It’s a hard time for orchestras. But then, it’s a hard time for a lot of traditional institutions — newspapers, record labels, book publishers. Audiences and revenue are declining, and modern readers and listeners aren’t necessarily interested in the same products they were in the past. In the case of journalism, this means print newspapers; for orchestras, it means concerts of music by 19th-century European composers.
“We see in all walks of life . . . tremendous volatility,” says Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras. “So it’s not surprising that in orchestras there is a lot of tension. Broader environmental issues that are impacting orchestras will play out in labor-management relations, just like in any other sector.”
A couple of years ago, at the league’s annual conference, Rosen made waves when he stated publicly just how dire the situation is. Since then, a wave of lockouts and pay cuts — in Atlanta, Indianapolis, St. Paul, and, worst of all, in Minneapolis, where the eight-month lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra continues with no end in sight — has proved his point.
Nonetheless Rosen, reached by phone in his New York offices two years after that conference, is more sanguine about the situation today. “I think the strain that orchestras have been experiencing has been a positive influence with regard to experimentation,” he says. “I think it’s kind of accelerated change that needs to happen.”
Playing outside the box
Spring for Music was built around some ideas that are fast becoming buzzwords along with the catchword “the 21st century orchestra.”
First, community. The idea that orchestras need to connect better with the world they live in has become something of a byword. In Washington, the NSO has started an annual series of “NSO in your Neighborhood” events, going out into underserved neighborhoods — Anacostia, Columbia Heights — and working with organizations there to come up with a wide variety of outreach events, from full orchestral concerts to individual musicians talking to students. “We get requests for very out-of-the-box projects,” says Rita Shapiro, the orchestra’s executive director. “I don’t think we’ve ever played in a furniture store before, but why not?” The NSO is not alone; various kinds of neighborhood outreach programs are springing up at orchestras all over the country, while educational initiatives have tripled.
Spring for Music reflects this theme by including orchestras both large (the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra, the latter playing at Carnegie for the first time under its music director, Christoph Eschenbach) and relatively small (the Albany Symphony Orchestra), and, in the spirit of getting orchestras to engage more with their communities, encouraging their hometown crowds to come along. The Buffalo Philharmonic brought about 1,400 people to its performance Wednesday.