An orchestrated downfall

Last week during the el Sistema day in London ON, I had the pleasure of hearing Katherine Carleton, Executive Director of Orchestras Canada (the Canadian equivalent of the League of American Orchestras) give a brief synopsis of the Canadian orchestral industry’s level of interest in the Venezuelan program. I deeply regret not having had the opportunity to make Katherine’s personal acquaintance; she has an excellent reputation, something her extremely succinct, well-delivered and entirely impartial presentation reinforced. Katherine gave an account of some unnamed orchestras’ investigations into el Sistema, expressed solely as a statement of fact and without value judgement. I probably wouldn’t have been so kind – nor was I, in the latest installment of the 10-part series in La Scena in which I examined the orchestra industry from the Sistema lens.

While I was impressed with Katherine’s presentation, I found the content a little disheartening – even the one orchestra actively pursuing el Sistema seemed to be missing the point. I can’t reproduce her talk verbatim here, but I will present a paraphrased précis of each with the thoughts that occurred to me at the time.

Orchestra 1 was engaged in planning the launch of an el Sistema program. They had identified local partners, and were working with the civic school board and similar organizations to develop an initiative. They had applied to an arts council for a grant and were waiting the results. On the surface, this seems very promising – and it is, but the last sentence betrays an almost total lack of understanding of the major financial benefit of an el Sistema program: the potential to develop new funding sources from the social sectors. Instead, the orchestra went back to the same depleted well from which they already receive funds, looking for support for a program that is admittedly off mandate. What happens if they get turned down?

Orchestra 2 was just about to launch a major music school in a city known for its levels of poverty. They had considered an el Sistema program, but had decided not to pursue it because they felt the existing local initiative deserved support. There was no mention of whether they intended to support it themselves, partner with it, or in any other way promote it, other than a verbal pat on the back. I’m compelled to assume that they also believe that with the presence of the existing program, all the disadvantaged youth in the city could be served.

Orchestra 3 had investigated el Sistema, and decided against it. After a few years of financial uncertainty, they now had some stability and were reluctant to jeopardize that. That sounds reasonable on the surface, until the question arises why the years of financial uncertainty existed in the first place. It’s the Canadian orchestral way: when the good times roll, there’s no need to think of the future, and when the bad times return (as they always do), there isn’t a dime to spare. I’m reminded in fact of meeting with organizations in my capacity as a marketing consultant, and hearing from them: “We’re not in a position to do audience development.” Really, the only organizations not in a position to do audience development are those that are in receivership and intend to close up shop forever.

I’ve devoted my adult life to understanding the challenges orchestras face – as a conductor, yes, but also within management and as an audience or revenue development consultant.  I care deeply and passionately about the industry, and I believe that it has to take a leadership role in el Sistema as much for its own good as for the good of the communities it claims to serve. I came to el Sistema late in the game, almost a decade after accepting my first position in a symphony marketing department, and well after writing three out of five of my doctoral comprehensive examinations on symphony industry issues. There is tremendous symbiosis between Sistema and the professional industry, and yet the latter is, with few exceptions, resisting it vigorously.

If your orchestra is struggling, please ask them very seriously why you should care, before writing them a cheque.

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