On the American Orchestra

Very happy to see my article about the state of American orchestras is posted on The New Republic’s website. It sparked a Twitter conversation with a host at Vermont Public Radio who clearly feels the perspective offered is snobbish and retrograde. “Yes, we know it’s not 1950 anymore. Get over it,” he says. I wasn’t around in the 1950s, and I strive only to idealize the past selectively and cautiously, when it offers a examples worthy of emulation. But I do think that orchestras have made a lot of bad choices in the past 20 years, that they have sacrificed their ability to lead, educate and develop intellectually engaged audiences. It’s a loss of cultural authority, actively squandered. I don’t think it retrograde to point that out, especially given the tremendous loss of creative, counter-cultural power that orchestras might now wield.

9 thoughts on “On the American Orchestra Leave a comment

  1. I am 63. I recently went to a showing of the Met’s “Live in HD” at a local movie theater in Austin, Texas and I was the youngest person there. Unfortunately the ailing orchestra is symptomatic of a larger cultural decline where the demand for beauty is thought to be tyranical oppression. Witness the reaction to the original article. Want a larger paying audience? Just ask Miley Cyrus to perform. Sometimes the price is just too high.

  2. Orchestras cannot impact or control the major trends in society, so they should focus on what they can control: the quality of their product, serving the needs and interests of their community, and their business plan. The overall quality of performance by orchestras of all budget sizes is very high. Serving their communities is often related to an individual orchestra’s financial situation, but is always a major consideration. It’s in the business area that orchestras have truly failed. At the major orchestras, musicians, like the auto workers pre-2008, expect and demand a higher salary with each new contract. Musicians at major orchestras make in excess of $100K (with concert masters making up to $500K) and enjoy a 20 hour work week and 10 weeks of vacation. The managers of those orchestras often make for-profit salaries (former NY Phil executive director Zarin Mehta earned over $800K and was paid over $2 million one year in deferred compensation). Smaller budget orchestras are often able to have healthier balance sheets because they don’t carry the huge overhead of the major orchestras. I recall reading that the Plano Symphony sells out all their concerts and has a balanced budget every year. Major orchestras need to accept their diminished importance and focus on how they can create a sustainable business plan that will insure their future.

  3. Great article. It’s a brilliant summation of the
    serious musical dilemma in our world, but it centers on logic and reason. Perhaps the problem for music, literature, for salvaging what’s left of our human core
    (spiritual diminishment) is so much larger. There is a seismic shift in what it means to be Human.
    It is the loss of our Human center which always starts with
    language and ends with ethics. And where ethics and language
    are concerned you will categorically have the ontological center
    of the human. In this case…the flat, lazy, shallow and simple
    partisans of the Internet culture who have reduced life to
    the Image… concomitantly themselves to Pop Culture impoverishment. In other words, depth, immersion, awe, reverence, the transcendent dimension of what it means to be human
    is gone. So in the end we get the culture we deserve, Orchestra Lite.

  4. Opening Disclosure: I’m executive director of a paid-per-service regional orchestra; prior to that I was PR Director for a larger, full-time salaried orchestra.

    I can appreciate your article as a manifesto of the orchestra industry from the point of view of a serious, dedicated listener. It is a complex piece, you cover a lot of territory, and you make some very good points. However, I find your wholesale indictment of the League of American Orchestras to be unfair. And I disagree with your basic premise: that the industry’s drive to propagate orchestral music has itself created the crisis that threatens it. This smacks of ICSOM president Bruce Ridge’s wrongheaded declaration, “there is no crisis in the orchestra world; there is a crisis in orchestra management,” or words to that effect.

    Maybe Bruce can delude himself into believing it’s that simple. Surely you, a Pulitzer-prize winning arts journalist, cannot be so intellectually lazy.

    True, incompetence exists in the world of orchestra administration. The League of American Orchestras has proffered some half-baked ideas (and some very good ones) over the years. But the idea that misguided management somehow created today’s crisis simply doesn’t bear up to serious, objective scrutiny.

    You make a valid charge that orchestras often seem to have turned their backs on serious listeners in their efforts to court new audiences. But serious listeners were in dwindling supply long before that happened.
    Unfortunately the decline of public mindshare during the 1960s and ‘70s coincided with one of the most concentrated periods of growth in the American orchestra world. In effect, we increased supply just when demand was shrinking. If boards and administrators were guilty of this, musicians and their union representatives went gleefully along for the ride. And the industry has been scrambling to increase demand to match supply ever since.

    Blame incompetent management, clueless boards and the League for all this if it makes you feel better. Dismiss me, if you will, as yet another uncaring executive director who doesn’t believe in the power of the art form (but you’ll be wrong there). None of that will change the reality we find ourselves in.

    And if we’re going to change that reality, we’d better all start pulling together instead of tearing into each other.

    1. Mr. Buelow, you write, “Maybe Bruce can delude himself into believing it’s that simple. Surely you, a Pulitzer-prize winning arts journalist, cannot be so intellectually lazy.”

      I’m sorry but, branding Mr. Kennicott as “intellectually lazy” is not an argument. Others (including myself) have been making similar arguments public or privately for some time, frequently going against the rosy picture painted by many in orchestral management, board rooms, and in so many print and online forums. Until one is willing to engage arguments like Mr. Kennicott’s seriously–with out the nasty accusations of intellectual sloth–the situation will only continue to deteriorate.

      1. Musicologyman, I expressed my appreciation for the serious and thorough way in which Mr. Kennicott presented his case at the outset of my reply; I am indeed engaging his article seriously. I am sorry if my characterization rankled.

        I think you may be fixating on a single phrase in my reply, however, and perhaps not reading it contextually. I DON’T think Mr. Kennicott is intellectually lazy, which is why I began that sentence with a disclaimer. On the other hand, I DO think the idea that “everything would be just fine except for the incompetent management people” is an intellectually lazy argument, and unworthy of Mr. Kennicott’s skill and credentials as a serious music journalist. (Just as it would be for the League people to say, as Mr. Kennicott accuses them of having said, that “everything would be just fine except for the greedy musicians.”)

        Also, I’m not sure what “rosy picture” you are referring to board and management painting. I for one don’t paint one. I don’t think the League is painting one. But what are we to call the idea that all we need to do is present serious music for serious listeners, forget about courting new listeners, forget about engaging in education and outreach, and everything will be fine?

        Engaging an article seriously doesn’t mean agreeing with everything the writers says, and sometimes one may utilize a vehement turn of phrase in pursuit of making a point. As does Mr. Kennicott in his article. Frequently. Did you read it? It’s not exactly a model of diplomacy and conciliation, is it?

  5. Andrew,
    I am afraid that it will be impossible outside of major cites to have orchestras in this country unless some radical change happens.
    It is so obvious without getting artsy and philosophical.
    You see a young teenager on the street and they have ZERO connections to orchestras.
    Why ?
    Well, they don’t learn classical music in schools.
    They don’t see it on TV.
    They don’t hear it on the radio.
    They certainly are not looking at it on FACEBOOK, MTV,etc.

    Plain and simple, it is a total abstraction like Northern Tibetian Gungamuk Yak Music to them, completely off their radar.
    So what makes any orchestra think they will some how wander into a concert hall ?

    USA orchestras are pretty much fixated on the past and perpetuate 18th and 19th Century European Culture.
    Pick another era ? Medieval, its all the same to these kids.
    Did we ever bother to create and champion our own orchestral culture like we did in Jazz so there is come cultural bridge between generations ? In Latin country’s young an old are at the same Salsa and Samba concerts. They pass their indigenous culture down, we don’t, maybe because it was not ours to begin with.
    The orchestra community has failed to keep classical music a living relevant art form. In my opinion are guilty of cultural treason and they are walking the plank they created.
    When you see this generation of VCs building Rock Museums in Seattle instead of championing orchestras, that says it all…………..

  6. I enjoyed the article very much, and agreed with many of the points, even if I didn’t reach the same conclusions. Thank you Philip, for substantially contributing to the conversation about the music, and organization we all love, which is after all, why we’re talking about this.

    There is much to discuss, but for brevity sake, and to escape abstraction I’ll stick to Ingram Marshall’s, “Kingdom Come” which you said “doesn’t work,” for being subservient to electronic musical enhancement, contributing little musical material, etc.

    I know the piece well, having studied it in depth, and assisted on performances of it with a professional orchestra. My reaction was very different to the work. I loved it, and still do. You might say that’s a testament to my lack of objectivity as a conductor, and you would be right. But I’ll try to respond to your criticism of the work, and why I think it’s successful.

    1.) I wasn’t at the St Louis performance, so I can’t comment on the balance in the hall. But your description of the musicians as subservient to the recorded (manipulated audio, mixing three taped choruses from formerly waring countries) music, makes me think it was way too loud. I’m sorry if that was the case.

    Here is what Ingram Marshall himself says of the piece,

    “…The fact that I use “interesting” techniques of live electronics or pre-recorded concrete sounds in my work is not, in itself, worth talking about much, as they don’t’ really have a life of their own. I grew up as a composer in an era when you touted your involvement in the new technology as if that in itself admitted you to the upper echelons of cutting edge music aesthetics. But technology, wonderful and useful as it is, is not it; it is beyond, way beyond.”

    2.) You write that the piece “checks all the fashionable boxes for new classical works, it is harmonically and melodically accessible and socially topical, it mixes media, and draws on musical cultures outside the concert hall.” Indeed.

    I really don’t understand your implicit criticism of programming modern works that share characteristics of classical or romantic literature with regards to harmony and melody. Why are such aspects of modern music anathema? Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate high level performances of post-war modernist music, but such taste in and appreciation of those styles are developed after years of cultivation in musical training. It’s like saying to the common man, “Let them eat escargot.”

    Similarly, why are works that are “socially topical, mix media, and draw on musical cultures outside the concert hall,” also frowned upon? Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique all contain elements of social relevance. Respighi’s The Pines of Rome, Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, and many works by Messiaen incorporate unusual compositional ‘mixed media’ types of processes. Yet these do not diminish our appreciation of above mentioned works, or their skill as composers.

    “Musical cultures outside the concert hall…” Beethoven’s inclusion of turkish music in the 9th Symphony, juxtaposed with high german fugue is as much a social statement as a compositional tool. Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, Dvorak’s Black and Indian inspired American Suite, String Quartet and New World Symphony, some of his greatest works. Rimsky Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, and the list goes on…

    I rather think Mr Marshall deserves some admiration for the courage to engage with our current, broader culture in a way they might find relevant, and inspiring. My experience of the piece, and those of the audience members I was around, was one of awe, and beauty, at this aural spirit-space created by in the piece, in which to contemplate the specific, and greater pointless enmity mankind direct towards each other, the suffering that ensues, and hope for a world in which a greater respect for conscience, and for one another is possible. I cannot see how this piece of music “didn’t work” in elevating our minds and spirits, as are the highest aims of any art form.

  7. I read with interest your article. It struck many chords with me and so I re-posted it via Facebook. Predictably perhaps the general reaction was silence, apart from one offended response suggesting this was negative, unconstructive. I hadn’t read the article as at all negative myself, because it seems to me that the state of the industry could be a potential source of power – as you say, a counter-cultural force with the possibility of challenging and subverting conventions (which I guess is what art music, and art in general has always done). I like the idea of classical music as the new punk.

    I’m writing from Oslo, Norway, and of course although things are very different here (I work for the radio orchestra), I feel that many of your observations do apply equally. It is very interesting that any attempt to learn from the past (or to suggest that certain things might have worked better), unless one uses a very large pair of virtual parentheses, is seen as retrograde, naive, and even dangerous. In my case, I’ve been trying to suggest that there is something in recording technology itself (and the direction it has been developed over the last century) that has had a huge impact on the feedback loop between a performer and his perception of his performance. As a trained Tonmeister, even to suggest this seems heretical. My impression however, is that there are many in the industry who are looking for leadership to challenge the conventions that don’t work – it seems as if the whole ecosystem requires rethinking. The problem I guess is that there’s no easy solution or quick fix, so anyone who stands up and claims to have seen through the emperor’s new clothes will be accused of negativity.

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