Yesterday, I went on WNYC’s Soundcheck to talk about which orchestras, amid all the dire news of bankruptcies and strikes, might represent a new model, a way of doing things right. I’m not sure my views on the subject were suited to the rubric of “let’s talk positive,” because, as the field is learning very painfully right now, there are no right answers, and there certainly isn’t an answer that fits every orchestra. The problem with orchestras as an institution is that they can create the illusion that art can be institutionalized, when in fact it remains as individual as the people who create it. If you have a visionary, charismatic music director, you’re going to do better than if you have one who isn’t charismatic, however great his ideas are. If you have a terrible board, either too passive or too hands-on, the best artistic agenda in the world isn’t going to pull you out of the hole.
On the program with me was Alan Pierson, the conductor of the ensemble Alarm Will Sound, who is now also the artistic director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. The Brooklyn Philharmonic was either an amusing or a very pertinent organization to have as a guest, since it’s already weathered more than one cycle of financial crisis and near-death experience, despite having a long reputation of having good conductors and artistically interesting programming, led by the likes of Lukas Foss, Robert Spano, Michael Christie, and now Pierson, with Joseph Horowitz, who later co-founded DC’s own Post-Classical Ensemble, as its executive director-cum-artistic advisor in the 1990s. None of that was enough to keep it from financial difficulty. Tactfully, this wasn’t mentioned on-air.
Alan is taking just the kind of approach more and more orchestras are looking to these days. He represents a particular new-music, Gen-X sensibility, something even the Chicago Symphony is reaching for by naming Mason Bates and Anna Clyne as their composers-in-residence. And in talking about going out into the community, he’s unconsciously echoing the words of leaders as diverse as Marin Alsop (whose 2009-10 season at the Baltimore Symphony was particularly designed to reflect the different heritages of Baltimore audiences) and Anthony Freud, who at the Houston Grand Opera commissioned a big community oratorio, The Refuge, in collaboration with a number of different immigrant communities around the city. I haven’t heard a lot of resonance about either of those efforts, but I’m not in a position to hear the buzz from the target audiences in either case.
However, the bottom line is that the success of any new initiative -- and the definition of “success” is fodder for a blog post of its own -- depends in no small part on the organization’s motivation for launching the initiative in the first place. Too often, such attempts seem born of a vague sense that New is good, or, more cynically, of an idea that New gets funding, or, more desperately, of a realization that if something doesn’t change, the organization is sunk. But if New doesn’t fit in with your organization’s mandate, it’s not going to get you very far. It certainly is part of the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s mandate, and of the Baltimore Symphony’s. The New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert is a better illustration of an organization making an effort to redefine itself, to some degree or other, by adding a lot of new and unusual music and presentations to what used to be a rather conservative lineup. There’s nothing cynical about Gilbert’s attempts; the question of whether they will actually bring about lasting institutional change remains open (though I’m rooting for him).
The other problem with new initiatives is that they are tacitly equated with new revenue (bring in new audiences!), when in fact they often mean more outlay. I often cite the example of Tonhalle Late, a program David Zinman instituted in Zurich to get younger people into orchestral concerts. A couple of times a year, the Tonhalle’s seats are removed for a Friday night concert that begins with an orchestral performance at 10 pm and segues into a dance party with DJs. It’s extremely popular. But it doesn’t come cheap. Many American orchestras can’t afford to do such special projects more than once or twice, and that’s not a wise use of money. It takes consistency and repetition to help people forge a genuine relationship with music (or with anything else, for that matter).
So which orchestras appear to be doing the best? The ones that seem to have sound artistic vision and energy: the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for instance. The ones who have established a genuine relationship to their communities: I’ve already written warmly about the Pacific Symphony. Then there are the ones that genuinely represent different models: the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the New World Symphony, Orpheus, Wordless Music. Whenever I mention these ensembles, I’m guaranteed to hear from readers protesting that you can’t compare them with a regular, full-time, year-round orchestra -- which, to me, is exactly the point: they represent a different approach to playing the same kind of music. Here are some things that they all have in common: smaller administrations, more flexible concert formats, and higher-than-usual job satisfaction from their musicians. Don’t underestimate these factors as a key to success in the future.