America’s Orchestras are Dying

Philip Kennicott on the sorry state of American orchestras

It has been a dark few years for this country’s orchestras. In the past season, a bitter strike in San Francisco and a lockout in Minneapolis led to cascading cancellations, including of the San Francisco Symphony’s East Coast tour. Since the economic crisis of 2008, bankruptcies have afflicted orchestras around the country, leading to the closure of the Honolulu, Syracuse, and Albuquerque symphonies, and in April 2011 came the stunning news that one of the country’s “Big Five,” the Philadelphia Orchestra, had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Some of those groups reorganized, or opened in new forms, and Philadelphia emerged from bankruptcy in July 2012 with a hiring freeze, ten fewer players, and a 15 percent pay cut for the remaining ones….

Historians of classical music in the United States point out that … an orchestra program in the age of Mark Twain might include popular waltzes, Irish ballads, a movement of a Beethoven symphony, and a potboiler of patriotic ditties inexpertly woven into symphonic form. In some venues, juggling, ballet, and monologues from Shakespeare might be interspersed with the musical offerings, and clapping, whistling, and hooting were all acceptable, even during the music. When Twain recounted his European travels to American audiences, one thing he noted approvingly about the musical experience in Germany was the audiences: they were quiet, well-behaved, and reverential, unlike American audiences, which still enjoyed classical music as if in a beer hall.

But the appeal to history does not end there. American orchestras got better and taste grew more refined. With an influx of European Jewish musicians in the 1930s and 1940s, American orchestras achieved a sophistication second to none in the Old World. The concert format became settled, audience members began to respect each other’s right to listen attentively, and (like so many other cultural institutions in America) the whole thing took on a pseudo-historical aura of sacredness. Advocates for blowing up the current concert experience—which in the orchestral world is seen as the proper progressive approach—view this period as an aberration, a pompous deviation from the true trajectory of American musical history.

Orchestras no longer offer just classical and pops nights but have become presenters of all kinds of music, with or without orchestra backup. The Detroit Symphony, for example, uses a taxonomy that includes Classical, Pops, Jazz, Young People's/Tiny Tots, Civic & Education, and Special Event. The last of these, special events, has become a catch-all for almost any kind of music. Sift through various season calendars and you find video-game nights, the Texas Tenors, the Indigo Girls, Christmas, Halloween and Fourth of July events, movie evenings, and organ spectaculars, among others.

Almost none of this is of any interest to serious listeners, including those with diverse musical tastes who prefer the real thing to the local orchestra’s attempt to imitate jazz, ethnic, or pop forms. In some cases, it has also curtailed the number of nights the orchestra presents classical music, and the repertory presented on those evenings is more limited. Orchestras increasingly rely on the drawing power of star soloists to sell classical repertory, which means more repetition of a handful of overfamiliar concertos, and huge fees to (and unholy bargains with) management agencies that marshal top talent…

To be fair, orchestras may have few options, and much of the battle was lost decades ago. Orchestra leaders bought a lot of snake oil in hopes of democratizing the concert experience, and now they have an audience that views classical music as just one among many entertainment options, and as not very entertaining compared with bubble-gum pop and action movies. They talk about education but have in many places done away with program notes. Marketing material uses a hyperbolic language of emotional engagement to oversell the concert experience, implying that one has only to pull up a rug and surrender to the music. That musical appreciation takes work, and that its greatest rewards are cumulative over a lifetime rather than immediate, is not much discussed.

If you ask me, symphony orchestras can't be run like community outreach programs, or as private-public partnerships subservient to corporate sponsors. They are public goods which should be heavily and unconditionally subsidized by the state. They should concentrate on genuine classical music, and if the concert halls are half-full, then so be it. That's the only model that will let them survive.

2 thoughts on “America’s Orchestras are Dying

  1. From what I see, a limitation on a “classical” canon usually has devastating results on the cultural landscape, be it about music, painting or literature. It discourages young talent by leaving the impression, everything worth creating has already been created. Restricting orchestras on certain instrumentations, harmonic styles or even composers leads to a museal scenery, where talent is equaled with recreating the classicals the most precisely.
    Being considered “high” arts does not mean to exclude progress, and with sufficient subsiding, open-mindedness would not be only a possibility but a duty from my point of view.


  2. I have the same problem with WDR3, Ralph. I don’t give a flying fuck whether Cornelius van den Gorkink was choir director to the Margrave of Thuringia when he wrote the oboe concerto we’re about to hear, and I certainly don’t want to listen to his cheeky letters begging the Margrave for payment for his recently-composed Mass. More rock, WDR3, LESS FUCKING TALK!

    I think the problem is that the fuddy-duddies who run these stations are almost certainly proud Internet-illiterates, and haven’t yet absorbed the reality that anyone who wants to learn more about van den Gorkink can just Google his ass. Even Hollywood has begun to realize that voice-overs provifing background information are as superfluous as they are annoying in the digital age.

    Fortunately, though, nobody’s constrained to radio anymore. I bought a Sonos a while ago, which makes finding and playing thousands of Internet stations absurdly easy.


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