On the S.S. (Symphonic Ship) Titanic

Sometimes the band can't play on
Sometimes the band doesn’t play on

I must have been in an uncommonly incendiary mood two weeks ago when a colleague sent me a private message asking me to join a group called “Save the Green Bay Symphony.” My reply was swift and brutal.

No I’m not going to join a group to “Save the Green Bay Symphony.” Time for orchestras to learn that you can’t program your way out of trouble with any number of cheap technology gimmicks, that “white knight” funders don’t exist anymore, that emergency fundraising never leads to sustainability, that corporate sponsorship is about marketing impressions and NOT philanthropy, that Music Directors are not Messiahs and that there is NO SUBSTITUTE FOR REAL AUDIENCE RELATIONSHIP BUILDING AND NOT SPENDING MORE THAN YOU BRING IN.

Yes, I was shouting.

Another week, another failing orchestra/opera /ballet /insert name of not-for-profit here. Fingers pointed in every direction, at the management, at the performers, at the supporting unions, at the capital-r Recession, at the concert-going public, at the non-concert-going public, at young people, at old people, corporations, government. To date I’ve refrained from commenting in this space not for lack of interest but lack of stamina as company after company has entered its death throes, some saved at the last minute, others put out of their misery relatively quickly, and a remaining few circling the drain, waiting for the coup de graçe (or should I say chasse d’eau?) to be resurrected, zombie-like, to die another day. In an America where the journalistic silly season has migrated to the time when Congress is in session, to accommodate the superabundance of nonsense that legislators in this country seem to generate, reportage on a failing symphony orchestra, that bastion of cultural respectability, seems to be just the thing to introduce a touch of gravitas into an otherwise uninterrupted stream of infotainment.

Seems like symphony orchestras are finally good for something, after all.

And in their new role as newsmakers for all the wrong reason, there has subsequently been an absolute saturation of uninformed pontificating from all quarters, leading to one inescapable conclusion: everyone thinks there’s a silver bullet, a grand panacea that will cure all ills and restore the performing arts to their position of social prominence… and thus their solvency.

Case in point: every time I’ve auditioned for a major artistic role with a symphony orchestra I’ve been asked “What are you going to do to bring young people in?” Frankly, I find the question moronic. It implies that young people are the only answer, and in the context of an artistic position it almost always refers to programming, and thus may be rephrased as follows: “What kind of funky, tech-oriented, cross-over spectacle are you going to present that will incite the under-30s to buy a ten-concert subscription?” Or more honestly put: “How can we ghettoize our audience by one-off pandering shows that take five to ten times as much outlay to market and still ultimately produce zero long-term audience gain?” If I were a bolder man, perhaps I’d answer the question, in its original form, as follows. “I’d make certain they had good music education before graduating from high school, and then I’d wait 20-30 years until they’ve built their careers, until they’ve paid off their student loans, their mortgages, their cars, until their children don’t require babysitters, until they recognize that the popular music they listened to so fervently in their youth makes them feel hopelessly outdated, and then I’d simply hold open the door to the concert hall for them.”

But that’s not what orchestras want to hear, of course. Orchestras seem to have two modes of operation:

  1. We’re in crisis so we need immediate solutions that don’t cost anything
  2. We’ve just come out of a crisis so we can’t possibly think about investing in the future

Frankly, gravitating between the two has actually proven a semi-sustainable model in the past. Back in 2006, the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony in Canada announced that it needed to find close to $3 million in the space of a month in order to continue operations, apparently having been surprised by a deficit that was an order of magnitude larger than forecast. (Seriously.) Faced with this emotional blackmail, the community coughed up the cash, and the symphony stumbles on to this day. Geography and demographics account for much in this case: Kitchener is a relatively affluent area of Canada with just enough separation from Toronto for its orchestra to be the only cultural game in town. The Brooklyn Philharmonic had the misfortune to be in a highly saturated market, and no amount of programming or technological gimmickry could save it when it collapsed last year.

Given my close association with el Sistema, many orchestras contact me assuming that it’s simply another silver bullet that will solve their woes, pointing to the LA Phil as a success story even though there’s no evidence that the program has improved the organization’s larger sustainability. Much though I like the telephone calls, I’m compelled by a rare sense of ethics among conductors and consultants not to overpromise. Sincere, long-term, participatory youth music education experiences are part, repeat, part of a larger strategy for building an audience. Current audiences are a combined product of public school music education programming and private arts instruction from 30-40 years ago. As school programs have either waned or died, it’s a fair assumption that the audiences of the future will diminish proportionately too. The price-point of socially-oriented music education can be very high and the timeline for return on investment very protracted, so to suggest it’s the cure becomes a very dangerous game. It’s certainly not a quick fix, although properly executed and carefully presented, a program can be the catalyst that changes the public perception of the role of a symphony orchestra in society.

This idea of social, rather than market relevancy, is something that most symphonies simply don’t get. Unfortunately, they don’t need to, yet. Another woeful real-world scenario: a different Canadian orchestra cancelled all of its educational performances due to the loss of a sponsor, then two months later petitioned city council for an increase in funding, while telling them how important the orchestra was to the community. (Seriously.) As a testament to provincial thinking, the city agreed.

There isn’t a Symphony problem, there are performing arts industry problems. These include but are not limited to any proportion of poor management, misled or militant labour organizations, economies and economics, or trends in audiences, markets and technology. It’s a Gordian Knot of challenges and Sistema isn’t a big enough, sharp enough knife. I believe there is a space for a different model of orchestras, one piloted but largely untested, in which participatory,socially-oriented music education plays a major role – that’s why I do what I do. I support symphonic involvement in accessible, excellent music education because I think it might bring about the change in thinking and positioning that the industry desperately needs, because I believe it will build future audiences, but there I run out of “becauses.” Ultimately I don’t believe it requires justification. At heart I believe it’s simply the right thing to do.







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