The Benefits of Competition

Orchestra musicians are better than they have ever been in this country.  And it’s high time everyone started to recognize that higher level of artistic excellence.  It’s also high time for us to establish a system of artistic evaluation.  Awhile back fellow AJ blogger Greg Sandow wrote about the idea of orchestra competitions.  And not the type of soloist competitions that we’re all used to, but between individual orchestras.  I think it’s a great idea and about a year ago I wrote a business plan that put together the details for the administration and adjudication components of just such an endeavor.

Competition Details
I propose a competition between orchestras where they perform the same repertoire regardless of how many full time members they employ. The selections (chosen by competition representatives) should include:

 One large traditional piece
 One traditional overture
 A new work commissioned especially for the competition.

The adjudicators would consist of music academics, composers, critics (yes critics), respected industry experts, and retired orchestra performers.  Naturally, each judge should not have any direct professional connection with any of the orchestras which could be construed as a conflict of interest.  

Orchestras are selected by a review committee from among anonymous recordings submitted for evaluation.  I imagine about 20 orchestras competing for a grand prize of $1,000,000 with another $500,000 distributed among the remaining 19 ensembles based on their overall score.  Prize money would be divided equally among the musicians in each ensemble (that’s a grand prize of $12,500 per player in an 80 piece orchestra) and each orchestra would receive a stipend to help market the event. 

You can easily run the entire program on an annual budget of $2 – $2.5 million dollars.  Reviews of each performance could be posted on a web site that would detail individual performers and sections in the orchestra in addition to the overall performance.  The potential is nearly endless!

The Benefits
Yes, we all know music is subjective, but I think it’s becoming too subjective and too collegial. I also feel that with the influx of such a high level of talent into the middle level orchestras across the country, you wouldn’t have to count on the winner being from a “Big 8” orchestra.  The benefits are numerous:

 You’ll bring a high level of attention to each community orchestra
 The added public attention will help increase annual ticket sales and contributions
 Communities will begin to feel an increased sense of pride  in their orchestra
 The musicians will become more of a highlighted feature than they currently are, just like figures in local sports teams.
 You’ll help promote the connection between traditional and original repertoire by making them equally important in the adjudication process

Although you can reasonably argue that you don’t want the orchestras finishing at the bottom of the competition to suffer, but do you really see communities shunning a local football team for not advancing past the conference semi finals?   I think you could also see a large revolt among Music Directors, since most are opposed to the idea of head to head competition.  But in reality you don’t really need them; it’s the players that compose the sound of an orchestra anyway.  Each orchestra would be allowed to use whichever conductor the please if their Music Director refuses to participate. 

So wouldn’t it be exciting to see New York or Chicago get beaten out by Milwaukee, Indianapolis, or even Grand Rapids? Stranger things have happened

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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