At its best, a symphony orchestra is more summer blockbuster than art-house flick. Orchestras make music on a big scale and consequently demand a big audience. Filling the house affirms why orchestras exist in a way that half-empty performances, regardless of their intrinsic merit, simply cannot.
Our community value is most easily and honestly measured by how many people want to hear us. We shouldn’t get distracted by obsessing about the age of the audience or the type of music we play for them. The central concerns are attracting a good turnout and performing as well as possible, irrespective of the repertoire.
As a first step, I believe orchestras should start with the low-hanging fruit and unapologetically play fewer Classics and more Pops.
My perspective was formed primarily as a player in two orchestras and by serving on various committees. My experience may not be apples-to-apples with every budget size and cultural market, but I know from doing research for contract negotiations, subbing in other orchestras, attending an ICSOM conference and the Mellon Forum that there are common problems.
To name a few, we face low attendance, high ticket prices, unstable budgets, high staff turnover and low morale. These may have different causes, but they are all worsened by a lack of funding. In these tough times, struggling orchestras should lead with programming that has more appeal than concepts. Our opening line to the public should be based on familiarity rather than aloofness.
Our best bet is to do more of what is already working. For most organizations, that is Pops. This, more than slashing budgets or new comissions, is a simple and intelligible way to grow roots deep enough to keep us from blowing away every time an economic storm kicks up. Insuring stability first earns us the right to be adventurous later.
Classics is a sturdy ship that more Pops won’t capsize. Ultimately, orchestras perform symphonies and the public will associate us with classical music. But it seems there is no amount of marketing (at least that we can afford) that can attract an adequate number of people for every classical concert.
Producing more Pops will make the ticket taker busy right away. From there, we can invest more in our artistic ownership of the programming and address some of the warranted complaints. There are many shows out there. Some are good and some are bad, but they consistently do well. I think the burden is on us to fold them more comfortably into the core artistic mission, and there is no real barrier to doing more immediately.
For a few months last season, I toured with Star Wars in Concert. The combination of good pay and thousands of fans each night gave the work a clarity of purpose that is often missing in our concerts, even some Classics. Obviously, ICSOM orchestras can’t play John Williams’ film music every night in arenas, but the lesson learned was that Pops doesn’t have to be rudderless.
The measurement for success is just different than it is for classical concerts. Of course, there will always be great traditional performances that will stick in the minds of the audience and players, but those nights are special because they hard to capture and reproduce. We need something more reliable and less inwardly focused.
I’m advocating that orchestras plant themselves firmly in the mainstream and play to their strengths: big shows in big spaces. To my taste, too much of the current orchestra-reform conversation centers around boutique innovations or simply cutting back. Certainly both have merits; however, they act merely as tourniquets by not meaningfully increasing the number of seats sold.
On the other hand, success at the box office can be pursued and measured. It is something that an institution can focus on and can use as a concrete benchmark. From there, we can extend ourselves on limbs strong enough to support the weight of more conventionally challenging projects.