(Originally published at Orchestra R/Evolution)

I’ve intentionally held off from commenting on the (really interesting) discussion until now, because I wanted to see how it developed. And boy, did this discussion start off with a bang of depressing self-flagellation. I tell you, it’s not often one will come to an industry conference and hear people say things like this:

Peter Sachon, May 12:

The unspoken truth behind why major American symphony orchestras have chronic funding shortfalls is that they have ceased giving concerts that interest and engage the modern audience.

Joshua Smith, May 17:

Is the current model of the symphony orchestra as we know it (created at least a century ago) still viable?

Doug McLennan, May 18:

But is there any sense that orchestras as an art form, classical music as an art form, have continued to move anywhere?  Vital communities argue persuasively for points of view, debate the fine points, set agendas and declare manifestos. But there is a reluctance to argue the art form. Why? For fear of killing it? Where’s the energy around new ideas? And how, at this point, would you be able to get traction for a good idea even if one emerged?

Colin Williams, May 26:

Over the years I have had to perfect a special state of mind for performing with passion to a less than crowded hall or obviously disinterested audience. As I rise to receive a scripted applause following a performance and stand there in my white tails (which would seem ridiculous attire in most any other circumstance), I have often wondered why I just invested all of that energy with my colleagues over the last two hours. I sometimes feel as if I had just  force fed 1000 people their vegetables. I mean, does what we have to say matter anymore?

Hot damn! Here I was ready to be the bearer of bad news, but after reading all of these I’d rather just give everyone a hug. Frankly, if someone was going to inject positive thoughts into this discussion, I certainly didn’t think that it would be me. In some ways, I’m the very picture of orchestras’ audience problem. I’m still in my twenties (for another week, anyway); I have a Master’s degree; my bachelor’s was in music (intensive track) and I have an extensive background as a composer. If there’s low-hanging fruit in audience development, I’m it. And yet I’ve only been to three orchestra concerts in the last three years—and I didn’t pay my own money for any of them. It’s very hard for me to imagine any normal concert program (i.e., one without a world premiere) that would induce me to pay as much as $40 for a ticket—and even that number would have been a lot lower a few years ago.

Clearly, though, orchestras must have something to offer, since they’ve inspired the passion of all of you and untold thousands of others for generations. I’ve been following with interest the bloggers who posed some variation of the question, “if you had to start all over again, what orchestras would you keep and what would you change?” And equally fascinated by the lack of substantive engagement those questions have received relative to others that have been posed. I think it would be instructive to take a historian’s perspective (which is not one I can offer, alas) and ask, why did orchestras form in the first place? What need were they filling, for their players, composers, or audience? And let’s not forget personal histories either. What first drew you to the orchestra? And specifically, what was it that made you decide you wanted to dedicate your life’s work, or at least a significant portion of it, to advancing and celebrating this art form? Was it a concert you attended? Participated in? Was it a particular piece? A teacher you adored? Or was it something much more mundane – a simple byproduct of having spent the lion’s share of your free time in one direction since early childhood?

To be sure, it’s important to identify and focus on the problems. But we’ll never find the solutions unless we can articulate why finding a solution is important.

  • I can’t exactly call myself an orchestra person — I did play in a community orchestra in Oakland, but haven’t paid to go to a concert in years — but I can offer a little bit of historical perspective, at least in the context of the American orchestra, which is implicitly the focus of the piece.

    My cynical response would be that orchestras and opera are rich Americans’ way of celebrating themselves, of keeping up with the Joneses of their European counterparts. And there’s an element of truth in that. But ever since the late 19th century, Americans have also recognized (and struggled with) the challenge of applying their own unique cultural stamp on the thoroughly European art form. Composers from Dvorak to William Grant Still to George Gershwin to Duke Ellington have used the cultural elevation of classical musical topics to shape their compositions and the cultural frames in which they were received.

    Today, I understand the stagnation inherent in the classical music scene. The more that decision makers can embrace a multicultural approach — contextualize the European orchestral tradition within a frame that encompasses a more inclusive cultural memory — the more likely they are to get out of this trap.

  • Andy Buelow

    One of the challenges I think we play in, work for, or listen to orchestras have to overcome is our tendency to place all the blame on ourselves for the financial problems orchestras are facing. If you look at recent studies, the popularity of classical music isn’t the problem. The problem is the ever-growing availability of mediated orchestral experiences. It started with the rise of high fidelity analog recordings, flowered with the digital revolution of the ’80s and ’90s, and is perhaps peaking (or perhaps not) today with MP3s and other downloadable options. Concurrent with this has been major changes in people’s lifestyles. The result? Fewer and fewer people are attending lives performances.

    Similar trends have happened in many other areas of business. Look at the effect of malls and big box stores and how it has decimated the small, regional business sector. Look at how the rise of fast food chains has changed the food industry. Look at the effect of national bookstore chains like Borders, as well as online purchasing, on small local bookstores.

    My point is not that we don’t need to make improvements and think creatively. But we should stop blaming ourselves and each other for the fact that our civilization has changed drastically. There’s no going back; we have to embrace the change and move forward.

  • Thank you for your post. It has led me on an interesting journey through the blogosphere over the past few days. I am not a symphonic musician, but as a professional jazz performing artist and college educator I’m quite invested in the changing landscape of musical professions going forward. You and other commentators on the Classical R/Evolution blog have put forward a number of provocative perspectives.

    You write:

    “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.”

    Your comments seem to reflect the very reason why the orchestra is losing relevance–that it is a foreign artifact, not representative of a living breathing culture. At the time they evolved, these ridiculous rituals had meaning to those who partook, observed, aspired to, or were excluded from them. If they no longer have this immediacy in the culture, don’t we have to ask ourselves how long they should remain intact?

    I’m hoping to understand why these institutions–music conservatories, symphony orchestras, jazz clubs, record labels–formed in the first place. If I can get some clarity about the cultural, economic and political states that led to their creation and proliferation, then it will be easier to recognize when those contexts change to such an extent that the institutions disintegrate, or are replaced. As well as what those replacements might contain. What societal needs might they fill? Who will control them? What values will they address?

    I don’t know if you agree with the view of William Osborne (from what I gather a prolific commentator on Orchestra R/Evolution blog). In a comment to a post called “The Symphony’s Misconception” he writes:

    “Symphony orchestras were developed in the 19th century to perform newly emerged, large-scale romantic works. Among the first were the Vienna Philharmonic and the Gewandhaus in Leipzig, which both appeared in the 1840s. The S.O. was designed from the outset to express a romantic ethos and spirit. These ensembles held their relevance for a little less than 100 years and ended with Ravel, Stravinsky, and Bartok. … The only realistic future for the symphony orchestra is to accept that it needs to be curated as a historical legacy – one of the greatest achievements the human mind ever reached. New works should be programmed, but we should be past the point of thinking that the genre will be given a new life. It is simply too large, too romantic, too nationalistic, too industrial in nature, too authoritarian, and too expensive. These examples point to where the real R/Evolution lies, and for better or worse, it does not include the symphony orchestra.”

    Although challenging, this seems to me to provide a more accurate framing of the situation in which we find ourselves.

    So what if the orchestra was a product of its time, and times have changed? The industrial revolution came and went, giving rise to world that would have been unrecognizable to humans of prior generations. As was true with its manufacturing plants, department stores, sweatshops, big recording studios, NY music publishing houses, piano factories, record labels and TV networks, the institutions and values of the “information age” will also be superceded (maybe have been already).

    Might the traditional classical music institutions be futilely trying to stave off the kind of large-scale, painful change, that was described in a recent WSJ article “Detroit Shrinks Itself, Historic Homes and All”? A reality in which “how do we save it” is not the right question to be asking. Instead we need to turn our attention to bringing into being some new institutions – grounded in our era–that in 50 years we cannot imagine life without.

    • Darrell,
      I think we’re largely thinking along the same lines. My view is that as long as the people behind orchestras have passion about what they do (and I include in this the musicians, the leadership, the administration, the board, everybody), they will be okay. They will find a way to make it all work, even if it involves tremendous personal sacrifice, because there is no other choice. That is, after all, the bargain that artistic entrepreneurs make with the world all the time. They believe so strongly in a dream that they’ll do anything to make it happen. But if that passion isn’t there – and I get the sense that for some, though not all, institutions, it definitely isn’t – an orchestra will be dead in the water in the 21st century. It’s simply too expensive and antiquated an art form to survive anything less than 100% commitment from those who would purport to be its champions.