(Originally published at Orchestra R/Evolution)

In my last post, I encouraged readers to articulate what they liked about orchestras, so we can have a better sense of what it is exactly we are trying to preserve or pass on to new audiences and future generations. I’ll begin this one by sharing my own answer to that question.

I’ve never played in an orchestra, but I’ve seen a few orchestral concerts in my day. One of my early orchestral memories was seeing the Boston Symphony play at Symphony Hall. The red carpets, ornate architecture, and gold trim made a huge impression on me. In other early concerts at Yale University’s Woolsey Hall, I loved watching the cellos move and lean and moan in unison, the conductor dancing on the podium, the battery of percussion toys, the impossibly shiny woodwinds and brass, four risers’ worth of singers standing up as one to prepare for the next entrance. The spectacle, the grandeur, the pomp & circumstance – they were all integral parts of the experience.

I feel like I’m going to make Greg Sandow’s head spin when he reads this, given that I’m a member of the younger generation who isn’t an orchestral insider, but count me firmly in the camp that says orchestras don’t need to try to be less old-fashioned. The penguin suits – keep ‘em on! The ridiculous rituals – love ‘em! Maintaining silence between movements – contributes to a special atmosphere! As I mentioned, I don’t often go to orchestral concerts, but when I do it’s often in part because the environment is not like the rest of my life, not in spite of it.

It’s not that I’m opposed in all circumstances to orchestras reaching out and trying new things – not by any stretch! But I think orchestras are most effective when they put forth their authentic selves. One non-traditional concert I recall enjoying was the Yale Symphony Orchestra’s annual Halloween extravaganza. The show started at 11:59pm and would feature an original film made by members of the orchestra, arrangements of popular theme music by the students, cameo appearances from the Dean and President of the college, and a hall chock-full of raucous, costumed, mostly drunk undergraduates. It was a PARTY. But it was able to be that party because it was a concert by students, for students. I can’t imagine how awkward it would have been to have a professional orchestra (playing past 11pm on those union contracts? Are you kidding?) try to replicate that fun-loving no-holds-barred atmosphere for an audience it wasn’t familiar with. Similarly, many noises have been made about how orchestras need to get out of the concert hall and into clubs. First of all, concert halls were built for a reason. The acoustics, seating arrangement, and optics are far superior to what you’ll find in a club. Secondly, as someone who has actually performed in a lot of clubs, I can assure you: the economics of small-venue performance are murderous for large or even large-ish ensembles. I mean, jazz is basically dying in this country right now because it is so hard for musicians to eke out a living playing these little shoebox closets with a $10 cover – and we’re talking groups of three, four, five players here. Trust me, the long-term structural issues facing orchestral performance are not going to be solved by a change of scenery.

At the end of the day, I’m skeptical that all that much change can come from the large, established institutions. To the extent that a “new kind” of orchestral experience is on tap, I suspect it will come from newer, youth-led outfits like Alarm Will Sound and Metropolis Ensemble rather than from the big guns. And, honestly, I think the big guns will be all right. People are still going to come to New York and Chicago and San Francisco to hear the symphony. And the experience they’ll be expecting will be the experience currently provided by those organizations: the experience of seeing some of the best musicians on the planet doing what they’ve spent a lifetime training to do. An experience that is tradition-bound and proud of it.

That’s not who I worry about. I worry about the regional symphonies, the semi-professional chamber orchestras, the myriad of youth orchestras. It seems to me that if you’re playing the exact same repertoire as your neighbor across town, just less well, you’re not really giving people much of a reason to come out and see you or support you in any way. I worry that we just have too many mediocre ensembles out there making the same not-very-interesting programming choices. They’re the ones who are most likely to have to decide, in the not too distant future, just what–and who–they’re really about.

  • Andy Buelow

    That’s a thought-provoking post, Ian. I’ve never played in an orchestra either, but I have worked in orchestra administration for 22 years, both for a major orchestra and for smaller, regional orchestras.

    You’re right that for many people the traditional concert is a wonderful, valid and authentic experience; however, you yourself admit that you don’t attend concerts regularly. The problem orchestras are facing is that traditional subscribers are disappearing and as that happens we become more and more of an “occasional treat” rather than a regular lifestyle choice. As that happens, the traditional financial model stops working. Contrary to what you state, the big major orchestras with salaried, full-time union contracts are having the hardest time adjusting to this change, whereas the smaller regional orchestras who pay their musicians on a per service basis are much better able to adapt.

    I would also challenge the assumption that the larger orchestras are necessarily better. I have seen plenty of phoned-in performances by major orchestras and in contrast some of the most exciting concerts I have attended have been by regional orchestras and in some cases student orchestras. While virtuosity is important, it isn’t the only factor in a great performance.

    Finally, I appreciate your point about the “orchestra without walls” approach. While it’s fine to take a chamber ensemble from the orchestra out to clubs and other remote locations, it’s no panacea. A club is generally not a great place to hear anything, in my experience!

  • Hi Andy,
    Thanks for this insightful comment. It’s interesting and not all that surprising to hear that the majors are having more short-term difficulties adjusting to the new economic reality; I do believe, though, that in the long term they are well-positioned to survive. Despite the challenges posed by their contracts, they have many, many resources upon which to draw and a long way to fall before they hit rock bottom.

    I do want to unpack your assertion that “larger orchestras are [not] necessarily better.” It’s not that I think you’re wrong — I’m not really in a good position to know one way or the other — but it’s interesting because this idea contradicts the basic economic logic that predicts:

    a) the largest, richest cities will tend to have the orchestras with the highest budgets;
    b) orchestras with the highest budgets will tend to draw the best musicians;
    c) the best musicians will tend to deliver the best performances.

    It sounds like the main assumption of these three that you’re challenging is c) above. If so, I’m curious why you think that is and what that might tell us about the orchestra field.

    • Andy Buelow


      But art can’t be reduced to a basic economic formula. My point isn’t just that “larger orchestras are not necessarily better,” but (to paraphrase a former President) “it depends on your definition of ‘better.’ ” In our industry, it seems the sole defining factor of “better” has come to be artistic virtuosity above all else. If that’s your definition, of course the larger orchestras who can afford the best musicians will be “better.” But does this by itself guarantee great performances? No.

      I remember hearing a major orchestra performance of “Rite of Spring” some years ago and, although the score was followed and everything was in place, there was something missing. About two years later I heard an undergrad orchestra performance of it that made me jump out of my seat. What was the difference? I can’t put my finger on it. Certainly the professionals played it “better” in technical terms, but the students somehow were much closer to the heart of whatever Stravinsky was tapping into when he wrote this miraculous piece.

      Years later, I was privileged to work for a small orchestra in a tiny town that had lucked into hiring an amazing young, relatively unknown conductor who completely transformed the ensemble in about three seasons — and I don’t mean by massive firings. He made them play at a level far beyond anything they had ever dreamed and literally had the orchestra and the audience on the edge of their seats for every performance. In five years we nearly doubled the number of subscribers and the number of concerts. I remember those concerts as some of the most exciting of my life, and yet certainly the virtuosic level of the ensemble was not comparable to that of a full-time major orchestra.

      Or look at examples from the pop world: rock bands like The Doors or, in more recent decades, U2, are by no means musical virtuosos. Keyboardist Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer could play rings around Ray Manzarek of The Doors, but The Doors created music that arguably has had at least as much (if not more) of a lasting impact on rock.

      Or look at baseball. I live in Tacoma, not very far from the Seattle Mariners, but we have this terrific minor league team in town, the Rainiers. Yes, I go to the Mariners up in Seattle, and yes it’s cool and a very different vibe to take in a major league game — but attending the Mariners here at Cheney Stadium is a highly satisfying, enjoyable experience. I certainly don’t spend the entire game thinking, “boy, they just don’t compare to the Mariners” — it never enters my mind. No one would argue that the Mariners’ players aren’t more skillful (well, ok, some would) but that’s beside the point.

      I’ve noticed in recent years that I cringe every time I hear an orchestra musician, conductor, or administrator use the phrase “artistic excellence,” and I’ve wondered why. I guess it’s just come to be one of these over-used, pat meaningless phrases that people in our industry use without even feeling the need to define it. I heard a fascinating speech at a conference recently, given by Diane E. Ragsdale of the Mellon Foundation, titled “The Excellence Barrier.” Her point was that “artistic excellence” has become a barrier to participation for many people. Here’s a small excerpt: “selling the superiority instead of the diversity of the arts; being exclusive and mysterious rather than inclusive and open; privileging the professionally performed and passively received experience over other forms of participation… have not been particularly effective strategies.” And if you look at how attendance has been dropping over the decades, I think she has a point.

  • Stephanie Evans

    Ian – This is a great post, and something to really think about. I recently sat on a grants panel for a county where there were SIX applications from different regional orchestras – all from the same county. SIX?!?! And there are probably more that exist in that county who didn’t apply for a grant. I don’t know how they will all survive and have long sustainability when their market is so saturated. Wouldn’t it be more economical for the orchestras to combine resources?

    There are many great musicians in the DC/Metro area who are craving performing opportunities, but choose not to make music their full time career.

    I think we need to strike a balance between serving the needs of talented artists, and not creating one regional orchestra after another to “serve the community”. This is a problem we need to solve that I think arts councils and arts enabling organizations can really take the lead on.

  • I think there are parallels between the situation in the classical and jazz worlds. Commercially, classical music is still being bought in CD form, but that lag will no doubt change in time and classical will join jazz in having to deal with the world of downloading.

    Both rely on the income from summer events-Wolftrap, Tanglewood, etc for classical and festivals for jazz. We see the prices creeping up in both and a debate about whether the use of high-priced, well-known talent is overemphasized and whether the scale should be changed to include more ‘outside’ less known people. I think this will also become an area of debate in the classical world…Oops, gotta go to work- Basically, I’m saying that the world of classical music will have to deal with what other genres-chiefly jazz-have already begun to grapple with.

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