American Orchestras: Endangered Species?

May 3, 2011 at 7 pm in The Greene Space & Live Webcast at

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Philadelphia Orchestra has just declared bankruptcy. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra is emerging from a bruising, six-month strike. The orchestras of Honolulu and Syracuse have folded in recent months. Many communities are left wondering: what's the prognosis for my local symphony?

But while many American orchestras face great challenges, a hopeful note can be found in the groups that are exploring new models of presentation, recording and community engagement.

In an effort to better understand the state of the American orchestra and where it's headed, WQXR welcomes four people working deep in the trenches:

Anne Parsons, President and Executive Director of the Detroit Symphony
Alan Pierson, Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic
Eric Jacobsen, Co-Artistic Director of The Knights
Tony Woodcock, President of the New England Conservatory
Raymond M. Hair, Jr., President of the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada

Graham Parker, the Vice President of WQXR moderates

What: The Next New York Conversation: American Orchestras: Endangered Species?
: May 3, 2011 at 7 pm
: The Greene Space (Tickets) and Webcast at (but not on 105.9 FM)

In advance of the discussion, tell us: Where is innovation happening among American orchestras? Please leave your comments below. You can also send us messages via Twitter: @WQXRClassical with the hashtag #OrchestraTalk


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Comments [18]

Daniel Koo from Philadelphia

So much of this conversation speaks to me. As a student at NEC, I feel so much bursting energy whenever, as musicians, we're able to reach out into the community and really take things into our own hands. Marketing is truly an issue. I don't know why orchestras don't really advertise! I mean, the met opera advertises all the time and they've always had a huge outcome. As President Woodcock is saying, Berlin Phil is doing an incredible thing by putting up their series online. Not only is this a genius outreach method, but this is also a way for aspiring young musicians to see the top. At the same time, there are many people wanting to see concerts. If I get bored sometimes at classical orchestra concerts, I often wonder how bored non-musicians must feel. Now, this issue has to do with the attitude of many musicians along with the $$ issue. Lower the prices, sparkle up the repertoire, inspire the young, and you'll have a new musical renaissance.

Jun. 02 2011 02:34 PM

One of the main problems with classical music orchestras, which is not an entirely original argument but worth reiterating, is that it has become for most practical purposes a museum orchestra. There are many good and valid reasons for it, and I'm not necessarily advocating forcing it to go any unnatural direction. I only want to point out that many of the reasons for why new music stopped being heard so much in concert halls over the past century in comparison to old music, have been disappearing over the past 40 years in new music. By this I mean there are quite a few composers out there who have begun to find very extremely remarkable ways of making something new out of material that is not completely divorced from the natural gravitational pull of tonality, yet at the same time has a very remarkable originality and freshness to it. I don't mean to advocate that all new music must be any certain way, only that there is a body of work out there that already exists and is growing which has the potential to not only satisfy the needs of current classical listeners but also attract a younger audience. Obviously there are many who will never listen to anything other than what they are used to, and this is entirely understandable as they have grown up with it and has been this way for several generations now. But basically in order for things to improve in the classical concert hall the very seed of what happens there needs to change, not just to keep culture alive but for the sake of music itself, to realize the full potential and power of music and most importantly not to let it fall entirely into the hands of popular musicians, who despite their talents and creativity, unfortunately often do not have a vision beyond the verse/chorus/verse mentality in realizing music's full potential. In order for the classical orchestra to keep playing, it needs to say I have really good music and I can prove it.

Jun. 02 2011 12:24 AM
shadeed ahmad from New York City

For all the heralding that classical music gets as being amongst the highest order of the arts, it still gets treated like trash by some of the so-called well endowed arbiters of the arts who could financially help keep orchestras afloat.

Their alleged love and respect for classical music is questionable and often at best mostly of convenience and/or shamelessly stingy.

There is a heinous breech in the nurturing of humanity's evolution when the existence of the arts are threatened unnecessarily.

May. 24 2011 03:00 AM
Victor Otto from New York

This might provoke those who follow the crowd; however, I felt like expressing my thoughts on the subject. I believe that when a group of people with "good" values are mixed with a group of people with "bad" values, the “good values people” (GVP) take on the characteristics of the “bad values people” (BVP). It does not work the other way around. We have in this country, because of social engineering, our GVP associating more with BVP. Consequently, the GVP now are not so interested in the good values of our culture and prefer rap and other forms of non- music. It is self evident that the heritage of our culture is being replaced by the culture of the underclass and therefore attendance at concerts of classical music is declining with the corresponding loss of revenue for the symphony orchestras.

May. 19 2011 01:38 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from BOONTON, NJ

I have read all the comments made previously.
IMHO, they all have merit, acknowledge the problems and some offer solutions. Unfortunately, those in a position to substantially improve the current state of affairs are either not interested or otherwise too involved in other matters. Some of the European countries, despite their own economic problems, have resolved to subsidize their cultural heritage. That, opens up "a whole new kettle of beans" if the government is inept, corrupt, or demonstratively guided by commercial interests. THAT IS ONE OF OUR PROBLEMS HERE IN THE USA.

May. 12 2011 05:04 PM
Richard from N.J.

So orchestra managers don't have to audition? Have you guys every heard of a job interview? Get real.

May. 11 2011 02:08 PM
mimi stern-wolfe from east village concert series NYC

Give an instrument to every five year old child in the public educational system. Make it am important part of their daily experience, lIke they get TV, computers , video games and all the other stuff that educators think are necessary for their well being or whatever. Create and politically agitate for a special tax and call it the "love of music" tax" that will be required for people with lots of money, instead of their current payent for the "DEATH' tax for war instruments like bullets, bombs, killing & annihilation tools . So every little kid will be playing his or her own instrument .--well or poorly --however, The main thing is that she and he should enjoy the experience , not hate it!!!! I 'll bet when " they" grow up, they will l love to hear and see people play music that reminds them of that fun experience they had as little tykes . What is so hard about that?? When you experience making music, no matter how simple or primitive, you always want to see and hear how others do it. It is part of that wonderful human experience of "curiosity" and being drawn to repeating positive things. Be sure to find teachers who enjoy and love music and kids and know how to inspire. There are still a few if them around . What's the fuss about ---it is so obvious, it is almost embarassing to have to spell it out!!!! The issue is beyond music, it is a political vision to support beauty in the world before people forget what that "beauty is all about.

mimi stern-wolfe

May. 07 2011 06:14 PM
David from SE Micigan

A major probem leading to the Detroit strike was the total exclusion of musicians from the decision-making process. The musicians were told: take a 22% calary cut and if you don't like that, try 30%. Fortunately, sanity eventually prevailed, but only after a 6 month strike. I hope a new concept of leadership emerges since the old one clearly failed.

May. 04 2011 10:38 AM
Thomas Blomster from Denver

The first place so many of these orchestra managers want to place blame for their own incompetence is on collective bargaining agreements. As another post already declared: orchestra managers don't have to pass an audition. And are we ever going to address the disparity in pay between the players in an orchestra and their executive directors, music directors, and soloists? These people all make far more than the industry can support, especially when so many of them are incompetent!

It would be nice if some day people would remember that an orchestra is made up of many musicians playing instruments. Conductors and executive directors don't make a musical sound. Why is it that when the executive director and board of directors fail to raise money, they don't get fired?

May. 03 2011 07:37 PM
David from Flushing

Just because we like something does not mean kids will like it if they are just exposed to it more. Would you like rap music with more exposure? The music education excuse is worn out as far as I am concerned. Tastes have changed and we have to live with it.

May. 03 2011 06:24 PM
Pete Vriesenga from Denver, CO

Tony Woodcock's way forward is to "tear up all those restrictive collective bargaining agreements and create a context of flexibility and trust." How can the president of a major conservatory be so disconnected with the plight of professional musicians?

Full-time tuition at New England Conservatory is $36,250/yr ($149,000 for a 4-yr degree). By comparison, my union dues as a member of the American Federation of Musicians are $149/yr plus 2% of work that I perform under collective bargaining agreements. Purely from a monetary perspective, who has the greater responsibility for the future of this industry?

Let's compare the success of Academia versus the Union:
In metro Denver we have approximately 30 publicly-funded community orchestras that provide a performance outlet for roughly 2,000 musicians who perform in them. Most of these musicians have college music degrees. Sadly, most have accepted the reality that they will earn little or no income from music and will more often PAY $50 to $100 annually for the privilege of performing in these orchestras. Performance quality of these organizations is amateur or poor, and prevailing wage for these musicians is below zero.

The ONLY orchestras in metro Denver that pay respectful wages are the half-dozen orchestras (Colorado Chamber Orchestra, Boulder Philharmonic, Colorado Symphony, etc.) that operate under union collective bargaining agreements. These organizations provide employment for approximately 300 professional musicians. Performance quality of these organizations are very high. Thankfully, they set the prevailing wage in Colorado.

Mr. Woodcock's way forward would have his own students stripped of their right to collectively bargain into their future, which is exactly how Denver's 30 'pay to play" orchestras operate. Despite the apathy, blame and division that too often originates in academia, the AFM will continue to be the ONLY force that will organize "collectively" to raise wages and standards for professional musicians."

Fair compensation is key to survival of symphony orchestras and the high quality standards necessary to sustain the industry. Mr. Woodcock's students deserve to make this choice for themselves.

May. 03 2011 06:17 PM

Orchestral musicians actually have to audition for their jobs. Orchestral managers don't.

May. 03 2011 01:20 PM
Matt from Brooklyn, NY

As an alumnus of New England Conservatory who's been paying attention to recent developments in the orchestral world, I've been saddened and embarrassed by Woodcock's remarks on the Detroit strike. He called a plan to hire a replacement orchestra in Detroit "bold and provocative" and stated that "orchestras' consumption of philanthropic wealth is disproportionate to the value they produce." With friends like this who needs enemies?

May. 03 2011 12:31 PM
Lisa from New Jersey

I have been a 25 year subscriber to the New Jersey Symphony and am fortunate to be in an area that has many quality smaller symphonies where I attend performances. The NJSO has been doing a great family series for years, which my daughter enjoyed when she was younger. She selects many concerts to attend now that she is older. My son, not such a fan of the format. We recently went as a family to a performance of Scheherazade by the NJSO because my children had both played the piece at the high school level during this school year. It was the first time I saw my son captivated by a performance because it was so familiar to him. I strongly believe that music education in the schools is what makes the difference and opens this world to the next generation. Once children have played in school bands and learn to appreciate the music as musicians, they seek out live performances. Unfortunately, all too often, the first programs cut in school budgets are the music programs. I'm grateful that I'm in a town with an excellent program.

May. 03 2011 11:10 AM
Eriks Dukats

I am a painter , an artist for twenty years , already while studying art , I was told painting was dead . I love classical music , but as in art nothing new has come from the field of classical music or art under our watchful eye for an extremely long time , more then a hundred years in my opinion . So more power to the new generation that is influenced by texting , video games , and lack luster music and maybe we don't need art in our culture to hold society together .

May. 03 2011 10:13 AM
Doug Moran from Denver

A recent report regarding the CO Symphony is quite timely to this conversation. The CO Symphony rose from the ashes of the Denver symphony about 21 years ago, and runs quite lean, compared with the "major" orchestras. I'm not enamored with some of the programming changes, (I'm a traditionalist) but they play outstandingly, well beyond their pay scale, and have done this for the last season and a half without benefit of a music director. It is quite heartening to see larger audiences at the traditional concerts, and to see younger audiences.

May. 03 2011 10:03 AM
Silversalty from Under the foot of the privatized Brooklyn Bridge

Check this news item, the sort of which I never seem to see on NPR, WNYC or WQXR's web sites. Then ask yourself about the titles of the participants in this "talk" and the likely dominant theme of the dialog.

The Philadelphia Orchestra's Unfortunate Bankruptcy Filing

A pull quote, that enlightens only some of the background truth of this "bankruptcy."

Worse, years ago the Orchestra Association went to the musicians and in effect said "Look, we have a cash crunch. Please allow us to issue an IOU to the pension fund instead of cutting a check." The union agreed and a series of memoranda of understanding were entered into, creating an unfunded pension liability. That accrued pension liability, which was $18,984,000 at the end of FY 2009, was $22,895,000 at the end of FY 2010 according to the Orchestra Association's audited statement. So if I am reading this right, the orchestra is in the hole to the pension fund to the tune of $22,895,000 as of the end of FY 2010 and, if it opts out of the agreement, it owes another $25,000,000 on top of that (instead of $3,000,000 or so per year going forward). It is this debt that the Orchestra Association wants the Bankruptcy Court to say may be skipped out on. In fact, it was the short-sighted, greedy decision by the Orchestra Association to try to avoid this debt that motivated the bankruptcy filing. The musicians bailed the Orchestra Association out by accepting $22,895,000 in IOUs instead of cash on the barrel-head and this is the thanks it gets. Sort of restores your faith in human gratitude, doesn't it Mr. Scrooge?

There's a bankruptcy all right, but it's one of morality. One that pervades our lives today - and often in the name of Jesus. But then there's nothing new about that aspect, is there?

Does this remind you of anything? Oh, say, proposed Social Security benefit cuts after protected trillion dollar tax cuts for millionaires?

May. 03 2011 08:45 AM
Deryck from Jersey City, NJ

Composers from Mozart to Dvorak to Mahler to Bartok have all gained their inspiration from the folk music of the common people - often of little means. If we don't improve music learning in our inner city and rural communities, we will truly have lost our most precious resource for music innovation.

May. 02 2011 11:58 PM

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