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Michael Divino

Regional Orchestras no good?

June 15, 2010 at 2:51 PM

Read.  React.   I am highly upset. 

From Corwin Slack
Posted on June 15, 2010 at 3:08 PM

 Its all marketing and delivery. It always has been and always will be. In Houston we have a symphony orchestra (HSO) a ballet orchestra, an opera orchestra and several gig ensembles in addition to two fine music school orchestras. 

The ballet and opera share many musicians making it a marginally livable wage. The symphony pays a livable wage. The rest pay gig rates (except for the student ensembles who play a mean concert in the best  halls in town). 

We have essentially gig orchestras in San Antonio, Austin and Beaumont, which are relatively close by. The HSO could probably serve all their needs.  At a minimum it could do more runouts to the suburbn corners of the huge Houston metropolitan area.

I do think that it is time to start looking for opportunities to consolidate.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on June 15, 2010 at 8:18 PM

What Corwin said.   For me, after a certain point, CDs are sort of sterile.  Live orchs really serve two purposes, IMHO:  one is to take the kids so you can get them excited about music and its pageantry, and the other is so that you can see an orch live and share the excitement of hearing live music.  How important any particular regional orch for these two purposes probably depends on what else is around.  A regional orch in a place such as Bozeman, Montana, probably has a more important role, since it may be the only one within miles, than a regional in Pasadena, where there is already a major symphony nearby plus probably a number of other orchs of varying quality.   So, I think consolidation may be an unfortunate trend in those areas where there is perceived "redundancy."

From Michael Avagliano
Posted on June 15, 2010 at 8:27 PM

The simple fact is, it all starts with the money -- or lack of it. With a shrinking budget, many regional orchestra boards immediately think of cutting two things -- rehearsal time (the single biggest expense) and music rental. Of course, this leads to vanilla programs and mediocre performances, which causes a dip in attendance, which shrinks the budget, causing the board to cut rehearsal time...... it's a death spiral.

 The most successful regional orchestras I've seen in my neck of the woods rely on two things -- innovative programming and a commitment to keeping the product on stage at a high level. It requires guts from a board to commit to those things, but I see it as the best way to keep an orchestra vibrant and relevant in the community. There is a valid point to be made that regional orchestras can't (or maybe shouldn't) compete with the major symphony around the corner. Why should a potential audience member hear Pasadena play Beethoven 7 when they can just as easily hear LA Phil do it a few weeks later -- or to put it in another region, why should the audience hear the Macon Symphony when they just as easily go to an Atlanta Symphony performance?

 For me, the future for regional orchestras lies in the programming. Bringing new music to the audiences, bringing performances they _can't_ hear anywhere else, and presenting the standard repertoire in innovative ways -- that's something that can't be seen on YouTube or iTunes. Again, it takes commitment to the premise by the entire organization, but it can be done.

 The geography certainly plays a part, as Tom pointed out. Being close to a major symphony can be catastrophic for a regional orchestra in this climate. Or, it can be a challenge to bring something to the audience that the major symphony isn't.

From Bill Busen
Posted on June 15, 2010 at 9:14 PM

The only way he can (putatively) make his case is by conflating regional and local orchestras, and implying that they all play youth orchestra rep badly.  I once expected better from Teachout.

The article reminds me of the New York denizen who visited the 300K-population urban area where I once lived who asked some people if we took American money out here, and was nonplussed that no one "got the joke".

From Corwin Slack
Posted on June 15, 2010 at 9:51 PM

 Teachout grew up in  rural area and plays the violin decently. In fact he contemplated a professional (orchestra) career early on.

I do think that live music has value and should be encouraged but only a few cities can sustain a 48 week concert season or even a 36 week season. (Less than that and its a gig orchestra in my book). 

So I think the solution is to make more consolidated 48 week season orchestras that play the opera, the ballet, the symphony programs and the suburban or regional runouts. 

I remember that until the mid 60s Time Magazine only treated classical music in its music section. Pop music, Jazz and everything else were not called music and were not regular topics.  Then the powers that be decided that it was all music and (to me) that was the beginning of the end. No more aspirations for something better. It was all equally valid and equally worthwhile so here we are folks. It is just a form of entertainment not a cultural sacrament. 

From Robert Niles
Posted on June 15, 2010 at 10:43 PM

Anyone who suggests that there is no market for excellent, live instrumental music (including classical music) hasn't spent much time online watching the fanatical communities surrounding pretty much every genre imaginable.

Technology has not reduced the demand for such music. If anything, it has enhanced demand by enabling more people to sample from a wider variety of great music.

The public demand is there. The supply of great musicians is there. Orchestra failures are, therefore, simply a failure to put the two together. If an orchestra fails, it is because a board failed to put together a management team that could identify and develop demand within its community, then pair it with musicians to fulfill that demand. (Let's remember that demand for classical music is not limited to rich, white, old people. Far from it, in fact.)

Communities do change over time, so boards, managers, artistic leadership and even the line-up of musicians must change to reflect that. But I think many of us have seen plenty of communities where orchestra boards were filled with people who saw the board as a high-income social club (or a business networking opportunity), instead of an opportunity to serve the cause of great music.

Well-run orchestras that engage true music fans in their communities will endure, whether they be national, regional or local in scope. Poorly-run ones will fail, regardless of the size of their communities.

From Michael Avagliano
Posted on June 15, 2010 at 11:02 PM

Hear, hear, Robert! I've known too many boards that act exactly the way you describe -- coming to meetings to be seen rather than to work for the well-being of the organization. They've forgotten the three G's for a nonprofit board -- Give (donate to the organization), Get (others to donate), or Go (home and stop wasting the time of the other board members).

My rant about programming meant to encompass some of what you said, although I didn't do a very good job of it. The problem I see with boards when it comes to endorsing an artistic vision is that _they_ don't yet understand that classical music is reaching beyond the "rich, white, old people", and as a result they're asking the artistic leadership to program pieces that they think will play to their audience. They're missing that there's a whole section of the population at large that's not being reached by sticking to the classical top 40, and it is a serious part of the problem.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 15, 2010 at 10:58 PM

 I play in a community orchestra which is a step below a regional orchestra in terms of professionalism.  All the musicians and administrators are volunteers, but the conductors are paid and the orchestra has a substantial endowment that pays for things like rehearsal space and hall rental, music rental, and the Young Artists' competition.

I've only been in the orchestra for 3 years, but I've noticed a few things.  First, it is financially solvent.  Last year it actually made money--although it's a non-profit.  Second, everyone works incredibly hard at keeping it that way.  Members sell fruit, sell sponsorships, sell concert tickets.  People donate their time to make the concert posters and do the publicity, to be the librarian, to sell tickets, to design and print the programs, to set up for the concerts and take down again.  The chair of the orchestra seems, from my perspective, like a full-time job.  

I've been approached to do more administration, but I feel like I do what I can--I created and administer the facebook page, I go to town day for my town and sit at a booth, I put up flyers in local businesses, I sell a few sponsorships--and I just can't do more.  As the concertmaster, I also have to practice my part and distribute bowings.  (In addition to my full-time day job and two kids).

The most successful concerts are two:  the family concert where the young artist competition winner plays, and the POPS concert.  These have been played to a full house every year I've been in the orchestra.  The POPS concert has raffle tickets for donated prizes, a strawberry festival, patriotic songs, and balloons falling from the ceiling.  It is a big fundraiser.  The purely classical concerts where we play the "chestnuts" are less well attended, but they are the favorites of most of the people in the orchestra.

The orchestra, and its partner chorus, have fans, and they have local celebrities.  The celebrities are local musical figures:  a composer of church choral music, a beloved teacher who taught orchestra for years in the local public schools and now conducts, the former concertmaster who still plays and who has been with the orchestra since its beginning 75 years ago.  The history matters.  This orchestra played benefit concerts for our servicemen in World War II.  And we honor those who served at the POPS concert with patriotic music.  We also premiere music written by local composers.

I am not sure what conclusions to draw from these observations, but this particular model does seem to work.  It seems like the ties to the community, the love of music, and the hard work and dedication of the volunteers are the most important things--not whether we're better players than all the other orchestras around here.  I don't think people come to hear the "best" version of the Schumann Requiem or the most "excellent" performance of a Mozart symphony.  They could certainly get that elsewhere.  Somehow that kind of attitude is just beside the point.

From Stephen Symchych
Posted on June 15, 2010 at 11:46 PM

It helps to have a product that is unique, or at least uniquely convenient.

Boston is kind of an interesting situation because there are so many freelancers, students, and accomplished amateurs around.  So it's possible to put together a group that doesn't cost BSO money and can still deliver some good results.  There's going to be some pain as the recession keeps crawling along, but there remains a decent case to be made for selling high-level programming that isn't phoned in (Boston Phil), that is free and outdoors (Landmarks Orchestra), or that doesn't require a drive into town (Lexington, et al.).  Not to mention the various opera companies and the Boston Ballet.  The exact level of professionalism varies a lot among these groups, but there still seems to be a demand for orchestras that aren't a century old and world-famous. 

Also useful in Boston is just the fact there is some activity that isn't BSO-dependent.  That seems to raise the level of the audience in town, and keeps a good pool of free-lancers fed.  Those players not only sub in the BSO or Pops, but also teach and generally keep things interesting through their gigs.  The reverse was the case in Philadelphia not so long ago-- if it wasn't the PO or Curtis, nobody felt obliged to support it. Those are great institutions, but how exciting is a city where the only really prominent musical decision-maker is Eugene Ormandy?


From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on June 16, 2010 at 1:52 AM

Tom Holzman's point is well-taken.  With all the orchestras in the LA metropolitan area, Pasadena has a much tougher row to hoe than Fargo, Cincinnati, or Spokane.  The number of performances most orchestras put on has greatly increased, much faster than ticket sales, donations, available grants, etc.    The math just doesn't pan out.  Ticket prices have climbed, too.  I've stayed home from many events for just that reason.  I live in a place where there's too much to choose from, and the pocketbook has its limits.

With the numbers of music school grads out there looking for work, regional orchestras, as a rule, are made up of very fine musicians and play well.  An audition for a second clarinetist, say, will draw an insane number of applicants- and it's a part-time gig.  Many cities are more than willing to support an orchestra, IF it is in scale with the community's resources.  Those resources aren't what they used to be, though.  Also, too many places cut music out of their schools a generation ago, and the citizenry just isn't as familiar with the idea of going to the symphony as they used to be.

Karen brings up community orchestras.  She doesn't say what their ticket prices are, but I'll bet they don't approach Boston Symphony bucks!  The community orchestra I play in asks for donations, but doesn't charge.  This year, we had to turn people away from more than one performance, and all were very well attended, even when one of the local professional groups was playing opposite us, in a town of about 70,000. 

We've talked about why.  We play quite well.  Without being dependent on ticket sales, we can be a little freer in our programming.  (One woman I know told me she deliberately chose our Vaughn Williams London Symphony over the professional Beethoven also on tap that afternoon.)  We do all we can to make it comfortable for people who don't often go to symphony concerts, without condescending to those who do.  Finally, in a deep recession, the price is right.

We'll undoubtedly lose more than a few symphonies before this is all over.  The survivors will most likely be the huge ones, the geographically isolated groups, and the lean and mean variety, such as community orchestras.

From Mendy Smith
Posted on June 16, 2010 at 2:04 AM

My first comment is not related to the topic, but is about how small this world really is.  Michael, I saw your response to Charles' blog (stand partner to my former teacher). And Corwin, I didn't realize you too were down here in Houston! 

This article touched a nerve with me. 

I personally attend more regional and community orchestra concerts as well as smaller chamber recitals rather than concerts put on by the larger orchestras.  Some of it has to do with finances, but primarily it is the "personal factor".  I prefer a more intimate setting where I know the people who are performing. 

From the other side of the stage as a community orchestra musician, I've noticed a marked difference in the demographics of the audience.  At  the community orchestra concerts you see more people from retirement homes, families with children, students and friends of the musicians.  In other words, people who generally do not attend concerts put on by the larger orchestras for a variety of reasons. 

If it was a preference of listening to a professional recording over a live concert, then the regional and community orchestras would not exist at all.

From James Patterson
Posted on June 16, 2010 at 8:01 AM

Here's "Faulty Reasoning",  a commentary on the Teachout article by Drew McManus from his excellent blog Adaptistration.  It includes a strong rebuttal to Teachout by the Principal Tuba of the Pittsburgh Orchestra.

From Samuel Thompson
Posted on June 16, 2010 at 3:13 PM


After reading the article I too was disturbed - deeply - and very impressed by the comments here: however, I did find myself perplexed upon reading those posted by Corwin Slack that describe the "scene" in Texas:

"In Houston we have a symphony orchestra (HSO) a ballet orchestra, an opera orchestra and several gig ensembles in addition to two fine music school orchestras."

--Yes, and the Houston Ballet/Opera orchestras are arguably two of the finest opera/ballet orchestras in the nation.   

"We have essentially gig orchestras in San Antonio, Austin and Beaumont, which are relatively close by. The HSO could probably serve all their needs." 

--Having played as a substitute in the San Antonio Symphony both during the 2000/2001 season and again during the 2005/2006 season, I have to disagree with you as to that orchestra being essentially a "gig" orchestra.   With a salary of approximately $1000/weekly for a thirty week season in a city where the cost of living is QUITE low (one could, in 2006, purchase a house for under $80,000), and a track record of being a "transitional" orchestra (players from the San Antonio Symphony have later auditioned for and won positions in orchestras including the Houston Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, and New York Philharmonic), and a consistently high level of music making during all of its seasons, it is unfair at best to refer to the San Antonio Symphony as such.

Furthermore, with both Camerata San Antonio and the Soli Chamber Music Players - both stunning chamber music ensembles created by members of the San Antonio Symphony - having both regional and national acclaim for their programming and commitment to their communities, referring to this orchestra as a "gig orchestra" (with all of our thoughts of what a "gig orchestra" is), so does that entire group of musicians a great and grave disservice.    This kind of talk also does a great disservice to our friends and colleagues that play in orchestras similar in size, salary, and season - including the Florida Orchestra, Richmond Symphony (VA), Sarasota Orchestra, etc.

While the thought of the Houston Symphony "filling the needs" of South Central Texas, I think that one could look to what has happened in Georgia during the years since the Savannah Symphony's demise.   While the Atlanta Symphony has indeed taken on a larger role in the state (that role including performances at the Savannah Music Festival), Savannah's cultural life does not include an orchestra that performs a "regular" season (be that consisting of ten concerts or a thirty-week season).     Sadly, we now wonder about that entire coastal region, as the Charleston (SC) Symphony did end its season early and it seems that there is no solution in sight...


From Laurie Niles
Posted on June 16, 2010 at 5:33 PM

 Here is a good rebuttal to the article:

From David Allen
Posted on June 16, 2010 at 10:31 PM

I've always said there are enough people out there that you can sell anything-you just need to define your market. The problem comes when you try to get coins out of the purse.

Great rebuttal!

From Lawrence Franko
Posted on June 17, 2010 at 1:04 AM

I hate the conclusion of Teachout's column as much as do others on this blog. However, having long ago strayed from the path of truth and beauty, i.e. music, as my main profession for that of the dismal science of Economics, the crux of the problem is Supply and Demand. The last half-century has seen a fantastic increase in the supply of good-to-excellent musicians in this country, but the production of educated listeners for classical music has been nil--not to mention that the whole of our culture has been tilted against anything so formal and stuffy as Classical Music. Classical Music = Tradition, and our modern "Cultcha" has been about destroying ALL traditions, has it not? Let's not pretend to be surprised when our preferred tradition is going under. When "anything goes," and "every art and culture is the equal of every illiterate rap rhyme and their are no standards," why should we be surprised when an art form that depends on standards of form and coherent shape  falls on hard times? Then there is also the modern penchant for Class Warfare and the government demolishing the wealth of (the hated) Rich People. Where would Classical Music have been without the Esterhazy's and Sacher's of this world? Not to mention Churches. Destroy patrons and religion, and pretty soon you destroy Art.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on June 17, 2010 at 3:02 AM

 I have a very dear friend who was a member of the Houston Ballet Orchestra for 11 years. He made about $11k per year. He gave it up for full time teaching and he makes several multiples of that at least. 

I am loathe to call an orchestra anything but a gig orchestra if it doesn't have at least a 42 week season and pay a wage that someone can raise a family on. $30k per year may support the single or childless but people with aspirations can't make it on that. Perhaps its a nice second income and maybe that is why I see that music school orchestras seem to be dominated by people that think that music is a nice way to bring a second income into the family. 

From Jude Ziliak
Posted on June 17, 2010 at 1:23 PM

Teachout may have been a bit of a jerk about it, but he's nevertheless identified an important thing.

Orchestras-- not only regional ones-- need to have purposeful identities, or else be very broad in their functions. There is much talk in the orchestra management world of orchestras becoming umbrella organizations for music in their cities. In other words, the Smalltown Symphony might offer 9-20 weeks of orchestra programs, chamber music concerts, a new music group, an early music group, a string quartet which plays mainly in schools, and dozens of teachers-- all under the Symphony's aegis and name, but with the musicians in considerable control of the non-symphonic endeavors.

Alternately, a strong programming identity can give an orchestra distinctiveness and purpose.


From Michael Divino
Posted on June 17, 2010 at 2:18 PM

 I agree that orchestras should have a purpose in a community but orchestras at the expense of theater and art museums?  All three are equally enriching to a community. 

From Andrew Paa
Posted on June 17, 2010 at 4:55 PM

For people like me, these regional orchestras act as a training ground for the professional world.  I have the opportunity to expand my orchestral repertoire knowlege and can make a small, additional income while being a student.  It can also provide an additional musical outlet if the school orchestra is not as good as what your used to.  Plus, in my area, the closest high quality professional orchestra is the Minnesota Orchestra which is a 5.5 hour drive from my current location.  Without the two regional orchestras I have withing an hour drive, I would not have the chance to hear some great live music. 

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