Do Symphony Orchestras have to fail in the Digital Age?

Orchestras are people.

Orchestras are people.The Minnesota Orchestra players.

Some Musings on the State of American Orchestras
by Larry Murray

Nothing pains me more than to watch the decline of classical music in America. It is due largely to the inexcusable obliviousness of the stewards of American symphony orchestras, their boards and leadership. One of the biggest problems is that they continue to program for the past, and not the future. When hundreds of thousands of people will turn out for a Fourth of July concert on the banks of the Charles River, or fill the Hollywood Bowl to overflowing you know that classical music is not dead. Just the way it is presented.

Yet the underpinnings of these great, and expensive, enterprises – the audiences – are crumbling, some slowly, some more quickly. Those who pioneered spectacles that appeal to the general public, and become part of civic life are not in as much trouble as those that play from ivory towers. Orchestras with significant endowments are less embattled than the smaller ensembles, but a sort of rot set in decades ago and has slowly been eating at the foundation of symphonic music. The endowments become more important to preserve than the orchestras they were meant to secure. And in some cities, the players are asked to take the hits, not the management and boards.

As the 21st Century proceeds we are sure to see more strikes and lockouts of musicians, red ink and declining audiences. Ultimately, no art form is more about people than the players and audiences who love classical music. But inevitably, they are organized as corporations, and even though they claim to have music as their focus, it is the financial bottom line that the symphonic boards of directors focus on, not the people. Their challenges have never been greater, yet they continue to look at the rules of business governance as their model for the future. They should be as creative as the composers they feature in their great halls, inventive, original, and yet they seem, well, rather ordinary in their quest for solutions.

In Minnesota, a widely reported labor dispute has been complicated by the orchestra’s dwindling endowment and the very troubling question of whether it manipulated its books to show a $6 million deficit as an excuse to give its players a 30 percent pay cut. Of late, the musicians have been performing each concert as though it’s their last, perhaps because they feel it might be.And there are millions in unfunded pension liabilities which would worry me if I were still playing the violin.

In the spring of 2011, the Philadelphia Orchestra became the nation’s first major orchestra to file for chapter 11 bankruptcy—it emerged from restructuring last July with 10 fewer musicians, and a 15 percent pay cut for the remaining players.

In cities like Detroit, Miami (where the orchestra folded), Indianapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia, Honolulu (alas, no more) and many others, orchestras are also asking players to take pay cuts, boards are unable to come up with sufficient donations to pay the pipers, and cities are letting their orchestras founder, the once centerpiece of civic pride a hundred years ago now just a quaint artifact of a cultural way of life that has largely become irrelevant.

Is Earned Income the answer?

Attitudes towards increasing earned income – by selling tickets to fill those cold, empty seats – are mixed. ‘We’ve tried everything,” is a lament you often hear. But many of these efforts are half-hearted, poorly thought out, short-lived or underfunded. Here, you have to fail at some attempts in order to find out what doesn’t work before you can succeed.

Says a Knight Foundation report about orchestra managers: “We have found some of them absolutely gleeful at the challenge of making change – embracing experimentation and then waiting eagerly to see if it worked. But others have only grudgingly made changes and only with a “bait-and-switch” mentality.

“We’ll do this foolish thing in the park with bad acoustics and let’s hope that sells enough subscriptions to our real concerts so we can get back into our tuxedos in the concert hall and away from these mosquitoes and people who eat while we play!”

As the initiative progressed, most orchestras got over that mentality. Some did not.

Yet evaluation data suggest that these enhanced and nontraditional concerts may be effective in attracting new and different audiences, providing enjoyable and engaging concert experiences, and increasing ticket revenues over time.

The Digital Age

Once upon a time, before sophisticated amplification, an orchestra was about the loudest thing you would ever hear in your lifetime. Try as I might, there is no way to duplicate that sound. Simply stated, nothing in the world sounds as magnificent as a full orchestra heard live and in person, despite modern technology. Music lovers spend thousands on sound systems and still fail to match the experience of a real concert hall.

If you find the internet a wondrous thing, you likely are shaken back to reality when you encounter fine music on You Tube. It is simply painful, a disaster for most acoustic music. Sure, it works well enough for rock and blues where distortion and muddiness is often part of the performance. Live or at minimal resolution, have you ever tried to figure out those contemporary song lyrics? I rest my case.

Many young people have no idea what real, unamplified music actually sounds like. 100 musicians playing a great symphony is still among the most stunning listening experiences a human set of ears can have.

My first experiences of hearing an orchestra play was free. At Carnegie Hall, the Symphony of the Air with Leopold Stokowski as Music Director was my introduction to many works in the 1950’s, but the overture to Carmen brought tears of amazement and joy to my eyes. I was a teenager and just discovering the riches of the great composers, symphonic and operatic. By the time I hit my teens I was – much to my parents surprise when they found out – sneaking into New York City by commuter rail to wait in line with dozens of others for cheap standing room tickets for the old met. That’s how I learned about claques and the cult of grand opera, standing on 39th Street, watching the truckers line up the sets for the evening performance by leaning them against the bricks of the old Metropolitan Opera House.

The Philharmonic was off limits financially – they didn’t think for a second about future audiences, but only how to allocate the seats they had to their benefactors,by amount donated. In Boston, the season subscriptions for the Friday afternoon concerts at Symphony Hall were allocated in wills, passed like treasured diamonds from mother to favored daughter.

Inevitable Change

By the time women began entering the workforce in the 1960’s empty seats started to appear on those afternoons as daughter was no longer free for Symphony followed by High Tea at the Ritz. She was working. I was involved in marketing at that point, but the very idea of the common people buying those tickets was repulsive to the privileged few who underwrote the deficits. Even a $100,000 gift of printing and promotion from Steve Mindich of the Boston Phoenix was rebuffed by grande dame Judy Gardner as she patted my hand and announced to all that I could make my suggestions after perhaps ten more years with the BSO. I began looking for a new job the next day, if they could turn down a major promotion for the BSO from the one newspaper in town devoted to arts and entertainment,and then bitch in the next breath about the poor Friday afternoon ticket sales. With no back up from the managers of the BSO I decided not to waste my career trying to convince them otherwise.

“We see them going, one after another, either into a wall, or to war,” says classical music writer Norman Lebrecht in Arts Journal. He blames many of the problems on poor management and the fact that “both sides are frightened of change.”

But this is typical of the attitude of boards and overseers everywhere in the American symphonic world, and while paid attendance continues to decline, more and more money is needed to pay the musicians. It took years for them to secure decent wages to support their skills. Now managers and directors want them to take the hit for the shortfalls. Though musicians have been resisting big cuts,they are not unreasonable. All across the country they have been accepting modest adjustments or pay freezes. This is rarely matched by their colleagues, the administrators, conductors and soloists.

All too often the players are the only ones asked to reduce their income. At the BSO for example, James Levine earned $1.2 Million in 2011, a season in which he had many absences. In Minnesota Osmo Vanska also earned over $1. million in that same year, as did the orchestra’s architect. In Boston the BSO board members carry out their responsibilities pro bono, while in Minnesota eight board members were compensated between $150,000-300,00 each (2011) for attending infrequent board meetings. It seems that a lot more fresh air is needed to get a truly honest picture of what is going on in the heavily endowed symphonic world, doesn’t it.

It’s hard for a potential donor to believe an orchestra is really in financial trouble when they’re building a multi-million dollar addition to their venue, or courting a pricey conductor. Under those circumstances, players don’t take kindly to the notion that they should give up a third to a half of their income.

Meanwhile the scam that is the way music directors and conductors are selected and paid continues unabated. If you are young, or a woman, or lack the pedigree of already being at the head of a world class orchestra, most American orchestras won’t even consider you. When, back in the 60’s Michael Tilson Thomas was hired by the Boston Symphony he was relegated to “youth concerts” and not taken seriously. When homophobia in Boston reared its ugly head, the board panicked, told him he had no future as a possible music director and so he inevitably moved on to his career at the San Francisco Orchestra. He has done that city and region proud.

It is also a scandal that for a long time Jews in Boston were not able to partake of the WASPy cultural life there either, until the need for money overcame the distaste many old yankees felt for the nouveau riche and it continues to some degree today if you are Iranian, Korean or South African who has made a fortune. Often boards will give as little as they can in the way of directorships and extract the maximum they can for it.

Victorian Manners

Another problem that confronts orchestras is that concert manners were frozen sometime in the 1800’s, around the time of Queen Victoria, with rules that are sometimes a blessing, sometimes a curse, and often mystifying to the first time concert-goer. Like not applauding at the end of a movement, even as everyone gets coughing out of their systems and shuffles in their seats. Going to symphony is also one of the few excuses left to get dressed up, but for the younger set, this is a real turnoff. Oh you might get away with asking them to wear a shirt with a collar which is a minor and acceptable concession for the often informal crowd, but a jacket and tie? Only for the highly motivated social climbers.

Back in the 70’s Composers in Red Sneakers broke most of these rules, and declared that contemporary classical music should be where you relax and listen, not dress up and adopt an attitude of noblesse oblige Today, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project carries on that feeling of exuberance and adventure, often holding their performances in informal settings, like Boston’s Club Cafe. During the 80’s and 90’s much effort was put into bringing classical music back to the classroom.

But the Knight Foundation reports that education may not be the answer. While orchestras everywhere are expanded their educational programs in an effort to encourage concertgoing and attract new audiences, research indicates that in the long run education in itself does neither. Other strategies – such as nontraditional concert formats and perform- ances that link classical music to other art forms – are more effective ways to expand and diversify audiences, energize the concert experience and increase ticket revenues over time.

Because things have not changed much in a long, long time, the old guard is perfectly happy with how things are when they go to Symphony. They like their 18 and 19th Century composers and are just coming around to the 20th. Many complain bitterly when the first half of the program is by Sir Michael Tippett or other 20th Century composers. There is a musical stiffness that goes along with the overwhelming sense of whiteness and grayness you see in most concert halls. They are a dying but still influential American minority. Those generous music lovers built and maintained the American Symphonic tradition, and should be remembered with gratitude for their foresight, but it is also true that they are drying off, and very few of their children have the same interest in this music as they did. It is time for change.

If the Boston Pops can play a tribute to the music of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead – which they will do on June 22, there is no reason that Melissa Etheridge couldn’t open with a crossover group on June 21. Say an all male string quartet, something like the singing/playing Well Strung which has a huge young following.

The Berkshires are different

In some cities, the chains of the old ways are being thrown off and young people are returning to hear the amazing sound a symphony orchestra can make. In many cities, concerts have become less formal, and players have made a point of going to where the audiences are, to non-symphonic venues.

Here in the Berkshires of Massachusetts we have broken some of the rules for a long time. Daring in its day, Tanglewood with its flowing lawn, has become a legend. Sure there are children scampering about, picnicking with their parents, twenty-somethings spreading out to enjoy the music under the stars, while the intensely serious music lovers are safe inside the shed listening in hushed silence to every blissful moment of Beethoven or Mahler. Everybody ends up pretty happy.

The BSO also reaches out locally, this year with a April 21st (Sunday at 2 pm) chamber music concert at the Colonial Theatre which is open to the public free of charge.

There is good news in the initiatives orchestras in smaller cities are taking to attract new audiences and interest. In the end, it is these smaller innovators with more imaginative boards who may pave the way for a resurgence in the health of these major musical undertakings. But larger orchestras are working at it too, as with the Watch, Listen, Learn approach in San Francisco. One hopes that many more innovative steps will happen before more of our great orchestras slip away. In the world of music, listening to these symphonic sounds directly, from the players instruments to the listener’s ears still has the power to bring tears to ones eyes.

4 thoughts on “Do Symphony Orchestras have to fail in the Digital Age?

  1. Pingback: Nippertown!

  2. Yet again this is a cutting edge think piece for Berkshire on Stage. In addition to the decline of symphony orchestras is a commensurate erosion in the mainstream media of critics who cover classical music. That makes this coverage all the more relevant.

  3. I resent the suggestion that orchestra staff members do not share in the financial cutbacks. As a staffer at a medium sized orchestra I can tell you that I make nowhere near the base musician weekly scale, and the employer took away completely our retirement plan matching contribution some years ago (but kept the contribution to the musicians’ AFM pension plan because that was specified in the collective bargaining agreement.) And though the musicians and staff both took significant cuts some years ago, staff have not seen an uptick in their annual pay, only the musicians. So, please, think before you write some stupid statement about how the administration never has cutbacks because it simply is not true.

  4. As a member musician of a major orchestra, I was aware of the growing irrelevance of classical music to the larger American public… but I focused, as most of us do, on making the best ART I could. As I grew more comfortable in my skills and the WHY fo classical and PCs came along, I began arranging and printing music on computer… first solo stuff for my double bass then for a mixed octet to play transcriptions of symphonic music for family audiences. One thing lead to another as people who wouldn’t come to hear full orchestra concerts said they preferred the intimate experience of seeing and meeting us. It became apparent that building relationships, humility and articulating the secrets of classical music thru chamber music could be a key strategy to bringing curious music lovers to orchestra hall.
    Eventually I began composing for another outreach ensemble with an ear to mixing Romantic counterpoint and development with pseudo-popular urban (even R&B, Latin and hip-hop) and folk styles… much like Mozart, Brahms and Tchaikovsky did. Mine went a little further at times, with dance grooves which can be extended by real improvisers. Then I began playing these in clubs and bars as part of the Classical Revolution (.org) movement once our state had a smoking ban in effect.

    Some lessons I drew from this are:
    1.) many young and diverse (relative terms) people are curious about classical (even Romantic) but no one takes the time to explain it to them.
    2.) talking to people like family is more influential to them than sounding like an academic.
    3.) calling out an elephant in the room builds credibility with them… as does admitting to enjoying urban pop, singing and dancing.
    4.) demonstrating how there IS singing and dancing in instrumental classical helps them listen into it.
    5.) demonstrating how (ideally) we SHAPE music gives them a key reason to tune in.
    6.) Giving permission to talk, drink, move, text, laugh, clap whenever let’s them take it in as they will.

    I believe so firmly that this will be a complementary future for classical that I quit my major orchestra job to build audiences around the country for symphonic music. It’s more important to open hearts and minds than wallets, which will follow later. I am serving my art… and my art wants to inspire a much broader and deserving community.

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