Symphony Orchestras must Adapt or Wither – Warning: Growing pains ahead

Image Credit - May symphony orchestras must adapt or wither

The following three articles appeared as a series in the Denver Post on the subject of the plight of live classical music performance in the last century.

The series was very popular, which is not surprising since it offered a relatively compact but informative perspective on a critical subject. As a performer I realized the writing was clearly on the wall.

Hanging by a string: Can classical music adapt? - The Denver Post.

Classical music is going new places to lure new faces - The Denver Post.

Orchestras, opera companies must make splash to be heard - The Denver Post.

Performing musicians such as myself have been obliged to weather the tectonic shifts in music's cultural landscape, as we see deeper and deeper budget cuts and loss of public support. Though the causes of change are unstoppable, the responses have been slow to show, especially from larger orchestral organizations. It's like a government paralyzed by bureaucracy during the imminent threat of a Tsunami.

Taking a longer view than other similar articles on the subject of classical music's plight, writer Kyle MacMillan begins in the first half of the 20th century, when "keyboard giant Sergei Rachmaninoff played to sold-out houses across the United States, and conductor Arturo Toscanini lit up the radio airwaves with the NBC Symphony Orchestra."

The first part lays out the tectonic shifts in culture which have eroded the popularity of live orchestral classical music in the past century.

The second begins to explore some of the successful experiments of adaptive classical performances, the most effective of which are usually small groups in smaller venues, a la Indie rock. Although this does not bode well for large groups such as symphony orchestras, it indicates the urgency for orchestral organizations to adapt their product to match the desires of younger audiences.

Like it or not, small ensembles will lead the way, perhaps due to their smaller, "lean and mean" model , over the huge, lumbering and expensive orchestras.

Orchestras are also slow to adapt partly because they still literally embody the conservative traditions of the Musician's Union, which by default naturally seeks to conserve or grow the conditions and salaries for the performers. But those approaches may cause more harm than good. Despite good intentions, those staunch and invariable tactics prevent orchestras from adapting to the demands of changing culture, thus defeating the goals the union wishes to achieve.

The third and last part focuses almost exclusively on Gustavo Dudamel, the wildly popular music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and classical music's biggest rock star since Leonard Bernstein.

If these positive trends are signs of better times to come for performing organizations such as my orchestra, the Columbus Symphony, I don't doubt there will still be an awful lot of growing pains for individual performers such as myself.

After our concert master Charles Wetherbee decided to resign from the Columbus Symphony to pursue his Carpe Diem string quartet full time, I knew the changes were only just beginning for the orchestra. The human toll of radical change is always regrettable, and it is all I can do to tell myself on a daily basis that "Change is inevitable. Growth is optional."

In other words, "Adapt or Die".

Below are a few quotes from the Denver Post series, definitely worth your time to read in full.

Classical music is becoming a cultural afterthought beyond the insular world of musicians, presenters and devotees.

Aggravating the situation is a stubborn reluctance among many entrenched institutions to acknowledge the severity of the predicament facing the classical world — and an accompanying belief that a few tweaks will set things right.

The classical world's formerly unrivaled dominance of the top end of the musical spectrum is being increasingly challenged by scores of popular world artists, who are introducing Western audiences to the classical music of a multiple of international cultures. In addition, a sophisticated brand of indie rock has caught on with its own intricate orchestrations and complex harmonies — all of it available as MP3 downloads.

"We sometimes in the arts rarify ourselves too much," said Stephen Seifert, executive director of the University of Denver's Newman Center for the Performing Arts.

"We're partly in show biz. We need to be entertaining. But we also have to demonstrate that we're relevant in multiple ways. Purely aesthetically is one of those ways, but artists are citizens too, and often what they have created has some greater connection to our lives."

Music director of experimental NY club Poisson Rouge, Ronen Givony, believes chamber music — small ensembles such as string quartets or piano trios — in particular hold a great deal of potential, because it is similar in size and approach to indie rock bands.

Classical music has to start taking some risks. And — often relying on nothing more than ticket revenue to survive — scrappy presenters across the country like Le Poisson Rouge are. So are outfits like Denver-based Telling Stories, which mixes music and narratives into performances that recall public radio's "This American Life."

"That makes me optimistic, seeing how there really is a spontaneous movement for change," Sandow said. "I see so many and very different examples of how to do things in new ways."

Classical presenters have to meet new audiences halfway, Givony said, and give them an entry point into what can be a daunting musical form at first.

Think new. Think crossover. Think venue. Think topicality. Think collaboration.

To spark new interest, reach out to fresh audiences and combine scarce financial resources, Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, urges classical presenters to collaborate as much as possible.

"That very often can lead to a stimulating result for the public," he said. "So, that's something that any local orchestra or opera company should be doing."

The bottom line for classical music is this: The status quo won't work anymore in today's fast- changing world. To survive and thrive, presenters have to strike new paths and take chances.

"It's tough," Carnegie Hall's Gillinson said. "Change is inevitable. And very often, people know their model. They know what they've done, and they know that it was successful. When it starts shaking a bit, and it starts appearing to be less successful, it's very easy to panic and feel there isn't a place for us, which is almost always not true if you're doing things that are really special.

"But you may have to change what you do, and you may have to change the way you engage with your audiences."

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6 comments for “Symphony Orchestras must Adapt or Wither – Warning: Growing pains ahead

  1. mrG
    January 22, 2011 at

    Well that’s the thing: are we in the show business, or in the business of elevating human culture? Yes, of course you can repost my posts, I’d be honoured; as you can likely detect, I have some pretty fixed opinions on this stuff and don’t mind saying so 🙂

    As someone on the street to name their favourite American Composer and they will likely say some pop-star, at best they may say Andrew Lloyd Webber or John Williams; scant few will say Charles Ives or Henry Cowell. This is nothing new. Remember that Schoenberg was disgusted with the Vienna of his day, and they with him (“Why did Schoenberg move to Berlin?” is my favourite koan) Gershwin was told by many to give up that low-brow broadway stuff and work on his serious works, but his teacher (according to the bio-pic) pointed out that Schubert also wrote pop-songs, so doing so would put him in good company.

    But the point is, there is no need to envy Broadway and Hollywood and their glamour and sizzle, the huge surge in the financial rewards of Classical Music was a glitch, a by-product of the USA discovering after WWII that it (a) had all of Europe’s conquest riches stored up in Fort Knox and (b) had an embarrassingly poor education in how to use that money, having been mostly farmers and factory workers up until then and (c) a huge influx of European immigrants who DID know about culture and the progress of humanity and the arts but were very poor and so ready to teach the culture-hungry Americans how to be elegant (“‘Cause if you ain’t got elegance you can never ever carry it off” says Hello Dolly’s Cornelius)

    Back in pre-war Europe, or better, in pre-Liszt Europe, Classical was everywhere, all over, nothing special, everyone plays, everywhere there are musicians, special musicians and special works are appreciated for what they are, but the music is woven in as part of the fabric of everyday life. The Nazi Panzer division had their own opera to sing as they marched along, everybody was a performer.

    But in that post-war period, well, supply and demand, a shortage of players and composers and conductors, an abundance of record-buying consumers and a brand new media for buying (the LP) that could by-pass the dancehall and orchestra pit and the horrid sound quality of radio and 78’s. And so, having no other options, they bought, a massive surge.

    Until …

    Back in 1978 the record industry was in a euphoria over Saturday Night Fever. The cheapest record to produce, it sold for the highest ticket price ever, and sold so well, by the time it was done they say that there was a copy of that two-disk set in every household in the country. The sales people, being sales people and not highly educated in matters of math, drew the sales volume point on their chart and proclaimed, “We have a trend!!” and they extrapolated skyward and you know what happened? 1979 did not yield SNF-2, it returned to normal, and all those hirings and buildings and expansions and dreams came crashing down and they all said business was bad. No. Business was now NORMAL.

    • January 23, 2011 at

      Your combination of history and honesty is refreshing. And you write well. Perhaps you would like to put some of these thoughts into a post of sorts, and I’ll publish it here. Let me know. Otherwise I may revise your comments to accomplish the same. (I’d rather you do it, in your own words. But this needs to be said, and it’s easier for my reputation if someone else says it!) D

  2. mrG
    January 22, 2011 at

    a footnote only because I stumbled upon watching it again after many decades, but we would do well to remember Lisztomania, not so much the Ken Russell farce, but the original, back in 1855 when the term was coined. Girls fainting at his feet, the flashy goo speckled with moments of sheer musical brilliance, and the doctors of the day classifying the phenomenon as a psychiatric disorder, and applying all their talents to finding a cure for lisztomania before it appeared in THEIR town. Is this what we want? A return to THOSE good old days? Is that really what we’re all about? Groupies and fanboi mobs, celebrity dazzle and world tours?

    When I search google, I find that if I search for ‘music’ I do not find anything that I recognize as musical. I have concluded that perhaps what I play and what I seek is thus not ‘music’ but something else. Some say it might be called “Tone Science” and I’m leaning to “Applied Bio-resonance” but thus far Google isn’t much help with those labels either. As the years go by, when I look at the spiked-hair dyed blue stars of the symphony season brochures, and when I tune in the radio stations professing to be ‘Classical’, I don’t recognized much of that either, it seems more top-40 pop-hits of the 1700’s and 1800’s if anything, and so I wonder again, what might be the new modern name for this thing I’m trying to find. Does it even exist? Did it ever or was my memory of it simply a child’s perception of something else?

    • January 22, 2011 at

      It’s a balancing act for sure. I think flashy players CAN play just as well at frumpy ones, and they are more fun to look at.

  3. mrG
    January 22, 2011 at

    what is it they say about those who do not know their history? I don’t know much about the others, but I do know this about the Toronto Symphony: the first incarnation, circa 1915 was started because Classical music did not sell and the musicians were fed up playing pit-orchestra; they would meet during the ONLY common time they had, 5:30 to 6:30pm, one hour only, be it rehearsal or performance, and performances were for the pure enjoyment of the music, only partially for the one or two friends in the audience. By 1920 or so they had to give up, it was too expensive of a hobby to sustain, they disbanded. In 1925 they tried again, this time with the gracious help of a very qualified director, and AGAIN they did it so as to PLAY that music, not to sell tickets, not to host extravaganzas, not for the wine and cheese and “oh you’re so BEAUTIFUL darling” receptions, they did it because they LOVED to play, because they NEEDED to play. Does anyone remember that? The NEED to play this music? The soul-hunger that aches to be part of the inside of these sounds? No. Apparently not.

    The second incarnation of the Toronto Symphony did slightly better thanks to the inter-war prosperity, the Sweet Jazz and and Dancehall still dominated all sales, but they persevered out of the love of the music and y’know, FIVE YEARS LATER they would take in enough in ticket sales to break even. Not recoup: break EVEN. And thus was born the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

    I feel it safe to guarantee the history of ALL the other orchestral and choral organizations mirrors this story completely. I challenge readers here to present just one counter-example, of an orchestral institution that was founded by an empressario bent on a yacht and beach-house in Malibu and summers in Spain, and it all worked because of that fabulous cash-cow called Classical Music? Berlin? Boston? Argentina?

    So now, tell me, what REALLY is the problem?

    • January 22, 2011 at

      Great comment. May I post it by itself? D

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