Montreal is eagerly hoping for its new concert hall. In Hamburg, costs for the shining new Elbphilharmonie are far outstripping projections. And -- the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the leading orchestras in the country, which moved into a new concert hall a mere years ago, has filed for bankrupcy.
People often misconstrue my concerns about classical music’s future as a kind of ill will toward the field. Someone wrote me gleefully, after my article outlining the large number of new regional performing arts centers in the Washington region, to say that it didn’t sound as if classical music were in very much trouble after all, with so many new performing venues, now did it? Others point out that people have always worried about the future of classical music and predicted its demise: they did it in 1795, and they did it in 1969, and therefore we shouldn’t worry too much that some people are doing it now.
Let me be clear: I don’t think classical music is going to die. And I, personally, would love it if every orchestra in the United States, and in the rest of the world, were able to continue playing forever, in beautiful new concert halls with fantastic acoustics. I am deeply saddened by the news from Philadelphia, and I hope the orchestra, which has been struggling for years, is able to turn things around.
But there’s no denying this is a big wakeup call in a long string of wakeup calls (see Syracuse, Honolulu, Louisville, Florida). And that other orchestras -- Baltimore, Detroit -- have been visibly struggling with existential crises, more or less or entirely (in Baltimore’s case) financial in nature.
The Denver Symphony, which folded in 1989, is an example of an orchestra whose players were able to regroup; the Colorado Symphony almost immediately sprang up to carry the torch, and is doing well. The Honolulu Symphony may be following suit. The moral: it isn’t necessarily that a community doesn’t want an orchestra, or can’t carry one. It’s that the organization wasn’t able to continue.
Orchestras are institutions, like businesses. Like businesses, not all of them are equally healthy. There’s a life cycle to businesses: they start, they flourish or fold they continue for generations or close up shop. So it’s unrealistic to expect all orchestral institutions to live on indefinitely.
In the business world, you wouldn’t condemn the whole field because a few businesses folded. But you would laugh at a field that clung to traditional business models even when they were proving not to work very well in a changing economic climate. You would also laugh at anyone who confused an institution with its product (just because Kodak is doing badly doesn’t mean that the future of photography is at risk). Yet for many people, speaking of orchestras’ problems seems to be construed as attack on classical music — rather than a way to help it.
My husband, Greg Sandow, has been writing lately about the need for orchestras to find a new business model. One that springs to mind and that I’ve certainly mentioned before here is New York’s Orchestra of St. Luke’s. That orchestra, a tight-knit and well-organized freelance ensemble, has just opened its own new home this spring; I have been delinquent in not yet visiting the DiMenna Center. With this home, rather than erecting a beautiful new performance venue, the orchestra actually addressed a dire need for freelance musicians and ensembles all over the New York area. It offers rehearsal spaces, practice studios, a place where out-of-town musicians can warm up, change between gigs, give lessons, make recordings, even give free concerts (the orchestra has a new series called OLS@DMC).
Expensive new concert halls are a wonderful thing. But they don’t always help the musicians who play in them. The DiMenna Center seems like a much more productive edifice than even the Elbphilharmonie, or the Kimmel Center, for classical music’s future.