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Classical Beat
Posted at 03:09 PM ET, 05/11/2011

Orchestras in Germany: snapshots of a crisis

In 1993, when I lived in Germany, I did a big article for Opera News on the effect of reunification on the country’s opera companies. (It was my first commissioned piece for an American magazine, and I was so excited I wrote more than 10,000 words.) It was easy to see, at the time, that the field was facing a big crisis. All the theaters and the orchestras were dependent on state and city funding, and funding was in much shorter supply due to the financial cost of reunification. Some opera houses (like Frankfurt, which was trying to support an international company solely on a municipal budget) went dark for a number of nights each week; others were faced with outright closure.

Twenty years later (almost), we can look back and see what the crisis actually looked like. According to the book “Musical Life in Germany,” an informational publication put out by the German Music Information Center (MIZ) that just landed on my desk, there were 168 publicly financed concert, opera, chamber and radio orchestras in reunified Germany in 1992. “Since then,” the book states, “35 ensembles have been dissolved or merged.” That’s a lot. There are 2,237 fewer full-time positions for orchestral musicians in Germany today than there were in 1992 — a loss of 18%. As we wring our hands over the loss of orchestras in Louisville, Hono­lulu, Syracuse, and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s declaration of bankruptcy, imagine what we’d do if we lost 35 of them. The vast majority of these closures were in the states of the former East Germany; some areas, particularly smaller towns and cities, were left without orchestras and opera companies at all. And mergers and closures are continuing to take place.

However, even after all these cutbacks, Germany still has 133 orchestras, and 83 opera houses – one-seventh of the world’s opera happens in Germany alone. And the number of orchestral concerts, and of attendees, is actually going up: there were about 1,800 more orchestral concerts in the 2008-09 season than there had been in the 2001-01 season (and no, those figures don’t include school concerts and educational events). Orchestral attendance, given at 3,666,142 in the 2000-01 season, was, by 2008-09, up to just over 4 million. What are we to make of this?

The opera picture was not quite so rosy: 2008-9 saw slightly fewer productions, and slightly smaller audiences, than 2000-01. And the picture for theaters overall was even worse: most German theaters present opera, operetta, ballet and musicals, and the totals for all of the categories showed significant declines: audiences were down by more than 1.2 million. Theaters play to an average of about 75% capacity. (One of the things I miss about working in Germany was the ready availability of all these statistics – though, with the rise of private orchestras that don’t have to submit figures to the government, the statistics are becoming less reliable.)

The text is not sanguine about the future: “It would seem that every area in the public financing of culture will come under even more strain than has hitherto been the case,” it states. “Countermeasures and a change of approach are required if long-term damage to Germany’s cultural legacy is to be avoided.” (As someone who used to make a living doing translations of this kind of text, I bristle at the wooden quality of the English here, but that’s beside the point.)

All of this, I believe, provides a useful perspective in evaluating the current situation in America. Yes, the German and American systems are radically different; you can’t compare their government subsidies with our privately funded model; and Germany has more classical music institutions than any other country in the world (one-seventh of the world’s opera companies are in Germany). But the fact is, as we look ahead to a questionable future for orchestras on this side of the pond, Germany offers a concrete picture of what cutbacks and crisis actually look like.

I’ll hazard a prediction that the future in the United States might look somewhat similar: fewer orchestras, much handwringing and uncertainty, but still lots of concerts. It’s in the eye of the beholder whether the glass is half empty (so many losses! Can’t be sustained!) or half full (4 million concertgoers! How can you say music is threatened?). It’s more helpful to face the reality: the crisis is real, and continuing, and yet even in the midst of it, there’s still a lot of music in the landscape - maybe more than ever.

By  |  03:09 PM ET, 05/11/2011

 
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