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Laurie Niles

Where's the Orchestra?

September 7, 2012 at 9:12 PM

Earlier 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 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:

From Ben Clapton
Posted on September 7, 2012 at 10:04 PM
Great idea. However, while it is something we can manage, I wonder whether we are putting too much emphasis on what the musician must do. Having read the original post, and this one, it's all about things that allow the musician to survive, but not the symphony orchestra.
I would suggest that for symphony orchestra's that are not surviving financially, that they need to not cut musicians salaries, but to find better managers. People to go out and find more sources of funding - sponsorships, grants, advertising and more. Schedule concerts that will bring people to the concert hall - Orchestral ABBA, Beatles, or Live movie scores. Encourage links to other concerts with suggestions - "Liked this concert, you might be interested in..."

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.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on September 7, 2012 at 10:18 PM
The demise of symphony orchestras, though, has serious implications for violinists, and not just the ones who were employed by symphonies. Sure, musicians should learn to fend for themselves, but I'd also argue that we also have to defend against the degradation of our communities and institutions that exist for the continued survival of fine music, and large-scale live music.
From Corwin Slack
Posted on September 7, 2012 at 11:01 PM
This is all symptomatic of cultural rot. When I was a kid the music section of Time magazine meant classical music. Then they decided that it meant all music. It was merely following the times but who can take pop music seriously next to Bach? What serious, illuminating knowledge can be conveyed in writing about rap, or grunge or techno etc. etc. yada yada? What happens in church music nowadays? Been to a church organ recital recently? That could drive many away from church and from music.

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.

From Avi Pilcer
Posted on September 8, 2012 at 12:26 AM
I agree with what you said. That music is precious. That's why I created the VK.
Because music is Precious.
From Ray Randall
Posted on September 8, 2012 at 3:05 AM
I think the days of playing eighteenth and nineteenth century European music are slowly fading away. Rock and God knows what else is taking its place. Rock bands draw tens of thousands to their concerts, orchestras nowadays are lucky to fill the hall. I don't like it either, but the handwriting is on the wall and we have to adapt.
From michael carrico
Posted on September 8, 2012 at 3:10 AM
hey violin's.practice with repetition and variation. Meaning anyway and anywhere you can,The fewer beating on your hotel door/ wall the better.Play for 40K hardly a buck maybe or some loose change. But if you are really lucky no one will but a hand full of rocks in the cup. Or run off by some music hater that seems to be attracted by players.Play for john Q public is so much daring adventure.Like acquiring a taste for flying fast without wings.Mike C
From Parker Duchemin
Posted on September 8, 2012 at 1:45 PM
I've always felt that one of our big failures has been in education, by not making music at the essential core of the arts programs in high school. You cannot finish high school, even today, without some acquaintance with a few of the major literary works of the western tradition, like the plays of Shakespeare, the novels of Dickens, etc. Everybody seems to recognize the importance of this. How rarely, by contrast, does a student ever get to study a great symphony in high school? A fundamental part of our cultural history has been ignored. And now music programs are being eliminated everywhere, as if music education, and even music itself, were mere frills. Yet classical music is as essentlal as great literature to our education, to our understanding of human nature, history and cultures. What our children are increasingly left with are the crassly commercial products of the popular music industry. If only they had a better opportunity to know something intelligible about the alternatives! The demise of the symphony orchestra is part of the recession but it reflects a much larger crisis of culture.
From Lawrence Price
Posted on September 8, 2012 at 4:07 PM
I think that we forget that there was a time in the United States when there were very few professional orchestras that had a 52 week season. During the eighties and subsequent decades the length of seasons grew and smaller community orchestras became professional. In many cases that meant an expansion of the administrative staff as well. Perhaps we are not facing the death of orchestras but the downsizing of the genre to a sustainable model. Education plays in role in orchestral audience development but finally not everyone likes everything. The replacement of old wealth with the technology money has had an effect on the base of support for our orchestral institutions. And of course the changes in the recording industry have required a major shift in our cash flow models. It is a challenging time and maybe only the best of American orchestras will survive in their present form.
From Ray Randall
Posted on September 8, 2012 at 6:15 PM
In my 1960's High School and College, music was a required subject. That might be one of the problems now, you need no education to enjoy rock, etc. You can applaud, jump up and down, wave lighters when you want. "Classical" music expects you to only applaud at certain times, be still, think deeply, again, etc.
As I said before, we need to adapt to the modern changing world to survive. The St. Louis Symphony is one of the few making money, they are adapting.
From Peter Charles
Posted on September 10, 2012 at 6:09 AM
One of the things I've become aware of over the last 40 years is that orchestras generally and certainly in the UK have acquired a huge support staff. In some cases an orchestra of 80 players may have almost 80 people working as support staff.

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.

From Paul Deck
Posted on September 11, 2012 at 2:47 PM
@Peter, you sure you're talking about orchestras? Sounds more like public universities ...

@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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