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