During the recent troubles, we’ve seen orchestras struggling with financial issues that have resulted in several lockouts and a great deal of negative publicity for the field. Many musicians attribute conflict to ideas propagated by the League of American Orchestra, others vigorously dispute this theory. In a lengthy article on the ICSOM, website, Bruce Ridge makes the case for a crisis in orchestra management. It strikes me that the conflicts in Atlanta, Indianapolis and Minneapolis point to orchestra boards that have given up on the orchestra field, disregarding or even eschewing professional orchestra managers and forcing major cuts to prepare their orchestras to deal with the “new normal.” Let’s step out of the trees and take a look at the forest. Where do orchestras stand in American society?
According to an NEA study, classical music attendance has declined over the past 10 years. The same holds true for museums, ballet and jazz. We’re a long way from the 3 channel, 2 movie screen, 1 decent French restaurant, Chinese-food-is-exotic communities of 50 years ago, and competition for scarce leisure hours and dollars is fierce. In addition to the online world, there are more non-profit arts organizations, television channels, and popular music acts than ever. (The old bands never seem to go away, do they?)
So how do we compete with Breaking Bad, the national touring production of Rent, the Berlin Philharmonic webcast, Netflix, Facebook, slow foods, the Temptations and a free, but excellent, performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons every weekend?
Let’s start by acknowledging that this indeed is our competition. But, let’s also remember that we have phenomenal music to offer and a great track record. How many acts can sell the same 2,000 seat venue more than once a year, much less every weekend for 80 years? How many television series have 30 new episodes each year for decade after decade? You wouldn’t know it from our press, but we start near the top of the heap.
Of course, we’re not satisfied being only near the top, and we hate the fact that we’re declining. So let’s compete. Let’s make every performance a better concert than Breaking Bad, the Temptations, Rent, or an evening at home on Facebook or Netflix.
Once we’ve accepted the challenge, here are three things we can do to succeed.
1. Own our heritage.
The 20th century saw the creation of the full-time symphony orchestra. It’s one of humanity’s great cultural achievements and it’s made in America.
- The first orchestra devoted exclusively to instrumental repertoire (no opera, ballet or theater work) was the Boston Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1881 – one year before the Berlin Philharmonic.
- The great composers of the late 19th and 20th centuries saw America as a center of music. Tchaikovsky conducted the opening concert of Carnegie Hall – Mahler was music director in NY – Dvorak was transformed by his American experience – Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Rachmaninoff, Korngold, Bruno Walter, Toscanini, Ormandy Szell, Reiner and countless other great musicians chose to make the USA their home. The first complete Mahler cycle recording took place 50 years ago in Utah, of all places, and the Oregon Symphony predates even the Cleveland and Philadelphia orchestras.
- Fifty years ago, the philanthropic, political, academic, media and business leaders of the US set out to demonstrate that American high culture was equal or superior to that of any civilization- particularly the Soviets. Part of this plan was to have 50 full-time orchestras throughout the US. We succeeded spectacularly! We’ve gone from needing programs to produce qualified string players to raising perhaps 100 part-time orchestras to a level that rivals the largest major orchestras.
- We absorbed and internalized the musical styles of vastly different cultures and ages and welcomed musicians from around the world as we made this music our own. It’s a great achievement for the world, and the ongoing success of classical music in Asia and South America proves that it is just as universally beautiful as the Great Buddha in Kamakura or the Cologne Cathedral.
- Music engages us, delights us and changes us in some way. We recognized this and throughout the 20th century, we instituted a fantastic network of public school music programs and community music schools to make sure everyone had the chance to personally experience making music.
- Today some say that non-profits should be focused on serving the marginalized and working for social change, rather than supporting European-based cultural activities for the upper middle class. While these are also worthy goals, this point of view is a-historical nonsense. We do have an American culture – it’s one that welcomes outsiders and immigrants and honors excellence. The American orchestra is an archetype of our culture. While the very wealthy have always had access to great art, it was the genius of the US to devise the non-profit system so that great art, music and education could be shared by all.
2. It’s about people and relationships.
- Whether it is through performance or education, music is a means by which people relate.
- Music is not a product – it is a human exchange between performer and listener.
- We play great music because it engages people intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. That’s what makes it great music.
- Performances happen now, yet they create a living connection with the experiences and cultures of the past, as well as with the intellects, passions and spirits of the performers.
- Performances that engage musicians and listeners intellectually, emotionally and spiritually ARE our culture. No apology or explanation is needed for these performances.
- Gathering the experiences and works of different cultures and ethnicities and eras, and making them present in a multi-cultural orchestra is a quintessentially American experience.
- Education is a means of sharing the experience and knowledge of making music. Helping someone experience the gift of creating beauty changes that person’s life. Musicians are the means, the channel, through which people experience music/beauty.
- Everyone has the right to experience beauty.
- Music education is a shared experience of beauty. The transfer of knowledge is a means to this shared experience, but it is not education.
- Music is a discipline. It requires and rewards continued effort. For this reason, it is neither cheap, nor inexpensive.
- The relationship between performers and audience does not end when the music ends. Listeners today want to know and interact with performers who move them. Although attitudes vary (NYC vs. Midwest), we should honor this desire.
3. Create new culture.
Culture trumps politics and economics. We’re artists – let’s change culture.
Ironically, we began to isolate ourselves from American culture just as we began to succeed in establishing and growing professional orchestras across the US. We made clear that contemporary music must be in an academic modernist style and that composers who wrote in the vernacular would be ignored, or worse – relegated to Pops concerts. It’s as if theater companies decided that programming would be mostly Shakespeare and new plays – but all new work must be in Esperanto.
It is encouraging to see that orchestras have begun to perform and commission works from composers such as Osvaldo Golijov, Marcus Roberts, Jonny Greenwood, Stewart Copeland and Bela Fleck. Cultivating great musicians who compose in the vernacular is a far more promising path to cultural relevancy than our adopted isolationism. Continuing on this new path will bear fruit. We’ve also seemingly made a collective decision that art organizations and new work must be decidedly secular. There must be no cult in culture.
This is not how the rest of the world lives. The strength of culture and its ability to overpower politics and economics comes from its roots in the heart of people’s lives – and to isolate ourselves from what gives meaning to their lives is foolish.
Whether it’s targeting the yoga moms with the mysticism of Hovhaness, marketing Handel’s Messiah to the local evangelical mega-church, or providing a Reform synagogue with an orchestral Kol Nidre for the ultimate Yom Kippur service, we need to be connected to the spiritual lives of our communities.
Programming that is merely “as good as [blank]” won’t cut it any longer. We’re competing every day with the best of TV, film, popular music, theater and everything on the Internet. It’s time to recognize this and take up that challenge in orchestras of every budget size.
We can no longer cede the argument for funding to utilitarian ends – we must make the case for our art as a crucial part of our American culture and heritage. Our listeners and donors are people – so are we. Institutions don’t have relationships; people do. We must cultivate real human relationships among our musicians, audiences and donors.
Finally, we have to accept our role in creating our own contemporary culture. We can never escape our history, nor can we create a new culture in isolation. Most importantly, we can’t leave it to others. We do have an alternative to decline. Accept the competitive challenge; own our heritage; make it about people; and create new culture. And thrive.