi Johnny,
      Shameless plug alert! 🙂 45th Parallel’s March 18th concert may be an example of what you are talking about. The program includes Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night, Brahms’s B-flat Major Sextet and the U.S. premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies’s 2009 work, The Last Island. All pieces on the program are for string sextet. Performers will include Sarah Kwak, Hamilton Cheifitz, Nancy Ives, Vali Philips, Jennifer Arnold, Adam LaMotte and yours truly.. More info at:


  4. It is unfortunate that many orchestras have to rely on popular, special concerts to meet their budgets, but until major donors (private and business) step up to the plate, this style of programming will continue, because it works, at least in the short run. I wish that Kennicott would have given a least one quote from an attendee at the LAO conference that he/she was in a panic or slightly manic. Quoting LAO president Jesse Rosen does not justify the level of anxiety that Kennicott cites. Was there any yelling or screaming? Any hand-wringing? Any sack-cloth-and-ashes? Kennicott didn’t bother to find out if anyone from the administration of the Minnesota Orchestra attended. What the hell kind of reporting is that? Oh, it’s not a report. It’s just a critical assessment. One of those arm-chair things. Kennicott writes well, but there’s nothing new in his article.

    By the way, did anyone from the Oregon Symphony or from Portland attend the ICSOM conference last week? If so, I’d love to interview him/her for Northwest Reverb.

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