September 7, 2012 at 9:12 PMEarlier this week, the UK columnist Norman Lebrecht pointed out that a number of important orchestras in the United States are facing dire circumstances: the Atlanta Symphony musicians have no contract, no paycheck, and no health insurance; Minnesota Orchestra management is pushing for a $40,000 pay cut for musicians; the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra management has proposed cutting the number of musicians by 17 percent and reducing their pay by 15 percent; Indianapolis Symphony management has proposed reducing its season from 52 to 36 weeks, reducing musician pay by 40 percent and cutting number of musicians from 87 positions to 69; and the musicians of the San Antonio Symphony have had to resort to filing a union complaint against management for non-payment of wages and failure to negotiate a new contract.
It's a lot of bad news, but does it really mean that "the era of the symphony orchestra is done"? That is what our V.com member Michelle Jones wrote in a thought-provoking and very practical blog yesterday called The End of the Symphony and How Today's Music Students Should Adapt. Whether the era of the symphony orchestra is coming to an end or not, I'd highly recommend Michelle's blog as a must-read for music students of today, who will undoubtedly have to be much more entrepreneurial and self-propelled then classical and symphony musicians of the 20th century had to be.
I would add one thing to her list of 12 adaptations students, teachers and professional musicians must make in the new century: We must learn to advocate for our art. This goes beyond marketing ourselves, and it goes beyond simple education efforts -- though it does encompass those two things. We need to each take personal responsibility for showing why music makes a difference in our communities, why we have devoted our lives to it, why we love it. We have to make music matter in the lives of people around us, to find ways to incorporate it into our communities. We have to participate in efforts to raise private funding, leverage public funding, and incorporate our symphonies into public life.
Because frankly, I'm not ready to sit back and wave the symphony orchestra goodbye across all the cities in the United States and around the world. The symphony is an institution capable of doing vast public good. It is a work of art that is alive and present in a community, and its members spread that spark of both high competence and knowledge when they live and teach there. The symphony is a mark of civic pride, and its musicians give people, young and old, something excellent for which to strive. The symphony provides a venue to welcome performing artists from around the world and to celebrate community holidays and events. It brings people to the city center for concerts, provides a social forum, provides business to area restaurants. I could go on.
One thing is certain: the era of taking the symphony for granted CERTAINLY is over. As for the future of the symphony? If you have a symphony in your community, it needs every advocate it can get, and that means YOU!
Sometime near the very end of my life, I'd like to be sitting in the balcony of a symphony hall, listening to a Brahms Symphony. I don't want to be singing this song:
There are many other ways that an orchestra can - with proper management - make money in today's society. Maybe not enough money to make huge profits, but enough to stay in the concert halls, and pay their musicians sustainably.
I'm not saying that we as musicians don't need to look out for ourselves, but we should be encouraging the orchestral management team to look to themselves before cutting orchestral members.
I ramble on but kids, don't plan a career as a symphony musician. The odds are worse than joining the NBA, it's much harder and it pays far less. If you really must play then get a marketable skill and then play chamber music at home for your neighbors.
Way back in the middle to later part of the last century it was more common for a symphony orchestra to have about 12 people (or less) running the show. Now it would average more like 40 plus.
Even when I worked for an opera company back in the late 1970's and early eighties it would only have about 20 - 25 people or less as support staff and this would include makeup, costumes, stage hands, stage managers, scene makers etc., etc.
So I think that management costs have sucked the life out of these organisations - and as someone else has mentioned, lack of good management too. There are too many people riding the gravy train.
@Ray, it's always a concern that popular culture will displace the "serious" arts. A lot of successful orchestras are finding ways to tap the flow of money in popular music just enough to fill their coffers so that they can offer programs of Mahler and Mozart as well. Why not? Yes it's true that more people turn up for a rock show than a symphony concert, but then, more people turn up for college football even though tennis is a better game. Chess will outlast football but only about 20 people in the world (if that) can make a living playing chess. There are people who eat at McDonalds because they LIKE it.
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