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July 24, 2006

Healthy But Strained

by Peter Dobrin

Orchestras cannot be truly healthy until they stop operating in a climate of fear (which unfortunately, is our zeitgeist - but that's another story). A lot of the strain orchestras feel comes from the fact that they are being asked to be all things to all people - "entertainment" for the masses, "art" for the aficionados, and enlightenment for school-children. They're getting pulled in different directions.
If orchestras are going to grow (what better sign of good health is there than growth?) they would do well to take on all of the roles they are being asked to play, and to find special funding for each of them. But here are some of the things standing between orchestras and a bright future, as I see it.
1. Growing the repertoire. Nothing is more harmful in the long run than programming the same pieces repeatedly. It's deleterious to the musicians, the artform, and in the end will erode audiences. Orchestras should not only commission new works, they should find size-appropriate venues to try them out. If an orchestra thinks it can't sell such works on its subscription series, why not perform them on a special series in a church or smaller hall? Growing the repertoire might mean not only creating entirely new works, but also a new body of transcriptions. Think of the critical and popular stir it would cause to commission, say, three composers to transcribe the Brahms violin sonatas for orchestra? Audiences love Brahms, and it would give composers a way of connecting with audiences in an artistically substantive way.
2. Growing audiences. Can't orchestras do a better job of performing at times and places that are convenient for the people buying the tickets? A number of orchestra managers have said to me in the past year that they feel that their jobs are about meeting the demands of the musicians' contract, not the demands of the audience. Here in Philadelphia, Sunday afternoon concerts - which the musicians resisted until recently - have been popular.
3. A more collaborative relationship between musicians and management. Tremendous progress has been made in the past three to five years in getting players and management to the table for reasons other than contract negotiations, and it can only be good for heading off misunderstandings and getting to good ideas.
4. Making risk possible again. Orchestra managements are often criticized for their conservative approach to repertoire and guest soloists and conductors. How about a national endowment to which orchestras could apply for funds that would support risky projects?
5. Getting over yourself. Joshua Kosman is right in emphasizing that we live in a pluralistic, multicultural democracy, and that classical music's sense of entitlement is something that needs to be shed. Likewise, I doubt that the collective whining and begging ("this business is so hard," "why don't people understand that classical music is good for them?") makes anyone feel like attending a concert or giving money. People want to be part of something they perceive as a winner. The sooner classical music marketers can figure out how to create a sense of event to concerts, the sooner classical music becomes a more visible part of our cultural landscape.

Posted by pdobrin at July 24, 2006 06:20 PM


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