Philip Kennicott Wrote Something You Need To Read

Philip Kennicott would like to have a word with you about the state of orchestras; more to the point, he’d like to have close to 4,000 words. Think of it as an orchestral version of The Ninety-Five Theses but replace indulgences with what is perhaps best summarized as new model artistic planning and you’ll start to get the picture.

ADAPTISTRATION-GUY-081Published in the 8/25/2013 edition of, Kennicott, a 2013 Pulitzer Prize award winner for criticism, adopts a non-apologetic approach toward bedrock issues related to the current orchestra (identity?) crisis.

I’m not going to spoil any surprises but I will offer up a nebulous teaser about a number of references to the League’s 2013 conference in St. Louis and “professional futurists.” Good times.

Read Kennicott’s New Republic article 

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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18 thoughts on “Philip Kennicott Wrote Something You Need To Read”

  1. I don’t know, Drew…I read the article before seeing your post, and I have to say, the first thing that came to my mind was SNL’s grumpy old man: “Back in my day, we had concerts full of serious music, and you had to walk five miles for a block of ice. And you LIKED it!”

    I agree some of the rhetoric promoted by the League at the recent conference, with their futurists and diversity consultants, was a bit embarrassing. And Kennicott is dead-on with his description of the conference mood as “a strange mania, a mix of bitter gloom and hysterical optimism.” But the approach he suggests – doubling down on serious repertoire, demanding that audiences meet the orchestra on its own terms, insisting that music appreciation is hard work that takes a lifetime – well, that approach isn’t going to work either, except perhaps for a handful of large orchestras – the Boston Symphony comes to mind. I can tell you that the we-are-the-keepers-of-the-sacred-flame-here-in-our-ivory-tower approach is definitely of less and less interest to funders, and funding matters, plain and simple.

    Some have predicted a grim future for American orchestras, where indeed only a handful of large, well-funded orchestras will survive. In order to avoid that scenario, I think many orchestras will need to find a middle ground somewhere between Kennicott’s unflinching traditionalism and the headlong abandonment of tradition promoted by some (certainly not all) of the League’s presenters.

  2. Hi Drew, I read the article and I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the matter.

    I understand Mr. Kennicott’s position that orchestras should focus on the “informed, passionate listener” demographic. However, I’m wondering if this framework would be effective.

    I see two main problems with Mr. kennicott’s suggestion. 1) if orchestras focus only on the “informed, passionate listener,” it seems unlikely that people who aren’t already educated about classical music will ever be exposed and welcomed into the classical music culture, and that would be a real shame, in my opinion. And 2) I wonder if, 20, 30, 50 years from now, orchestras will be able to sustain themselves and keep up with opperating costs if they aren’t attracting new patrons.

    I don’t see any reason why all the really wonderful and exciting things about classical music can’t be instilled, albeit slowly, into a new patron over time. I’m all for attracting new audiences to classical music because I believe it is something worth sharing and educating, even if that means doing some pops, jazz and special presentation concerts occasionally (which are not inherently evil but obviously have the potential to stray from the orchestral mission if abused).

    I fear that if classical music is reserved for only the people who are “informed” and passionate, history will repeat itself and the music community will retreat into its Ivory Tower, the masses will have contempt for us, and we’ll just stick up our noses. I look to Cleveland and their new program to get more new patrons, specifically young people, involved and interested in classical music.

    So, long story short, I’m wondering what you think about Mr. Kennicott’s article?

  3. The article is clearly an opinion piece, a criticism. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it certainly doesn’t delve into the issues too deeply or look at proven solutions to the stated problems. The article is written from experience and based on personal observations and feelings.

    It’s interesting he starts out with the Nashville Symphony without mentioning that they went through a devastating flood. He’s typecasting the Nashville Symphony as representative of the general ‘crisis’ while there is a unique context.

    And that is the problem in this field. Generalizations.

    The author perhaps goes just as much into untried solutions and generalizations as the League does on the other end of the spectrum.

    Yes, there are trends. Yes, audiences are generally declining.

    But a personal opinion and preference that orchestras unapologetically steer toward a pure and true concert format is not a proven solution either.

    The author makes an excellent point and there’s merit in the idea. Here in Austin, the Alamo Drafthouse’s unapologetic stance on a pure and rigid movie experience is an example that catering to a dedicated audience can work and even win new fans.

    In addition, the purpose of an orchestra is the artistic output. It’s good to bring that back into focus and not unnecessarily expand on that mission with ‘general community do-goodedness.’ (And mission creep is a huge topic of conversation… are funders and foundations partly to blame with their insistence on community impact numbers?)

    Look, I personally hate pops concerts. I’ve always said that if the Three Tenors and Andre Rieu are supposed to be gateway drugs to serious classical music, I’d pass. I’ve not seen any data that suggests that pops concerts turn those attendees into regular season patrons, while that definitely seems to be the aim of those programs.

    But like the commenter above, there’s nothing inherently evil in those programs either. Just because I, a semi-purist, don’t like them, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t exist or wouldn’t work. And should it really be the aim to convert pops goers into classical series goers?

    It turns out, it’s all about defining your own identity as an orchestra. Defining your mission. The Alamo Drafthouse purist example above? That’s something they’ve carved out for themselves. It works for them. I don’t see Tinseltown or Cinemark replicate it. And the Alamo Drafthouse works in Austin, and while they’re expanding into other cities and the concept seems very scalable, who’s to say it would work in Des Moines? (The market would tell you).

    And that’s why the League also has an excellent point with the phrase “local, local, local” although they might not have taken it where it should have gone. In my mind, that moniker means treating each orchestra as a unique organization with a unique set of challenges.

    And that’s the problem with so many of these conferences. I have participated and spoken in these conferences, and one thing that certainly always stood out to me: people want case studies and then apply the exact same case study parameters and solutions to their own situations. Never mind that what worked for orchestra A might not work for orchestra B.

    Each orchestra is unique with a unique set of challenges. And there’s no one solution. Neither the purist, nor the iconoclast, and both of their generalizations help the cause.

    • You certainly hit one of the real issues on the head that’s worth continued discussion here Marc in the sense of building audience members and mission creep. Likewise, I love your point about taking the right idea down the wrong path, and that’s where the bulk of concerns about the business can be found. One of the more productive methods for addressing those pitfalls is improved research, continuous examination of new ideas instead of operating solely on blind faith, and resisting the temptation to fall victim to the panacea of strategic visioning at the willful expense of improving the infrastructure of nuts and bolts solutions.

    • Yes, the missions are artistic. But artistic missions alone don’t get you a tax exempt status under our tax code. All of our cultural organizations are legally organized around educational purposes, or we couldn’t get 501(c)(3)’s.

      As far as I’m concerned, any arts organization that wants to be artistically pure and avoid educational purpose should go ahead and be that, and should also not be subsidized by federal, state & local governments through tax exemptions and donor tax deductions.

  4. I believe there is merit to Kennicott’s argument. Many of the best compositions of classical music carry a deep spiritual dimension, and much of an orchestra’s core audience attends concerts for the spiritual and emotional renewal, upliftment, and inspiration that classical music, when performed well, delivers. These are also the patrons who will pay handsomely for tickets and who will donate to the orchestra.

    When orchestras perform popular music, jazz, or rock (which, for example, the Colorado Symphony has now added to its programming), they are simply one of multiple ensembles performing that type of music; they typically don’t hold any significant competitive advantage in performing this music over other ensembles. I would expect that patrons who attend these concerts will be much less likely to donate to the orchestra, will be much less likely to attend the orchestra regularly, and will be less likely to pay handsomely for tickets than the core audience.

    While conducting some pops performances may be valuable for diversifying an orchestra’s audience, there is considerable risk in making these performances a major focus of an orchestra. As an orchestra places additional emphasis on delivering pop, jazz, and rock performances, I feel that it reduces its ability to deliver emotionally and spiritually uplifting interpretations of the music that its core audience seeks. If the needs of the core audience are not met, donations and ticket revenues can be expected to decline.

  5. Mr. Kennicott disparagingly parades out a laundry list of symphony orchestra concert genres he does not consider worthy (“Pops, Jazz, Young People’s/Tiny Tots, Civic & Education, and Special Events” (including) “the Texas Tenors, the Indigo Girls, Christmas, Halloween and Fourth of July events, movie evenings, and organ spectaculars, among others.” To which he then adds, with a snobby, surly growl, “Almost none of this is of any interest to serious listeners, including those with diverse musical tastes who prefer the real thing to the local orchestra’s attempt to imitate jazz, ethnic, or pop forms.”

    In my view, this is exactly the kind of elitist viewpoint that has led symphony orchestras and classical music to be considered irrelevant by a sadly significant portion of the population.

    And first of all, what an insult to audiences!! I am a conductor and producer who is guilty of performing one of the genres that Mr. Kennicott disparages and diminishes (in my case, it’s “movie evenings.”) And guess what, Mr. Kennicott? I routinely look out on sold-out, standing-room-only audiences at some very major (and large) venues, with some very major orchestras, night after night, week after week, for the past two decades or so. Concert halls filled with cheering people . . . with excited audiences who have paid good money . . . who love the music they are listening to, who are reveling in the opportunity to hear a fantastic live orchestra and tremendously talented orchestral musicians, and are having a wonderful concert experience. But, per your definition, they are not “serious listeners?”

    I would maintain that audiences, on their own, have a very peculiar way of deciding, for themselves, what is “the real thing,” and whether or not they are “serious listeners.” And from my 25 year vantage point of conducting these types of concerts for eager, enthusiastic — and many times, first time symphony orchestra audiences who DO come back for more (including more purely classical concerts) — I would advise Mr. Kennicott to take the stick out of his backside.

    We live in a new century, and in a new culture, where orchestras have a million-fold more competition for the dollar than in previous decades. Relevancy is paramount to survival. (Sorry, that was not intended as a “movie evening” reference, and anyway, Paramount is not even my studio.)

    That doesn’t mean that those of us who are actually performing on concert hall stages lower our quality, or “dumb down” the music. It doesn’t mean that orchestras should stop performing the incredible classical repertoire that is the backbone of our tradition. But it DOES mean that orchestras have to additionally reach out to new audiences in new ways that they never had to consider in the past, and with new styles of music, and new types of concert productions that embrace new media, and sometimes cross cultural boundaries (which is NOT a bad thing.)

    There are so many other points in Mr. Kennicott’s tirade that I could take exception to. (For example, the not-so-hidden suggestion that film composers do not write “real music for serious listeners”) . . . but I’m hoping that others will respond to those points. But the thing I find most distasteful and insulting about his cranky rant (and I am purposefully repeating myself here) is his assertion that audiences who choose and support alternative fare are not “serious listeners.” In my opinion, if an audience member buys a ticket, goes to the concert, supports the orchestra, and loves the music they are listening to (whatEVER it might be), they absolutely qualify as a “serious listener” who should not only be thanked and respected, but more importantly, should continue to be served in the future with the kind of music they love, and not expected to necessarily become an immediate convert to Mahler or Bruckner (both of whom I happen to love. But that’s beside the point.)

    Frankly, to suggest that audiences who love and support these alternative concerts are any less “serious” or worthy — or vitally important — is downright disrespectful, degrading, and offensive to a demographic that is, in their own very big way, doing their part to bring much-needed revenue to symphony orchestras all across America.

    And by the way, Mr. Kennicott — if the “serious classical music listeners” had been doing their jobs in the first place, and had been supporting their local orchestras as they should have been over these past years and decades, the stage door would NEVER have been opened to these odiously-alternative concert options you find so distressing.

    As for me, I continue to sleep very well at night, knowing that the consistently sold-out alternative concerts that I and my many talented conductor colleagues are performing, out there on the road, earn a substantial amount of symphony orchestra revenue that, in turn, makes it possible for a great deal of purely classical music to be performed in other, shall we say, less-financially-profitable circumstances. Which is just one additional benefit of what we do — but with NO apologies for the type of concerts we perform.

    Sincerely Yours,
    George Daugherty (a conductor of “movie evenings” — and damn proud of it!!!)

  6. “Maybe the concert is not what it’s ultimately about.”

    Actually, that IS what it’s ultimately about.

    But that would take a much more dedicated response and I’m more interested in the following:

    Drew, do you know if any other orchestras besides the Oregon Symphony (which you covered in a 1/12/12 post) have dropped their League membership? If I were a donor, particularly, at a regional orchestra, I’d be pretty darn unhappy if some of my contribution were going to such an expensive sob-fest.

  7. My apologies for weighing in so late here but I wanted to say that I agree with George entirely; my take away from Kennicott’s was very different in that I didn’t really focus on the artistic merit issues at all. Instead, the real value of the piece for the field as a whole are his observations related to how group thinking tends to gloss over acknowledging and openly discussing internal problems to such a degree that it actively embraces activities and expends resources on efforts that ultimately generate counterproductive results; all of which is a wordy way of saying that the article’s core value is related to the administration over the artistic planning issues.

  8. Very late to this game, but I wrote a few responses to Kennicott. My first thoughts was the gut reaction to the final bit, where Kennicott more or less laid into new music, and how it shouldn’t be played by anyone “especially kids.” As a living composer, I was more than a little infuriated. His comments are exactly why, at times, music can be stagnant. He also showed a surprising lack of historical context.

    I agreed with the problems with group thinking and the weakness of the League of American Orchestras. I don’t agree with his attitude toward outreach. I especially don’t like equating pops concerts to outreach. It begs the question “What is outreach?”

    One of the biggest problems I see as a performer and composer is the stigma against classical music. “I’m not smart enough,” “It’s boring,” “They aren’t even singing English!” etc. One reason for this issue lies on the plummeting funding of music programs in America, and other educational issues (even back when I was doing music ed, I was a huge proponent of “secondary general music education” and learning to be open listeners). This is a place orchestras, and many other performing organizations can and should step in.

    Let’s take it from this point of view: if an entire generation can only equate what you do for a living with things not related to what you actually do, how can you continue to exist? These days people are most likely to encounter instrumental music in classical styles in movies, video games, and commercials. They’re not going to hear them in orchestra concerts. Where will they get their ideas about what this music is? At best, they’ll equate movie and video game music, and at least be open to Romantic era symphonies, though some will miss the visual stimuli.

    This, I think, is where outreach is important. Growing up, I never met an orchestral musician. I had piano lessons because luckily, my mother did know orchestral musicians and serious classical performers. I know for a fact that, without her, I would have only been exposed to those styles in movies as a child. I may have continued a similar path without her influence, but I highly doubt it.

    Orchestras, and all performing groups, need to help fill the gaps created by the underfunding of education. Why? Because, if they don’t, they really won’t have an audience. But that’s just the practical side. What about why we got into music? I do it to share with audiences, to share with listeners. I get as much enjoyment out of seeing someone’s eyes light up as I’m playing on stage as I do when I’m standing in front of a class room of undergrads leading them through a Mozart symphony. I get even more joy when a student walks up and says “I’d never listened to a symphony all the way, and once you told me what to listen to, I got it! and I loved it!”

    If orchestras are in it for money, and just “for the performance” they’re missing out on a large amount of time sharing music, getting people to love music, and become supporters…no, lovers of art music.

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