American orchestras: A time of crisis or rebirth?

(Courtesy of Los Angeles Philharmonic Association/ ) - Gustavo Dudamel.

(Courtesy of Los Angeles Philharmonic Association/ ) - Gustavo Dudamel.

Carnegie Hall celebrated the American orchestra last week.

Except that Spring for Music, the festival that ended Saturday, wasn’t actually a Carnegie Hall festival. It was sponsored by patrons and foundation grants. And given the turmoil across the country as orchestras battle financial duress and strikes and lockouts lead to concert cancellations, some might ask what exactly there is to celebrate.

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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.

Second, contemporary music. “The creation of a new canon for a new audience,” says Deborah Borda, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is essential to the field’s survival. No one wants to get rid of the masterpieces of the repertory, but orchestras are starting to think they need to be more flexible and reflect a wider range of tastes — and masterpieces that don’t happen to belong to the standard Beethoven/Brahms canon. Spring for Music, accordingly, encourages orchestras to program, to use an overused term, “outside the box.”

And third, cost-cutting — the hot-button topic around the country as orchestras, which have frequently been drawing on their endowments to make ends meet, try to cut down on expenses.

Cuts in musicians’ salaries are the order of the day, some voluntary — the BSO players to the tune of 12.5 percent in 2009 — others reluctantly, after difficult disputes. “The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra locked their musicians out for six months,” says Michael Henson, CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra. “They were able to negotiate a contract with a 19 percent reduction in pay. Indianapolis locked their musicians out; they negotiated a 32 percent reduction. The Atlanta lockout, they negotiated an 18 percent settlement. A lockout doesn’t mean you can’t negotiate.”

Spring for Music’s reflection of cost-cutting is in its ticket prices: a flat $25 for any ticket in the house. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra tried the same experiment in 2007-08 to counteract audience attrition. “It had a dramatic impact in attracting new people,” says Paul Meecham, the orchestra’s president and CEO. But few orchestras can afford to keep tiprices so low in a tough economic climate.

And neither, it turns out, can Spring for Music. The festival’s founders hoped that the idea would gain momentum and that another funder would step in after the initial seed money ran out. But like many innovations in the current climate, this good idea hasn’t proven economically viable. Even at $25, tickets for unusual, innovative programs by little-known orchestras are a hard sell — to audiences and potential funders. So next year, the festival’s fourth, will also be its last.

A new business model

Classical music no longer plays the same role in society that it did in, say, 1950, or even 1980, when Time magazine put Vladimir Horowitz on the cover. “Music has been marginalized from the central social and intellectual discourse,” says the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Borda.

People are not as willing to commit to going to hear concert music 12 or 14 times a year, and today’s lifestyle is less compatible with subscribing to the orchestra every Thursday night or Saturday afternoon. The traditional subscription model has long been crumbling. Orchestras have to work harder to reach more people, and they are getting more new audiences as a result. Of the 66,000 households that bought tickets to the New York Philharmonic last year, 38,000 — more than half — were new to the database, says David Snead, the orchestra’s vice president of marketing and communications. “It turns out that on any given night, something like 20 percent of the audience is there for the first time,” Snead says, adding, “The problem isn’t getting them, the problem is keeping them.” In fact, orchestras are reaching a lot more people than they used to: In the 2011-12 season, the Philharmonic reached more than twice as many households as the 33,030 that bought tickets in 2003-04. But the actual number of tickets sold was nearly the same: Each ticket-buyer went less often. “We have a much larger, but less committed base of attendees than in the past,” Snead says.

So orchestras can no longer depend on the same solid financial support from audience members — at the same time that musicians’ salaries, the lion’s share of an orchestra’s fixed costs, have followed the normal cost-of-living increases. A 2012 list of the top 20 orchestras, ranked by salary, goes from the Chicago Symphony, with a base pay of $144,000, down to the San Diego Symphony, with a base pay of $57,708 (for a 42-week season; most of the top 20 orchestras have 52-week seasons, but this, too, may start to change). These salaries, says Minnesota’s Henson, “are not sustainable in today’s economy.”

(The NSO ranks sixth on the list; the orchestra has the signal advantage that, as a constituent of the Kennedy Center, it doesn’t have to worry about deficits. “We still face many of the long-term challenges of other orchestras,” avers Shapiro, its executive director, but she concedes, “We’re lucky to have the Kennedy Center balance our budget” — meaning the NSO doesn’t have to face what is effectively the single biggest challenge for most orchestras.)

What does a musician do?

But there’s more to these labor disputes than just money. The other key issue in developing the 21st-century orchestra involves redefining what a musician does. Are educational programs and community concerts part of the deal, or are they extra work that should be rewarded with extra pay? This is at issue in Minnesota, as it was in Detroit and Baltimore, where some of the orchestra’s new activities, such as the summer “Academy” of workshops and lessons for adult (and paying) amateur musicians, came about as the orchestra, playing fewer concerts, sought new ways to make use of its musicians’ contracted services.

Some players are eager to find new ways to connect with audiences. Others are concerned that the orchestra’s main mission, playing great music, may be diluted by all the other activities, or they simply feel that they trained to be musicians, not educators.

“I was hired and vetted very seriously to play in the orchestra,” says Jennifer Mondie, a violist with the NSO. “I feel very qualified to play in the orchestra. I don’t necessarily feel qualified to do a lot of outreach. . . . I barely have enough time to do my job in the orchestra as well as I can possibly could. Adding that aspect to the job for me would be difficult, and for the orchestra could be detrimental. We need to practice as an ensemble; the orchestra as a whole needs to practice all the time, together.”

The new music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, doesn’t ask players to do anything he won’t do himself. The orchestra emerged last year from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and is still struggling financially; Nézet-Séguin, 37, is the kind of young, dynamic conductor the classical field these days is so eager to embrace. In addition to the high-profile subscription concerts and run-outs — such as the orchestra’s Kennedy Center concert last week — he has conducted a children’s concert and the annual Martin Luther King Day concert, and he will also conduct some of the orchestra’s summer programs, all events usually entrusted to other members of the conducting staff. “I feel it’s important to show as a signal to the Philadelphia community and musicians,” he says, “that we can be the same people, [the same musicians], in all different places.” In other words: the concert hall alone doesn’t define the quality of the music.

Nor does conducting alone define, any longer, the job of music director. “Conducting is a subset of being a music director,” says Mark Stryker, music critic of the Detroit Free Press. “It’s one of the things you do.”

It’s impossible to say how the combination of economic duress and new artistic impetus will play out — whether new initiatives will help reshape the institution of an orchestra, or long-standing financial difficulties will bring it down. The answer will probably be some of both. In today’s climate, people quip that if you see orchestra musicians form a “Friends of the Musicians of the X Orchestra” on Facebook, you can be sure a strike is coming.

Yet it’s all to the good that in a field where change has traditionally been looked on askance, innovation is becoming a byword. “If people don’t consider innovations a necessity, maybe neither is survival,” says Borda, who is fond of pointing out that healthy businesses reinvest part of their earnings in research and development, and that too few orchestras have followed this model.

At Spring for Music, there was one notable beacon of hope — a sign that labor unrest doesn’t have to be the death knell of every orchestra. Two years ago, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra lost most of its 2010-2011 season in a bitter strike that centered on questions of salary cuts and contractual outreach obligations, and that resulted in a 23 percent salary reduction for the musicians when work resumed, after six months and the departure of several players. When the orchestra started playing again, however, it embarked on a string of “Neighborhood Residency Initiatives” in six communities around Detroit, reaching people who had never bought tickets to the orchestra before, and a number of chamber recitals at a variety of venues throughout the city. Today, ticket sales are nearly back to pre-strike levels, and around 2,500 people are subscribing to the neighborhood concerts. And when the DSO and music director Leonard Slatkin came to Carnegie Hall, it was with 11 new players who are, in critic Stryker’s view, every bit as good as the ones who left.

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