wherefore art thou, symphony orchestra?

What is going on with the symphony orchestra in America? Is it dying? There have been several high-profile bankruptcies in recent years, some resulting in the complete shutting down of operations. But there is the conviction that something has to be done. There is talk of a business model that is broken, but not many constructive ideas for what this supposedly broken model should morph into. A recent article by Phillip Kennicott blames the diffusion of the orchestra’s primary mission by educational initiatives and navel-gazing searching for a supposedly lost cultural relevancy. But perhaps the real problem is two opposing constituencies so thoroughly entrenched in their well-meaning but ultimately self-destructive ideologies that they have lost sight of the fact that they are two halves of a whole (or two thirds of a whole) that desperately need each other in order to succeed.

In the “old model is broken” school of thought, there are two opposing viewpoints on what the ‘solution’ should be. Management will say that costs must be cut, especially fixed costs, and most especially the costs of health care and wages for the musicians. There are a number of solutions that management will propose to make these cuts: have the musicians pay a portion of the health insurance premiums, and cut salaries of the players. Corresponding cuts to management salaries is sometimes indicated, but often is either not indicated, or is indicated at substantially lower percentages than is asked of the musicians.

In response, the musicians will say that the structural deficit is inherent in the orchestral sphere of non-profit organizations, which by their very nature are inefficient. Symphony orchestras need a certain number of musicians to perform the vast majority of their repertoire. There are a certain number of rehearsals required for each set of performances in order to maintain artistic quality. They will say that the board needs simply to raise more money, and that the artistic leadership needs to program music that will attract diverse and vibrant audiences, who will in turn give more money to support that programming.

So, we have the old (and pretty much unchanging) basic nature of labor disputes in the orchestra world:

Management: you guys cost too much money, and we cannot afford to do business as usual anymore.

Players: you guys are lazy and need to raise more money, and provide programs that make people want to give money to the organization.

Somewhere in the middle, there is an (but perhaps not the) answer.

Phillip Kennicott writes in his article about the dilution of the American symphony orchestra as an institution. He sees this as having been done by a more diffuse mission statement for the ‘modern’ orchestra: providing educational services, playing more pops and popular music ‘entertainment’ type concerts, and generally pandering to whoever might have money to hand out at any given moment.

This often makes us (as organizations) more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of what’s in vogue in arts funding circles.

For a while, everything had to have an educational component to it. This didn’t happen by accident. If an organization wrote a grant application that had an education component (no matter how jury rigged or ill-considered it was), then you would be in a much better position to receive funding. And this was driven by the foundations themselves, who had bought into the notion that symphony orchestras (and other high arts organizations) had become irrelevant and needed, suddenly, to justify their continued existence to both their patrons and the local and national foundations upon whose largesse they increasingly relied.

While I agree that music education in and of itself is a valuable cultural asset, I am conflicted about the need for arts organizations to be responsible (almost solely, in many communities) for its continued existence. Especially if the education department of the organization is hamstrung by inadequate budgets, poorly written programs, and the inability of the local public school infrastructure to either bring students into the concert hall or musicians into the schools. Is doing simply anything at all sufficient, or should the programs be well-considered, well-funded, and effective instead?

Aside from education, let’s look at the cultural relevance part of the conundrum. Simply playing great music of the past seems to be not quite so relevant to today’s audiences. I would agree. We should be playing a lot more music of recent decades, and commissioning a lot more music from the best composers available to us. We should also (hat tip to Brett Campbell here) seek out the best local compositional talent and support it as well. A $60K commission to John Adams for a 30 minute work for full orchestra is all well and good (and a hypothetical example), but how many local composers’ work would that money give rise to?

In addition, playing music of the moment was always a part of the orchestras of the distant and not-so-distant past. When you read about the reactions of audiences to the symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven, clearly, what was being performed wasn’t always pleasing to many in the audience, but these are now considered among the greatest works of Western civilization. I’ve seen the analogy between orchestras and museums, often used in a unfavorable context. While it is true that we in the orchestra world can dwell on works written one hundred or more years ago, we also don’t have the luxury of having the art market decide which works are destined to survive the ages before we acquire them for our collection. We have to trust that those composers we commission will produce a masterpiece in exchange for whatever we pay them. It’s hardly a done deal. And audiences can be fussy about new works in less accessible styles.

This post is starting to ramble, and given that it has been essentially a stream of consciousness process of writing, that is to be expected. So what am I getting at here? Well, primarily, I think that we musicians and managers need to be more interested in seeking out a new way of running a symphony orchestra. Not a “new model” that everyone talks about but no one has any real concrete ideas to present other than to say that “the old model is broken”. A colleague of mine made the observation (and a very prescient one at that) that revolutions are not arrived at overnight. New ways of doing things are accomplished after a decade or more of extremely difficult foundation work, often without any guarantee that that hard work will pay off. Now is a time for patience and courage. The courage to try new things, and perhaps let go of some old sacred cow, but also the patience to allow progress to be developed in an orderly and organic fashion. That is my hope for the future.

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3 Replies to “wherefore art thou, symphony orchestra?”

  1. Hi Charles,

    I know you’re polarizing the positions for argument’s sake but there are managements and boards who accept the need to raise more money and create programs that attract a larger, broader audience – and are doing their best to accomplish both. And there are donors who understand this as well, and respond when asked to increase their support. Unfortunately, the problem with the structural deficit is that it continues to grow each year and donor fatigue sets in. (“But I increased my gift last year. Why are you back asking for more?”)

    What follows is a scramble to find new supporters, and I’d bet big money there aren’t too many philanthropists attending concerts who aren’t already contributing. The cultivation process requires introducing people to the orchestra’s work, building their interest and support to the point of passionate generosity, and that takes a lot of time.

    I had lunch last week with the manager of one of America’s major orchestras. They are raising more money than ever and attracting younger audiences with innovative programming, but he says they won’t be secure until they’ve doubled their endowment, which is already huge. And – to counter Kennicott – in many cases their increased fundraising is large new gifts made in direct response to the orchestra’s increased investment in their community, and especially in their public schools. Their community has a critical mass of wealthy individuals who can be inspired to contribute very large amounts because they care about their city, its reputation and its young people.

    If an orchestra doesn’t have that critical mass of wealth, and/or can’t find a way to engage it, and doesn’t have an endowment at least five times the size of the operating budget, the struggle is always going to be a desperate one, and one which inevitably will include cuts to salaries and health insurance, shorter seasons, and smaller sections and administrative departments. For the most part, this work is carried out by boards and managements who are saddened and depressed by their failure to solve the challenges. (Of course, every now and then we read of something which appears to be motivated simply by spite…..)

  2. I disagree with Kennicott: education and other forms of community building are an important part of a modern Symphony Orchestra’s mission. Especially in the absence of strong arts-in-schools programs, we symphonies often provide a young person’s first exposure to high quality, live classical music. For what that’s worth (given how many lives our art changes for the better, that’s worth quite a lot), we should shoulder the responsibility with resolve and enthusiasm.

    In our community here in Portland, after the passage of the Arts Tax, I think we can clearly read the will of the community: we Portlanders invest in education and invest in the arts. Let’s chain our institution to that sentiment at every opportunity! Funding follows these kinds of priorities. . . we should too.

    Charley Reneau

  3. Charles, A pleasure to see another side of your excellent mind. I support strongly the local, up and coming composer idea for many reasons–local connections means community involvement; I commissioned dozens of pieces and the best were from the unknowns (by far—the pulitzer prize winner I got a big grant for didn’t even get the range of the vibraphone right !); orchestras need to expose themselves to more innovation (supporting only star composers is in itself runnin’ scared); and and a local composer might get into the Ellington aesthetic wherein the composer writes for the musical personality of the PLAYERS, not some abstract orchestra. The homogenization of orchestras is a concern for those of us who like individual personalities. Bravo ! Doug

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