A View Of The Forest

During the recent troubles, we’ve seen orchestras struggling with financial issues that have resulted in several lockouts and a great deal of negative publicity for the field. Many musicians attribute conflict to ideas propagated by the League of American Orchestra, others vigorously dispute this theory. In a lengthy article on the ICSOM, website, Bruce Ridge makes the case for a crisis in orchestra management. It strikes me that the conflicts in Atlanta, Indianapolis and Minneapolis point to orchestra boards that have given up on the orchestra field, disregarding or even eschewing professional orchestra managers and forcing major cuts to prepare their orchestras to deal with the “new normal.” Let’s step out of the trees and take a look at the forest. Where do orchestras stand in American society?


According to an NEA study, classical music attendance has declined over the past 10 years. The same holds true for museums, ballet and jazz. We’re a long way from the 3 channel, 2 movie screen, 1 decent French restaurant, Chinese-food-is-exotic communities of 50 years ago, and competition for scarce leisure hours and dollars is fierce. In addition to the online world, there are more non-profit arts organizations, television channels, and popular music acts than ever. (The old bands never seem to go away, do they?)

So how do we compete with Breaking Bad, the national touring production of Rent, the Berlin Philharmonic webcast, Netflix, Facebook, slow foods, the Temptations and a free, but excellent, performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons every weekend?

Let’s start by acknowledging that this indeed is our competition. But, let’s also remember that we have phenomenal music to offer and a great track record. How many acts can sell the same 2,000 seat venue more than once a year, much less every weekend for 80 years? How many television series have 30 new episodes each year for decade after decade? You wouldn’t know it from our press, but we start near the top of the heap.

Of course, we’re not satisfied being only near the top, and we hate the fact that we’re declining. So let’s compete. Let’s make every performance a better concert than Breaking Bad, the Temptations, Rent, or an evening at home on Facebook or Netflix.

Once we’ve accepted the challenge, here are three things we can do to succeed.

1. Own our heritage.

The 20th century saw the creation of the full-time symphony orchestra. It’s one of humanity’s great cultural achievements and it’s made in America.

  • The first orchestra devoted exclusively to instrumental repertoire (no opera, ballet or theater work) was the Boston Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1881 – one year before the Berlin Philharmonic.
  • The great composers of the late 19th and 20th centuries saw America as a center of music. Tchaikovsky conducted the opening concert of Carnegie Hall – Mahler was music director in NY – Dvorak was transformed by his American experience – Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Rachmaninoff, Korngold, Bruno Walter, Toscanini, Ormandy Szell, Reiner and countless other great musicians chose to make the USA their home. The first complete Mahler cycle recording took place 50 years ago in Utah, of all places, and the Oregon Symphony predates even the Cleveland and Philadelphia orchestras.
  • Fifty years ago, the philanthropic, political, academic, media and business leaders of the US set out to demonstrate that American high culture was equal or superior to that of any civilization- particularly the Soviets. Part of this plan was to have 50 full-time orchestras throughout the US. We succeeded spectacularly! We’ve gone from needing programs to produce qualified string players to raising perhaps 100 part-time orchestras to a level that rivals the largest major orchestras.
  • We absorbed and internalized the musical styles of vastly different cultures and ages and welcomed musicians from around the world as we made this music our own. It’s a great achievement for the world, and the ongoing success of classical music in Asia and South America proves that it is just as universally beautiful as the Great Buddha in Kamakura or the Cologne Cathedral.
  • Music engages us, delights us and changes us in some way. We recognized this and throughout the 20th century, we instituted a fantastic network of public school music programs and community music schools to make sure everyone had the chance to personally experience making music.
  • Today some say that non-profits should be focused on serving the marginalized and working for social change, rather than supporting European-based cultural activities for the upper middle class. While these are also worthy goals, this point of view is a-historical nonsense. We do have an American culture – it’s one that welcomes outsiders and immigrants and honors excellence. The American orchestra is an archetype of our culture. While the very wealthy have always had access to great art, it was the genius of the US to devise the non-profit system so that great art, music and education could be shared by all.

2. It’s about people and relationships.

  • Whether it is through performance or education, music is a means by which people relate.
  • Music is not a product – it is a human exchange between performer and listener.
  • We play great music because it engages people intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. That’s what makes it great music.
  • Performances happen now, yet they create a living connection with the experiences and cultures of the past, as well as with the intellects, passions and spirits of the performers.
  • Performances that engage musicians and listeners intellectually, emotionally and spiritually ARE our culture. No apology or explanation is needed for these performances.
  • Gathering the experiences and works of different cultures and ethnicities and eras, and making them present in a multi-cultural orchestra is a quintessentially American experience.
  • Education is a means of sharing the experience and knowledge of making music. Helping someone experience the gift of creating beauty changes that person’s life. Musicians are the means, the channel, through which people experience music/beauty.
  • Everyone has the right to experience beauty.
  • Music education is a shared experience of beauty. The transfer of knowledge is a means to this shared experience, but it is not education.
  • Music is a discipline. It requires and rewards continued effort. For this reason, it is neither cheap, nor inexpensive.
  • The relationship between performers and audience does not end when the music ends. Listeners today want to know and interact with performers who move them. Although attitudes vary (NYC vs. Midwest), we should honor this desire.

3. Create new culture.

Culture trumps politics and economics. We’re artists – let’s change culture.
Ironically, we began to isolate ourselves from American culture just as we began to succeed in establishing and growing professional orchestras across the US. We made clear that contemporary music must be in an academic modernist style and that composers who wrote in the vernacular would be ignored, or worse – relegated to Pops concerts. It’s as if theater companies decided that programming would be mostly Shakespeare and new plays – but all new work must be in Esperanto.

It is encouraging to see that orchestras have begun to perform and commission works from composers such as Osvaldo Golijov, Marcus Roberts, Jonny Greenwood, Stewart Copeland and Bela Fleck. Cultivating great musicians who compose in the vernacular is a far more promising path to cultural relevancy than our adopted isolationism. Continuing on this new path will bear fruit. We’ve also seemingly made a collective decision that art organizations and new work must be decidedly secular. There must be no cult in culture.

This is not how the rest of the world lives. The strength of culture and its ability to overpower politics and economics comes from its roots in the heart of people’s lives – and to isolate ourselves from what gives meaning to their lives is foolish.

Whether it’s targeting the yoga moms with the mysticism of Hovhaness, marketing Handel’s Messiah to the local evangelical mega-church, or providing a Reform synagogue with an orchestral Kol Nidre for the ultimate Yom Kippur service, we need to be connected to the spiritual lives of our communities.

Programming that is merely “as good as [blank]” won’t cut it any longer. We’re competing every day with the best of TV, film, popular music, theater and everything on the Internet. It’s time to recognize this and take up that challenge in orchestras of every budget size.

We can no longer cede the argument for funding to utilitarian ends – we must make the case for our art as a crucial part of our American culture and heritage. Our listeners and donors are people – so are we. Institutions don’t have relationships; people do. We must cultivate real human relationships among our musicians, audiences and donors.

Finally, we have to accept our role in creating our own contemporary culture. We can never escape our history, nor can we create a new culture in isolation. Most importantly, we can’t leave it to others. We do have an alternative to decline. Accept the competitive challenge; own our heritage; make it about people; and create new culture. And thrive.

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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14 thoughts on “A View Of The Forest”

  1. This is the best solution that I have read to the issue of declining budgets and interest in orchestral music. Certainly, some of the recent orchestral strife comes from ill conceived manegerial decisions. But if the orchestra can compete successfully for the hearts and minds of the American people, the funding issues will be solved. Bravo!!

  2. Excellent piece. As a board member of a small-town-America orchestra, we hear the assumption that management is at fault for the current problems of declining attendance, budgets, and managerial decisions and feel it is accepted as universal by the musicians. But this piece does an excellent job of putting the spotlight on a change in culture and competition. Competition, or lack thereof, always affects the rise or fall of a “product.” And competition today is fierce. Your piece really does an excellent job of starting the discussion about remedy. The last thing we as board members want to see is a failing “product” – we love the orchestra as a product, and the musicians as people, too much or we wouldn’t bother serving on the board.

    I want to call attention to your last bullet point of item #2 (The relationship between performers and audience…). We, the audience, feel you, the musician/performer, are becoming very aloof. This is compounded in our area, where transient musicians are the norm. The lack of human exchange makes loyalty very difficult. And without loyalty, your brand will disappear. We really do want to engage with YOU, the musician, so simply turn and greet us. YOU are the brand.

  3. Thank you all for your kind comments. I am heartily encouraged by the response this piece has gotten here and on FB.

    @Mark: The challenges of culture and competition have indeed raised the bar for orchestra managers. We can’t blame them for causing the challenges, but they have a large share of the responsibility for rising to them. Regarding small orchestras- when I was a free-lancer playing in several small orchestras, I never felt particularly rooted in any of them. Getting a job in a full-time orchestras felt like going from a hunter-gatherer existence to an agricultural one. Nevertheless, I think that you as a board member can make a difference by seeking out personal relationships with your musicians in order to let them know that they are not anonymous to your community. In Cleveland, a few years ago we adopted the practice of turning as a group to face the audience and receive their applause at the end of each concert. It’s a small movement, but it is very well received.

  4. Laying out the goals for orchestras to achieve, i.e. connect with the audience, integrate with the culture, etc. is fine and dandy. what is needed now is a “how to” do so. Many great ideas founder for lack of a realistic implementtopn plan. Mr. Peyrebrune, how about a follow up article that lays out the “how-tos”?

  5. I too, enjoyed the article and the responses. While all make valid points, one critical problem seems to be communication/sharing the essence of what will make the orchestral art form survive. I am both a musician and board member; I know our conductor of a small-yet financially stable community orchestra doesn’t want to do pops concerts (no surprise, here), yet keep hearing from one venue we play that they want to hear that repertoire. Not advocating one genre over another, the point here is communicating rather than dictating. Or, watch the audiences dwindle. In light of the current financial crisis, my one question remains: Are the managers communicating the board and their own financial concerns to the musicians so that remedies can be made on stage or financial preparation can prepare all for the future? Don’t change the brand..fine, don’t accept the consequences, not realistic. And the answer, as this article points out, is not just in raising more donor money; if you don’t build the donor relationship, you can’t just ask them for their support without something in exchange. Going back to that forest, has this argument been discussed 50 or 75 years ago? What was the outcome?

    • @ Doug Fair. Even Beethoven complained that his audiences wanted to hear folk music rather than his new works; this is not a 20th century peculiarity. The main difference, of course, is that prior to the 1990’s, money was there for the orchestras whether or not they played anything the audience wanted to hear.

  6. In regard to some of the points made in the main article and in some of the comments re: audience. I feel there is a real lack of “Show” (to use a Disney term) with many orchestras.

    – Turning to face the audience during applause is a start, but also smile when you do it (too often there is the post-concert scowl!!).
    – When taceting a movement or during a long rest, don’t slump or slouch. Look like you’re listening an enjoying the music. Too many times an audience sees folded arms, extended/crossed legs and the afore mentioned scowl.
    – Don’t pack up, swab out or leave the stage during applause. These people spent money and time to come and hear you play, when they are showing their appreciation, try not to look like you can’t wait to leave.
    – A nice touch might be for musicians every now and then after a concert in stead of sprinting to the parking lot, go out to the lobby and meet your audience, thank them for coming.

    In general, audience members need to be treated better by management, board and musicians in every aspect of the concert experience. Every step in the concert experience from when they call to buy tickets through to when they get in the car to go home afterward should be looked at to make sure the patron is getting the best experience and customer service. If people are treated well and feel appreciated, they will be back and will tell their friends.

  7. @hvs – all great points – I definitely agree even if I sometimes honor them in the breach.@ s.becker – I’ve got lots of specific ideas. In many ways this project is like practicing an instrument – it’s an accumulation of details with a big goal in mind. I’ll speak to the management about a follow-up post.

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