This blog has spent a great deal of time and space and generated considerable commentary and debate on the subject of the future of Orchestras in this country. The current situation is well-documented – orchestras going out of business completely (Honolulu, New Mexico, Syracuse), filing for Chapter 11 (Philadelphia, Louisville) or experiencing internecine warfare through strikes (Detroit, Cleveland). It was heartening therefore to see the League of American Orchestras revise the agenda of its Annual Conference, which ended in Minneapolis last week, to discuss “the issues.”

The League’s role has never been to lead the charge, since it represents, serves, and reflects its members. However, the ground swell of concern and discussion had reached such a critical mass that the League’s President Jesse Rosen felt it imperative to add a “Red Alert” 90-minute plenary session. This was, in itself, a brave and courageous move because the field has been in denial for a long time. Previously, discussion of this sort was relegated to whispered conversation outside the formal program. But, then, Rosen went for the jugular: “It is time to face our brutal truths,” he asserted. And he pretty much laid it out as it really is:
•    Declining revenues and rising costs
•    Donor fatigue
•    Performance excellence is not enough and orchestras “must find new ways to relate to and serve their communities.”
•    Stagnant product delivery systems. This is what the Knight Foundation described as the “vehicle of delivery” requiring much more creativity and diversity.
•    Lack of overall diversity meaning that an orchestral organization really does not reflect the contemporary world in which it tries to survive

Jesse Rosen

He goes on to talk about some possible solutions. You can hear his complete address on YouTube.

Personally I would like to have seen a major mention about the changing role of musicians and how they need to be brought into the discussion and have full ownership of this new way forward. It is implicit in the above but I feel it needs to be explicit and central.

But I have to say “Bravo, Jesse.” Thank you for having the mettle to put it out there. Just this simple act will breathe oxygen into a system starved of debate, because it “provides permission and encouragement for people to openly engage.” I find the word “permission” in this context to be startling, but there you have it.

Maybe this isn’t the Arab Spring, or the Berlin Wall of 1989, but, my word, it is a start. There are 12 long months before the next League conference and so much work and reinvention that needs to happen in that period of time. Let us hope that in June 2012 we will hear about some new models, based on rejuvenation and the widest reaches of musicians’ creativity that will start to empower the whole field.

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5 Responses to Finalmente!

  1. Bouky Labhard says:

    Tony, we can only thank you for the information and ideas. Please continue in this mode. Bravissimo! Bouky

  2. Ian Stewart says:

    In the U.K. whenever there is a crisis in the arts – i.e. most of the time – the people who run the organisations suggest more education projects, more democracy, better relationship with the community, better access to funding, lobbying the government, campaigns with stupid slogans such as ‘I believe in the arts’. However it seems not to achieve what it is intended to.
    A better suggestion I believe, is more business skills. Why not bring in hardcore business managers?
    My wife was struggling working for a subsidised arts company, that treated staff badly, depended on subsidies, spoke the arts jargon, yet was a terrible organisation. I suggested she saw my friend who was a business trainer, who toured the world doing high profile training for companies. After a two and a half hour talk in a cafe, he turned her career around – she is now earning two and a half times as much, for half the work.

    In the arts, ‘business’ is a dirty word, even though the people who make the instruments are businesses, the mobile telephones they use to speak to their colleagues are supplied by business, the cafes they eat in between rehearsals are businesses. However there is this belief that as soon as business enters that arts it’s downhill all the way!

    “Stagnant product delivery systems. This is what the Knight Foundation described as the “vehicle of delivery” requiring much more creativity and diversity.”

    That paragraph of jargon should be re-written as “People don’t enjoy concerts, how can that be changed?”

  3. fireandair says:

    “Lack of overall diversity meaning that an orchestral organization really does not reflect the contemporary world in which it tries to survive”

    This one struck me — mostly because in a lot of ways, the orchestra DOES reflect the “contemporary world in which it tries to survive.” The world of its donors — wealthy people with cultural capital. It does indeed reflect the values of people for whom money is a dirty word and one doesn’t speak of it out loud. In other words, the very rich. The poor and working-class can’t afford to not talk about money or act like it doesn’t matter.

    I know I keep injecting class issues into this, but I will continue to do so, even being a nobody on this blog and in the world of classical music, nothing but an amateur musician and music-lover. It is a problem in the classical music delivery industry, and all the chi-chi foo-foo cute little clubs in the world won’t solve it. In a lot of ways, some of the supposed radical revolutionary solutions proposed by various people to “save” classical music seem like nothing more than ways in which the well-off have decided that they are going to be “cool” and “hip” in new ways, and they will drag their music along with them as they abandon the concert hall and slip instead into upscale nightclubs.

    Anyhow, like the insistence that business is a dirty word and that one can make a living without worrying about money, this and many other problems with the industry are at their root class-based. It isn’t going to “relate” to and “serve” its various communities if it doesn’t respect them and considers them “them” in the first place.

  4. CMBoston says:

    Dear Mr. Woodcock,

    While your concerns mainly focus on “how to solve the orchestra issue”, there has been an incredible festival of contemporary music in the institution that you rule. Unfortunately, we didn’t see you in any of those concerts. SICPP has been, in my opinion, the most relevant artistic activity promoted by NEC this year, although ironically not many people who work at NEC during the academic year were there—where was the composition department? SICPP has been an environment for exploration, in which its participants had the chance to work with one of the most relevant composers of our time—Tristan Murail. I don’t think you realize how relevant this composer is. Do you know how profound Murail’s music is?

    Please, stop worrying about obsolete institutions and focus your efforts on promoting the real artistry that many of us have experienced at NEC this past week.

  5. Pingback: Cracking the Orchestra Nut: Challenges and Models for the Future « Symphony Bros.' Blog

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