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Classical Music in 2010: Joyful Noise, Troubled Silence

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In 2010, some of the most memorable moments in classical music were marked by silence, not sound: Joan Sutherland passed away, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra went on strike, classical radio stations went dark and several orchestras faced continued financial troubles.

No force had as big an impact on arts institutions and audiences this year as the country’s economy, which has led to a flood of red ink, cutbacks and conditions that cultural leaders say are the most challenging they've ever seen.

Deficits are up, individual and corporate donations are down, ticket sales are weak and anxiety is racing through the corridors of culture like an especially virulent infection. What is particularly striking about 2010 is the parity of the impact: even top-tier organizations have not been spared.

Major Presenters Cut Concerts

January brought a particular chill when the chairman of the Philadelphia Orchestra suggested that bankruptcy was possible as the venerable ensemble saw average turnout fall to 65 percent of capacity last season and revenue plunge. Just days earlier, the Cleveland Orchestra went on a short-lived strike when players balked at management-proposed pay cuts.

Both orchestras regained their footing; in Philadelphia, leaders were forced to assemble an emergency bridge fund of $15 million to cover projected deficits. But their problems were not unique.

The orchestras of New York, Atlanta and Detroit ran multimillion-dollar deficits, as have the Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera. Meanwhile, Carnegie Hall reduced the number of concerts it presented this season by "10 to 15 percent," a preventative measure that, according to Clive Gillinson, the hall’s executive and artistic director, “enabled us to get through.”

“We’re nowhere near where we were before the recession, in terms of revenue streams,” Gillinson continued. “I don’t think the world is, and I don’t think the arts are. Everybody is going to be building back much more slowly than it went down. But equally, I think everybody’s much more rigorous about their business because they absolutely must respond because otherwise they're gone.”

Carnegie’s cutbacks may be hardly noticeable to the average concertgoer, in part because hall rentals by outside groups have filled in some of the gaps. Elsewhere, programming cuts are far more apparent. 

Columbia University’s Miller Theater is presenting 35 concerts this season, down from as many as 60 concerts in the 2007-08 season.

Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series has just 33 concerts on its calendar in 2010-11, down from as many as 76 performances in 2008-09, and 62 in 2009-10. Instead, there are two thematic festivals -- November's White Light Festival and the TullyScope Festival which will run this February and March -- conceived partly as a way to appeal to single-ticket buyers as fewer people are investing in subscriptions.

In an email message, a Lincoln Center spokeswoman noted that the organization had balanced its budget this fiscal year and is on track to do the same next year.

Detroit as a Harbinger

Outside of New York, the recession’s impact on symphony orchestras has been extremely variable, said Jesse Rosen, the vice president of the League of American Orchestras. “Some, for whom their endowments were a critical part of their income stream, the recession has had an impact," he said.

Orchestras that were already experiencing financial strains reached a tipping point in 2010, notably the 110-year-old Honolulu Symphony, which folded in December; the Louisville Symphony, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy two weeks earlier; and Long Island Philharmonic, which has only one concert scheduled this season and is without an executive director.

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra musicians walked off the job in late September after negotiations broke down over a proposed contract calling for the salaries of veteran musicians to be cut by nearly a third. Along with cuts in salary, pension and health benefits, their jobs would be redefined to include more education activities.

It is feared that where Detroit goes first, other cash-strapped orchestras may follow. "The Detroit Symphony situation is widely looked upon in the business as just a harbinger,” said Greg Sandow, a consultant, blogger and author of the upcoming book Rebirth: The Future of Classical Music. “Basically, in the field, everybody thinks that orchestras are headed in that direction. There will be cutbacks and there will be salary cuts and musicians will have to go out in the community or the jobs won’t be there.”

Finding Ways to Adapt

No one believes that 2010 will be the year that classical music starts to disappear for good. Yet many people in the field acknowledge that orchestras, opera companies and presenters need to do more to confront deeper concerns about aging audiences and shrinking cultural relevancy.

One model for a nimbler, if ostensibly less lucrative, future is Le Poisson Rouge, the Greenwich Village nightclub that became a destination for a number of top-level artists in 2010, including Kronos Quartet and violinist Hilary Hahn. Along with its genre-hopping programming philosophy and casual atmosphere, the club eschews traditional funding models.

“You’ve created a situation where all of these festivals and all these ensembles are dependent on grant funding,” explained Ronen Givony, the music director at Le Poisson Rouge. “We said from the beginning, we never want to be in a place where if someone withdraws a $20,000 grant we can’t do something. We want to be able to do it without any help and we have always taken that as our organizing principal. The concert has to cover its own bottom line.”

Givony concedes that LPR has never been in the position to be able to pay musicians the kind of fees they receive at major uptown venues, let alone union scale. "We’re a 300-seat venue and we charge $10 or $20 per ticket. But people that I know that have to cobble together a living, that’s the existence they have always known." 

Whether recent conservatory graduates or veteran performers, diversification proved to be a key to a viable career in 2010. Consider Eighth Blackbird (right), a contemporary music sextet founded in 1996 whose portfolio includes a variety of university residencies, educational activities and performances in art museums. In February 2011, the group will co-curate a "Tune-In Festival" in the Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory.

Tim Munro, Eighth Blackbird’s flutist, says the group has been going through a process of diversifying its activities and funding streams. "Since the 2007-08 season, our traditional sextet bookings have dropped off slightly,” he said. “But in addition to that, we offer a specific stage program every year. We also offer a huge number of residency activities and we’ve expanded what we offer. We now have a new Concerto for Sextet and Orchestra [by Jennifer Higdon] that we’re now currently touring with. Diversification seems to be the way that we’ve been able to weather the storm.”