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American orchestras: Revamping the model, or embracing the obvious?

Thinking beyond the concert hall: The Albany Symphony Orchestra played along the Erie Canal last summer in a “Water Music Project” to celebrate the canal’s centennial – and reach audiences who might never attend a regular concert. The idea of orchestral outreach isn’t new, yet it’s taken on an existential significance in today’s climate. (Gary Gold)

A large concert hall, upholstered seats, musicians on stage, an audience in silence. Orchestra concerts don’t look like they’ve changed much in the past century or so.

“Really, orchestras have been very dinosaurlike in terms of their reluctance to evolve with the changing world,” says John Kieser, executive vice president and provost of the New World Symphony, the elite training orchestra in Florida that has set out to spark exactly this kind of evolution.

For orchestras are changing now. They have to. Like most large, traditional institutions in the 21st century, orchestras are rethinking their business models and redefining their missions as the market shifts around them.

And while many of the large “legacy orchestras” struggle, some smaller groups demonstrate there are other ways to make an orchestra work. You don’t have to be locked into a fixed structure, a single format for concerts or a single concert hall.

But because the paths to success are so individual and vary so much from one community to another, the stories of the orchestras that are doing well represent a group of useful ideas — not the magic formula that the field desperately seeks.

“The best summation is that there’s no way to capture it in a statement,” says Gary Ginstling, executive director of the National Symphony Orchestra. “The orchestras that are going to succeed figure out a way forward that works in the communities that they’re serving.”

Take the Pacific Symphony in Orange County, Calif. Unlike a full-time orchestra, it’s made up of freelancers who hold down a wide variety of jobs, and it offers only 12 weeks of classical concerts a season (many full-time orchestras offer twice that many). It’s also built up a loyal audience, is being featured on PBS’s “Great Performances” series, and, on April 21, is making its Carnegie Hall debut. But its success, says its president, John Forsyte, is the result of a number of factors — from a community large enough to support a pool of high-quality freelancers to one of the longest-serving music directors in the business, Carl St. Clair.

“Structure is less important than leadership, [or the] quality of the musicians that inhabit that group,” Forsyte says. “I don’t know that one-size-fits-all is our future.”

Community outreach

The week-long Shift festival of American orchestras that ended Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, jointly created with Washington Performing Arts, attempts to illustrate some of what’s going on in the field. It also manages to show how hard it is to illustrate.

The festival’s premise is that only part of an orchestra’s value is expressed in concert performance. Also key is the number of ways it interacts with its community. Shift therefore selected the four orchestras it highlighted partly on the basis of their various outreach activities, which they also brought to Washington: a bilingual “Peter and the Wolf” for schoolchildren by the Fort Worth Symphony; and a club appearance by Time for Three, the resident partner artists of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Community outreach has been a part of the orchestral landscape for some time, but these days it’s moved into a higher gear: less a nice perk and more an existential choice.

“I think, for orchestras, regardless of their size, their relevance and meaning to the community is key to their survival,” says Anna Kuwabara, president of the Albany Symphony Orchestra. Among Albany’s offerings at the Shift festival were a piece by Dorothy Chang that was developed over the course of two years with schoolchildren in the context of the orchestra’s Literacy Through Songwriting school residency program, and a club performance by Dogs of Desire, the orchestra’s 16-member new music ensemble, at Blind Whino in Southwest Washington.

Talk to orchestra leaders around the country, and you find a new consensus about what community work means: a new approach to an orchestra’s role, even a new approach to training musicians. Leaders of some of the most innovative orchestras stress the need to find different ways to perform and get the music out there. But it’s a hard thing to talk about without lapsing into routine orchestra-speak — and an even harder thing to spotlight for a public.

The Shift festival, for the second year in a row, demonstrated that this kind of activity doesn’t seem pathbreaking and is not easily visible to audiences that come to the concert hall. The auxiliary programs might be filled to capacity, but for the core audience, and the critics, the ultimate measure of an orchestra is found where it’s always been found — on the concert stage.

“There’s a larger story that needs to be told, that orchestras across the country are more than just what happens on Thursday nights at the concert; they are these larger resources in a community,” says Deborah Rutter, president of the Kennedy Center. “That’s the story of this festival, to the degree that we can get that story out in a cogent way, so everybody’s getting it beyond the people who already know.” It’s not clear, though, that the Kennedy Center or Washington Performing Arts are actually telling that story.

Moving outside concert halls

Innovation doesn’t have to mean reinventing the wheel. Some of the field’s biggest innovators point to existing models that are worth emulating. Forsyte cites the great London Symphony Orchestra as an example of the freelance model that the Pacific Symphony also follows. And Kieser, at the New World Symphony, cites the Berlin Philharmonic — not only for its reputation, but because it has more than 30 smaller ensembles active within the larger organizational umbrella.

“What I’m seeing as the future is not new,” Kiesier says. He cites Ernest Fleischman, the visionary impresario who long ran the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “Fleischmann in the 1980s talked about the institution of orchestra as a community of musicians.”

It’s a fallacy to think that classical music can only be purveyed in the way it’s most familiar: the established concert-hall format. The New World Symphony is actively exploring other ways to perform: shorter, more informal concerts; video projections on an exterior wall; several concerts happening simultaneously. Younger audiences, Kieser points out, don’t always enjoy the inflexibility of sitting in a concert seat for a couple of hours — a realization that led the San Francisco Symphony, while Kieser worked there, to develop its Soundbox, a black-box performance space where the orchestra’s musicians could have a freer rein in coming up with concert ideas of their own, and audiences could interact with them in a more club-like ambiance.

And there are several respected professional orchestras that operate on adapted freelance models. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s in New York, now 43 years old, employs three tiers of musicians: a core of about 23, with additional membership levels that enable the group to expand to a full symphony orchestra when necessary. The group has its own subscription series but also works with a number of collaborators, from Baroque companies to Sting, as a band-for-hire, and is active in chamber music and teaching. But James Roe, the orchestra’s president — who was himself a professional oboist for 25 years — isn’t sure that St. Luke’s represents a model others can follow.

“For us to maintain this level of ensemble is possible for us to do because of the richness of opportunity in this city,” Roe says. In other words, the musician’s freelance players are able to find other work. Neither St. Luke’s nor the Pacific Symphony offers more than half-time employment even to its most active members. “The flexibility of these musicians and their willingness to take advantage of opportunities,” Roe says, “is probably the most replicable portion.”

What this kind of orchestra also needs are musicians who are prepared to be innovators. Training needs to change as well. “Entrepreneurship” has become a buzzword among music conservatories, as institutions scramble to teach students more skills than simply playing their instruments to perfection.

“If you start from the source, the training that musicians receive in conservatory, in higher education,” Kieser says, “they are primarily trained to do a very solitary application of their talents.” He adds, “The role academia can play here is to create a whole generation of assertive, confident musicians who understand that playing in an orchestra is not enough — has not been enough for a long time.”

Orchestras, too, need more space for creativity. “It’s hard to find the time to think strategically in a busy orchestra,” St. Luke’s Roe says. “The needs of fundraising, concert producing, and a planning cycle many months in advance [make it] hard to carve out time to have strategic focus. There would be a great return of investment if there were significant national funders who would make strategic sabbaticals possible for leaders of these big orchestras.” Many orchestral leaders stress the importance of research and development, but not that many are able to allocate the resources to make it happen. And when a new initiative is launched, it can be tricky to know how far to pursue it — or when to let it fail. “Failure is not necessarily a bad thing,” Kieser says, although it may take some work to persuade a musician who’s been trained never to show anything less than perfection.

Some of us in the field, fed up with what seems to be a glacial pace of change, are ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater and start up new organizations. The point that Shift is trying to make, in which many industry leaders concur, is that there already are some good practices out there. The problem is that those practices aren’t being heralded loudly enough, or being embraced by the largest organizations in the field, which continue to appear racist, sexist, locked into tradition to the point of ossification, and an unhappy place to work. What the field is, perhaps, gradually coming to realize is that musicians who are treated like cogs in an artistic machine, to the exclusion of their own personhood, are not going to produce vibrant performances that speak to a contemporary audience — and it isn’t just the Albany Symphony, but also the Berlin Philharmonic, that demonstrate workable alternatives to the American status quo.

“I do believe that one of the trickier questions that arises with an orchestra like ours [is,] can you achieve the ensemble excellence of an orchestra that plays together day after day, week after week?” the Pacific Symphony’s Forsyte says. “It may be that if we play more and more weeks together it can help. But if there’s a slight trade-off to ensemble perfection, the edge-of- the-seat energy, the flexibility to play everything with commitment, may be worth the trade-off.”