Terms Of Endearment – How Does An Orchestra Spell Success?


How do good ideas take hold? It’s not enough to talk about them; the context in which you talk about them has to be right. How do producers pitch ideas for movies? They relate them to other movies that have already been successful. So Terminator meets Cheaper by the Dozen gets you to Kindergarten Cop (don’t ask).

Bilbao Guggenheim gets you to a whole new generation of museum buildings as art. American Idol gets you to the idea that audiences ought to participate in a more active way in what they see or hear. Ideas need the context of other ideas to get traction; without the context, the next ideas don’t have a chance to take hold.

The problem then, isn’t so much having good ideas, it’s making sure people are ready to hear your good ideas. Successful entrepreneurs spend lots of time thinking about how to do this.

I’m at the League of American Orchestras conference this week to talk about social media and the arts, and I’m hearing lots of great ideas.

So how do good ideas get currency in classical music? Say I’m a composer and I’ve written a symphony. I convince a conductor to take a look at it. Then get it on a program and performed. Suppose, despite the odds, I do, and the audience loves it. Suppose even, that the orchestra is a good orchestra and the conductor has a great reputation and we can even make a recording of it. And that recording is pretty good and it wins an award and it’s a big award. Suppose all that.

Where does it get me? Will other orchestras be clamoring to perform my symphony? Will other conductors be clamoring to get a crack at my next piece? Will I take my place alongside other composers as our work and ideas are debated? Will our music be the new context for the next composers coming along?

I don’t think so.

Or suppose I’m a conductor and I go to the right schools and against the odds I get the right assistant jobs and some experience, and I have great ideas and the critics (back when there were still critics) give me good reviews. I’m looking for a job. But every music director job at even small and medium-size orchestras, according to Henry Fogel, gets 100-150 applicants. These are lottery numbers, but still, I beat the odds and get the job.

But say I get the job and my orchestra in my small town is good and I build it into a blazing success. What then? Are other orchestras clamoring for my attention? Do I get invitations to lead other orchestras?


Why? A couple of years ago, in a debate with a group of about a dozen prominent music critics about where music was headed, I was struck by how the conversation kept breaking down whenever anyone tried to talk about specific music.

The problem wasn’t that there wasn’t good music to talk about; it was that there was no context by which to measure success.Without it, there’s almost no way to build consensus. Without consensus, ideas, even great ideas, tend to float aimlessly.

In theatre, if a play has a regional success, or sells tickets on Broadway or wins a Pulitzer, there’s a bidding war the next season to see who gets the rights to perform it locally. If a book gets good reviews, gets a mention on NPR and wins a prize, it hits the bestseller charts and builds demand for the next book. In visual art, an influential collector or dealer getting behind an artist’s work virtually guarantees a market for it.

But classical music success seems largely immune to great reviews, big prizes and enthusiastic audiences. There is great music. There are excellent orchestras. What there isn’t is a functioning system for identifying and promoting the best work and people to build consensus.  Is it possible that orchestras have spent so much time worrying about how to survive that they have neglected to define the terms for success (and, importantly, for failure)? Or is it that we’re just in a period of transition, and, at least for now, consensus just isn’t possible, even for a great idea? 

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  1. says

    I love this idea, and hope you've generated enough excitement about it at the conference so it gains momentum and becomes a reality. I agree that defining success would be quite challenging, but having some kind of award system would address many of the issues facing orchestras today, not the least of which are promoting new music and getting younger audiences involved.
    We need the kind of publicity that would be generated in the process of announcing award winners. We are more likely to engage people by focusing on what is positive and exciting in the music world rather than looking at the negatives, which is sadly what we see so often in the media these days.
    You've taken an idea from the theatre world and applied it to classical music. This kind of cross-pollination of ideas is wonderful. It's easy to become limitied in our thinking when we focus soley on one artistic discipline. There are many good ideas worth borrowing out there if we keep our eyes open.

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