Poll: What Would Help Troubled American Orchestras?

Monday, September 10, 2012 - 12:00 AM

Later this week, WQXR will devote the latest installment of our music-industry debate series, Conducting Business, to the troubles facing several major American orchestras.

No recent fall concert season has approached with so many ensembles in such serious fiscal straights as we're seeing at the moment. Delayed or even cancelled fall seasons may result. Consider:

  • The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra stopped paying musicians and locked them out of its facilities after increasingly ugly contract talks reached an impasse. 
  • The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra has canceled its first two weekends of performances after contract talks with its musicians union broke down Saturday.
  • The Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, two Twin Cities ensembles with rich histories, are both staring down projected multi-million dollar deficits and tough contract talks with musicians. 
  • And the San Antonio Symphony reports a $1 million deficit and no contract with its musicians.

While there are, of course, plenty of orchestras in solid financial health, this confluence of trouble spots has been hotly debated on blogs and elsewhere. In advance of our podcast we'd like to get your thoughts on US orchestras. Take our polls below by clicking on one of the blue buttons



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Comments [30]

Steve Glassfan

I couldn't care less if they all went out of business- they never play Philip Glass music anyway!

Feb. 15 2014 10:53 AM
Teresa from TN

"Broken" orchestras? Who says? No doubt there are a few that need "fixing", but as regular personnel in a half dozen regional size orchestras, I am fairly convinced it isn't the orchestra, but rather our culture that is "broken". Like many worthy things (education and legislative civil discourse for a few), art music is often a victim of our "sound bite" and fast food way of life. If we train adults to swallow food without tasting it, and children to insist on instant gratification without need for any length attention span, how will anyone see the use in interacting with ANY music/art/literature/etc... that requires more than three minutes of casual reaction to process? Even the pop music on the top forty is barely heard by those who download it, as the general population has no listening skills encouraged. Perhaps the upside to a slower economy is that a few will find time to contemplate something worthwhile. Meanwhile, we who care must do all we can to encourage thoughtfulness.
An aside to those who think disbanding the regular roster of an orchestra is a good idea: First, those who play together regularly, play together better. Shifting personnel can only go so high as an ensemble. For the whole to add to more than the parts, regular use is required. Secondly, by the time I factor in the preparation and maintenance necessary to produce a quality performance, I'm lucky to have minimum wage for my work. This is true for many qualified and well trained musicians. Even in the best years, I couldn't afford health insurance and the physical demands of performing are making some bits of me old before their time. Figure that before you insist that my wages are a problem.
What you give to an orchestra is likely to get returned manyfold if you know the real value of things.
Now go out and spend some time encouraging a four year old to dance to Bach. It will improve you more than the four year old.

Sep. 16 2012 08:08 AM
Bill from New Orleans

Maybe what we are missing is the fact that very few people are able to listen to and understand classical music at a young age. The beats and interplay amongst the instruments are very sophisticated and require a trained ear to pick out. Contrast this to heart-pounding, adrenaline racing rock music that gets an immediate reaction from the listener.

Perhaps, given time and maturity, musical comprehension will occur within our younger audience. Further, why should we ever fear the death of classical music given the great lengths we have gone through to record it?

Sep. 15 2012 11:29 PM
Justin Cole from Rumson, NJ

I believe that there is much promise in the union of classical and contemporary music. By this I mean that if a modern artist in such genres as Rock, Rap or Pop team up with an orchestra to do an album or even an EP, the music of the orchestra could be exposed to a new demographic. An example of this is when Metallica teamed up with Michael Kamen and the San Francisco Symphony. Metallica had a concert in 1999 with the Symphony in which they played their best songs with the San Francisco Symphony to play in the background.

Sep. 15 2012 01:13 PM
Andrea Psoras from New York, NY

Getting rid of 'free' trade will improve the US domestic economic/commercial condition. Meanwhile when people like me and I become re-employed, I will again be able to go to the symphony and various orchestras that I'd enjoyed. Many who ordinarily would attend classical performances have had to forego these to address necessities. Meanwhile better economic conditions in the US leave more in the municipal budgets for the Arts. It's not that difficult when in following the money, we only began as a policy using aggressive 'free' trade agreements with NAFTA that we went into in part because of the German Dominated G20 Transatlantic AGreements to which the US is signatory to de-industrialize to suit the german export driven economy. So we've been deindustrializing, going into 'free'trade like NAFTA to collapse, ie 'deindustrialize' to suit the Germans. It's been more than about time to repeal our compliance to G20 and to all 'free' trade agreements because THESE violate the Constitution's Article 1 SEction 8. Restoring our economy be eliminating non tariff'd importation will leave enough for our municipalities to re-invigorate and then also more for the Arts like classical music. Respectfully, Andrea Psoras

Sep. 13 2012 11:44 PM
Jae from San Diego, CA

The first solution is to lose the "classical" tag (I would prefer to call it Abstract Music - emphasizing the structural distinction from popular forms). For whatever music is or was most cutting-edge in structural form, in its expressive range, or in its innovative technique, is what has been saddled with a term that virtually relegates it to the past.

Some of the most publicly engaging trends I have seen are the introduction of chamber performers into cafes or other public spaces; live from the Met or the LA Phil in movie theaters to bring in revenue from far-flung retiree aficionados; and offering musicians bonuses who actively promote their local orchestras (e.g., by doing small group or solo shows at schools, museums, cafes etc).

I also think there should be a coalition with music-video artists to excite new enthusiasts: perhaps local competitions for best new abstract music video in various categories (could be a new Grammy award category).

Finally, music instruction in K-8 for all students is a must. Every study has shown dramatic results in overall academic success for students who dance, sing, or play an instrument. That would be the minimum for all students. Elective high school courses should also exist in for every student who wants to become a professional musician, conductor, composer, dancer, choreographer etc.

Sep. 13 2012 04:44 PM
Bernie from UWS

There's a big piece of the labor cost that isn't being nearly addressed here: expensive conductors and soloists. It's easy to harp on union stagehands and orchestra musicians (who make what a middle manager in a lot of companies make) but how about the big star cellists, violinists and sopranos who rake in $30K, $40K or even $70K for a SINGLE NIGHT's performance?

The business has allowed these fees to escalate unchecked, largely because of a handful of managers from CAMI, IMG and Opus 3 Artists who can drive hard bargains while orchestras struggle to keep the heat turned on. It's patently wrong and the soloists and their handlers know it. Yes, they do bring in audiences to some extent but there's no way even a sold-out house can compensate for the expenses associated with their fees. It's time orchestras put their foot down and tell these greedy artists to lower their fees to a reasonable level.

Sep. 12 2012 08:49 PM
Anthony Molfetta from Nesconset, NY

One has only to listen to the radio to realize the paucity of Classical
music stations:On Long Island There is only WSHU; this is the case all
across the nation.This is just one example of the lack of exposure.

In my view,orchestras must attempt to use the resourses in their communities(in addition to their benefactors)to raise money: convince
stations to donate time for publicity,enlist schools to help publicize
the need for funds through student volunteers,and perhaps conviince
radio and tv stations to voluntarily host fund raising drives.

Indeed, we know money is the orchestra's life blood. Somehow, however, classical music's popularity among a broader population must in some way be restored.awareness that loss of this precious cultural,human contribution
to civilization, is to precious to lose.Tragically,we are slowly losing it.

Parents,Wake up! But that is another issuue.

Sep. 12 2012 07:01 PM
Robert Munday from San Francisco

The business cost structure of opera and symphony is very much out line with the revenue that can be generated. Often the venue is a city operated site and there is an union crew. This is not a union bashing it is an expensive fact.

I do not think there is an opera company, a symphony company, or a Shakespeare company in the world that does not operate without either government help or major donors that contribute above the ticket price. I think the "arts" are seeing a major "doner fatigue" problem and the world wide economic climate says governments cannot (nor should they) continue giving. The only solution is having costs be in line with revenue.

Sep. 12 2012 06:59 PM
Andrew B. from Lower Merion, PA

Because my last comment wasn't long enough I need to add:

proof that there is classical music interest and that orchestras need to innovate include that people will turn out in droves to spend 2-3 hours watching a Central Park concert, or for Met Opera movie theater broadcasts. Orchestras also need to make seats affordable for younger people who aren't bringing in 6 figures--it wasn't so long ago when the top price for a NYPhil ticket was about $70. Now it is $123 ($246 for a pair!!). The only people who can afford that are executives of multinational corporations who don't have time to attend performances anyway. Are price scales in other cities scaring away audiences? I think musicians unions must be a big reason behind the price-hikes.

Sep. 12 2012 03:24 PM
Andrew B. from Lower Merion, PA

For sure there is no quick fix, or single solution, to the woes of classical music institutions. I think exposure/educaiton is a big part of it. A friend once pointed out that, back in the days of LP, because LP cases afforded so much flat space, you could read about the composers, music, and performers before deciding to purchase the LP. Then, the program notes were folded inside cassette and CD cases. Now, record stores are just about extinct and record companies have ceased even publishing program notes for their catalogue re-releases. That's a side point, but illustrative of the problem: how would someone ever "discover" or learn how to appreciate classical music?

On innovation: while orchestra subscriptions have fallen, performances in intimate settings, such as Lincoln Center's Kaplan Penthouse, are regularly sold out. This could reflect the younger generation's needing to feel more invovled and related to the performers, needing a personal connection. Youngers don't have the patience or desire to be one of 2000 or so passive faces listening to a rather formalistic Beethoven symphony in a dark concert hall, watching performers from the distance of half a football field. Orchestras may have to provide different settings for performances. (European halls tend to be smaller and more intimate.)

Pay/unions? Musicians pay may be paid well, and maybe should be subject to more hard-nosed bargaining before they put their employers out of business, but the non-musicians unions' fees (yea, the stage-setters and lightbulb changers) must also be reigned in. They fly under the radar.

Use of technology? I think the NYPhil and SPCO have done great things by posting recordings of the concerts online, and I think other orchestras have started doing the same. Also, I think Alan Gilbert does several YouTube videos for every concert he conducts. Music directors, conductors, and performers should be following his lead.

Sep. 12 2012 02:57 PM

Thanks all for your voting and great comments. We'll be drawing on these when we record our segment on Friday. Please continue to share your thoughts and look for the discussion here on WQXR.org early next week.

Sep. 12 2012 10:29 AM
David from Flushing

To amplify upon my previous remarks, if ones goes into Penn Station or the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and suburban malls, one can hear classical music being played. This is done because it is well known that teens hate this music and it keeps troublesome persons out of these venues. I have even seen kids walking through these places with their fingers in their ears---so much for exposure to classical music.

Sep. 11 2012 05:49 PM
Elide Manente from New York City

I agree with Karl. We don't need more managers and boards with business skills, we need more managers and boards that love the music and are willing to extend themselves and their organizations to make sure that this music is available to everyone. More exposure of classical music to the young is what's essential. If schools have cut back on music programs in schools, why don't the orchestras donate one or two afternoons a week to go to different schools and give concerts for the young students. It certainly does not have to be the full orchestra, it could be a small part of it, led by someone who could talk to the students and get them excited about what they're listening to - as someone else said, like Lennie Bernstein used to do. And it should not be just one afternoon a year per school, but a scheduled event throughout the school year - maybe every other week. It all comes down to education - the reason young people like rap is that that's what they're exposed to! Expose them to classical music and they will be the audiences of tomorrow.

Sep. 11 2012 04:43 PM
David from Flushing

The present problems facing orchestras and opera companies are symptoms of a far more serious problem for classical music. Whether we like it or not, culture has changed and there is essentially nothing that can be done about it. If you attend a classical music event, what is the average age and where will those people be in 18 years? There used to be people my age at Lincoln Center 30 years ago and they are still there, though 30 years older, but there are almost none under age 60.

People bemoan that if only kids were exposed to classical music, they would surely like it. Well, we even have free classical music on the radio/internet. There is no reason to believe that people will like something simply because they are exposed it. I do not think I would become enthralled of rap music regardless of exposure. The people of my generation all had traditional music education in school, but few of us grew up to like classical music.

My personal Mayan calendar predicts that classical music, as we know it, will die in 2030 when the audience goes extinct Regional groups will be the earliest to go followed by larger ones. The Met Opera and NY Phil might survive, but I am not so certain about the Philadelphia, New York City Opera, etc.

Sep. 11 2012 04:39 PM
TexasPeach from Dallas Fort Worth

Perhaps orchestras should hire more Americans as music directors, guest conductors, and soloists. It seems we do not support our own artists. We buy local produce. We support local businesses. Why do we not support our American artists? How many professional orchestras have American born music directors?

Sep. 11 2012 04:02 PM
Joelle Morrison from Staten Island, New York

Fostering children's love of and appreciation for music and doing the same for adults is the best way to help orchestras -- not to mention people! Outreach to and more opportunities for underserved communities to hear and see firsthand people playing music would also go a long way to helping orchestras. We are a young, backward country, without the strong musical tradition and support for it found in Europe and other places. We have a long way to go, but each step gets us closer.

Sep. 11 2012 03:09 PM
Steve Glassrules

Play more Philip Glass!!!!

Sep. 11 2012 02:00 PM

While there is no silver bullet that fits all orchestras, I feel they all
need to reach out to the community so that same community will support them. If they aren't opening their dress rehearsal with a cheaper admission than they charge for the concerts. When a soloist is going to highlighted they should consider having said soloist conduct a masterclass for which they could split the fee.
I've noticed that almost every doctor's office (and some others) have their radios tuned to classical music stations (mostly NPR). If the orchestra could get a demographic of these offices they could solicit them for support.
Last, but not least, orchestras should line up interviews with local radio stations that carry classical music. This is something the orchestra and the station should co-produce, and those times when a soloist is not available, perhaps they could set up programs featuring a certain section
of the orchestra or one instrument.
I realize these may not be overnight fixes, but it does address the job of all of us to try to promote and educate the listeners and concert goers.
I'm sure people and boards and orchestra managers can come up with other ideas along these lines.
Sure beats trying to sustain an orchestra with bake sales! Ed

Sep. 11 2012 10:11 AM
kriss from Piscataway, NJ

I think one of the biggest problems for the classical music world is the failure to get young people exposed to great music. This is partly due to cutbacks in school music programs, which needs to be remedied. But it is also due to the high prices of concert tickets. I would like to see more low-priced tickets made available and free entry for those who are willing to stand. I would also like to see more free concerts for children, as Lennie Bernstein used to do. If we can get children and youth excited about clasical music and increase the audience base in these ways, we will secure the future of our performing organizations over the long term.

Sep. 11 2012 09:09 AM

Managers and boards already have *plenty* of business skill, practically by definition! Often it is that "business focus" that gets orchestras working backwards-and-upside-down in the first place. What we need are more Managers and Marketers who actually have *musical* skills and can actually communicate skill and thrill to current and future audiences - and current and future Boards of Directors!

Sep. 11 2012 12:00 AM
Ben Phelps from Los Angeles

That 46% of people think the biggest problem facing orchestras is "bad business skills and administration" means 46% of people taking this poll have there head in the sand. That's the easiest thing for many classical musicians and fans to blame- it doesn't require them to look inward very hard at the larger problems facing the genre. And that's what we need.

Basically, to fix classical music we need all of the above from your list. Including reduced musician salaries. Actually, how about reduced music director salaries to start.

Sep. 10 2012 02:48 PM
Jeremy Nagel from Lansing, MI

Jamie/Brooklyn and Linda/Atlanta hit two key components to my "answer" (although I hesitate to call it that since I don't know the first thing about orchestra funding): scale and outreach. As somewhat of a purist who's swallowed the whole HIP thing hook, line and sinker, I really don't remember the last time I attended a performance by a big, modern orchestra. I won't pay money to hear Handel or Haydn groaned out by a Mahler-size orchestra. But beyond that, I think the most fundamental issue is outreach: increasing awareness and appreciation for this vast, amazing megagenre of music. Again, I won't pretend to know how feasible this is, but the kind of outreach I think isn't about hosting special concerts for beginners or not charging for pre-concert lectures. I'd love to see the classical music industry invest in taking its music, its performers and its performances out to where the people are. Classical music radio won't accomplish this either, by the way, and I'm not just talking about concerts for kids in elementary school. I'm talking about shopping malls and grocery stores and bookstores (while they still exist) and parks and (gulp) churches. Take a Mahler-sized orchestra, quarter it, and you've got *four* Haydn-size bands to mobilize in town and regionally. I'm a passionate fan with hundreds and hundreds of CDs at home, a capacious iPod packed with the stuff, an "OBEYTHOVEN" poster in my office, but *nobody* to talk to. I'm tired of reading about the always-eminent "death" of classical music and would love to do my part to pitch in for the cause. There *is* interest out there, it's just not being tapped. As a media veteran and current PR hack, I know you have to clobber people over the head -- repeatedly -- in hopes of even a fraction of the general public getting the message. They're not going to come to you (us), especially not with all the walls the industry (and its fans) have built up over the centuries. When I awkwardly announce to anyone that I'm really into classical music, one of the most common responses (although less common than crickets) is along the lines of "Yeah? I kinda like classical music, I just don't know anything about it." Translation: Nobody's ever ever approached them with the right balance of patience and diplomacy and passion. Calling it "education" is just further demeaning your would-be audience. They need it thrust before them, passionately and without pretense.

Sep. 10 2012 12:43 PM
Linda from near Atlanta

More education is needed. Rather than cutting arts funding in schools, arts exposure needs to be increased. The benefits are documented and far-reaching. Right now, attending a symphony is like entering a different country. If you don't understand the language or culture, it's hard to appreciate it beyond tourist level. "Nice place to visit but I wouldn't wanna live there." Pop music is easy, because they are speaking "our" language - we don't have to exert any effort to understand it. It's dumbed down for us. If more folks were given the opportunity to learn the intricacies, emotions, and depth of the musical "langauge", they'd find a great big world out there full of wonderful things. Along with children, adults need this education; perhaps beginning with the symphony executives and board members. They don't need more business skills, they need to learn to love the language.

Sep. 10 2012 12:03 PM
Jamie from Brooklyn

One problem, that I with I had an answer for, is that the form of the late 19th, early 20th century symphony orchestra is only suited for a relatively small portion of the 'classical' repertory. It's hard not to become a museum piece when so much contemporary music, and for that matter so much music composed before the classical era, is better suited for a different kind of ensemble.

Having a stable of freelance musicians that can be engaged as needed to assemble the right performing group for a particular program would certainly make life less stable for the players, but would give the arts organization much more flexibility in booking the right size hall, the right musicians, etc.

Sep. 10 2012 11:17 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

It's my belief that we are now living in a culture that puts the visual ahead of the aural above all else to the detriment of the seriousness of opera production in favor of concepts and fads. Similarly, too large a segment of audiences are expecting a light show, movie and, probably most desired of all, a conductor who is a choreographer's delight to insure heady box office returns in the orchestral realm. Those of us who were fortunate enough to be exposed to serious music and opera by our parents are rarities in this country at this time in our history. I decry the loss of basic music (as well as art) appreciation in current primary and secondary school curricula. I think these two are relevant. My belief is that running an orchestra and/or an opera company cannot be equated to running a profit-making industry. Boards and administrators have and always will look for ways to pay the least while expecting the most. It's human nature. Conversely, unions will try to maximize the remuneration for the players to the extreme of requiring a short work to be presented followed by an intermission before the Beethoven Ninth Symphony is performed. That also is human nature. I don't think government support is the answer. Erich Leinsdorf said that Vienna argued about presenting "Fidelio" to open the State Opera after World War II because the composer wasn't a native Viennese! And this in one of --- if not the most --- musically informed cities in the world! Along with the dumbing down of our culture in general...and I think that's a terse but accurate term...we have an expectation for instant success, results and the more profit with the least mental stretching, the better. If you think, as I do, that programming the 1812 Overture at every seasonal holiday and/or performing Christmas programs nearly every day will bring in the revenue, you'll probably be correct; and the accountants will smile broadly while musicians cope with near exhaustion. But at what cost music? I don't think I alone have the answer --- if there is one answer --- to what will save orchestras, but I certainly do know where to start. I would be delighted if administrators, union officials and all of us laymen who are concerned, to read one of Erich Leinsdorf's books, "Erich Leinsdorf on Music" published by Amadeus Press,in which he offers the model of two or three ensembles derived from the major pool to perform music of different eras all through the season, rather than the current system which depends upon the full compliment of musicians' services being used every week. I've never met the late Maestro, and I will not benefit financially at all from this recommendation: I only respect his credentials, reputation, and am a fan of many of his performances and recordings. I'll go so far to say that the first step in saving --- and preserving --- our orchesras is, like the objective of losing weight, the will to do so.

Sep. 10 2012 10:04 AM
Bob-Georgia from Near Atlanta GA

I don't have a solution. Fewer people like classical music enough to support quality orchestras. I listened to WQXR growing up in the 40's; kids don't listen to classical music stations now. If schools have money problems, the first to go are arts and music programs.

How many radio stations can afford to play all classical music? WQXR, WFMT, KING-FM, and KELF are all I can find. Atlanta's public station has gone to talk radio except for overnight and 5 or so hours in the middle of the day. Advertising supports only one of the four mentioned radio stations. It's an indicator of the declining number of people who want to hear the classical genre. Support from government has dropped in light of budget deficits, again because fewer people demand it.

If orchestras start playing contemporary music, old people with money quit going and quit supporting. Atlanta has a summer venue that it is profitable unless the orchestra plays a classical-only concert.

Maybe there are too many classical musicians. Without unions, supply and demand in a free market would reduce pay. Maybe musicians should be paid part time instead of having a yearly contract. Maybe the Atlanta Symphony and Atlanta Opera ought to combine instead of playing on the same dates. Maybe the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minneapolis Orchestra ought to combine. Maybe we just can't afford quality orchestras.

I wish I had a solution.

Sep. 10 2012 08:19 AM
terry johns from Edinburgh

British orchestras have suffered many threats to their existence and are now relatively stable despite very difficult economic circumstances, for instance after the death of Sir Thomas Beecham when the RPO was banned from the Royal Festival hall and forbidden to use the Royal title. The players took over the orchestra themselves with a board of directors elected from their ranks, and found alternative venues which were cheaper to hire. Fees were reduced at first, and they paid themselves in arrears but you are facing that anyway with no control over your own lives. This is the only solution!! despite what the establishment tells you. You will quickly find out who your friends are. You have instruments - talent and skill in abundance, support from the public and music is your life. No one has the right to tell you that you may not perform!!
Terry Johns

"We are the music makers"

Sep. 10 2012 03:41 AM

I think orchestras struggle to attract audiences for a number of reasons, and they really need to consider whether the things they are programming are appealing or not. I realize they are sort of like museums for music, but it doesn't hurt to put your best things on display sometimes.

Sep. 10 2012 12:59 AM
David from Virginia

What really seems to be needed is better fund raising, including cultivating more donors and subscribers. More people need to introduced to classical and symphonic music to get to know just how amazing it is, and why it needs to be supported.

Sep. 10 2012 12:59 AM

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