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November 13, 2006

The Magic of Music

The story "Unsuccessful Overtures" by Judith Dobrzynski has caused quite a bit of discussion in the field, and I'd like to share with you the letter I sent last week to the Wall Street Journal.

"To the Editor:

As President and CEO of the American Symphony Orchestra League, I must express my concern over the recent "Unsuccessful Orchestras" story in last weekend's "Leisure & Arts," which fails to capture the very positive messages and conclusions that were also a part of the report, and the important lessons learned by the 15 participating orchestras and the foundation, lessons that will be of immense help to all orchestras.

The world we live in is changing drastically, and orchestras, like other nonprofit arts organizations (not to mention professional sports and the movie industry) are facing a sea change in the way the general public consumes art, culture, and entertainment. It is important to note that one of the principal conclusions stated in the report was: "Despite predictions of the death of classical music and its audience, there is healthy support for the art form."

Bravo to the Knight Foundation for giving 15 American orchestras the financial backing to experiment with new models and ways of doing business and the freedom to take risks, and for encouraging discussions that have led to some great change in the orchestra field.

Minimalist Jukebox concerts offered at midnight in Los Angeles; the brand new multi media television and web series Keeping Score in San Francisco; new concert formats for presenting traditional music in greater context in Chicago, St. Louis, Houston, Spokane and others; distribution of recordings over iTunes from concerts in New York, Los Angeles, and Milwaukee; podcasting in Utah and Virginia. These are just a handful of the many innovative ways orchestras are finding new audiences in our changed world. And, by the way, some of those varied offerings are finding success in transferring new audiences to traditional concerts as well.

Also encouraging is that in an informal survey of the League's membership this fall, 72% of orchestras report increased or steady attendance over this time last year, and the orchestras with increases outnumber the ones with steady attendance by a 2-1 margin.

Henry Fogel
President & CEO
American Symphony Orchestra League"

It has been said that those who succeed must first have many failures. It is wonderful that the Knight Foundation has helped orchestras to have important discussions, and to experiment. What we must all do is have the patience to allow experimentation, to recognize that genuine experimentation actually anticipates failures and partial successes, and that those are the ways one learns and improves. None of us have had the opportunity to see all the light bulbs that Edison tried which did not work.

Posted by hfogel at November 13, 2006 2:41 PM

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You are correct-failure often breeds success--and we would be amazed to see the handwritten manuscript pages of the great composers crumbled and thrown in the trash pail. And thanks to one Dr. Dahl, a depressed Rachmaninoff sought his help and ultimately gave us his Second Piano Concerto as a token of his improved mental state. The writers who write about the death of classical music (humbug!) might do well to read your triptik of continental success stories and Slonimsky's "Lexicon of the Musical Invective". Interestingly, Naxos provides a wonderful website that enables one to hear almost everything via the internet--a wonderful way to entice new audiences to appreciate music in the 21st century.

Posted by: Jeffrey Biegel at November 15, 2006 6:19 AM

As a former orchestral musician and for the past forty years a chamber player, conductor amd teacher, I applaud the efforts of consultants, managements, arts organizations and musicians to strengthen and enlarge audience support for symphony orchestras.

But if these efforts require classically trained musicians to spend a majority of their time playing arrangements of Jazz, Rock, Theatre, Pop and Movie music, neither their morale nor the music will be served.

Excepting Bernstein, Anderson and a few other masters of "Light" music for symphony orchestra, the arrangements on Pops concerts are uniformly bad and no amount of easy patter from the podium will bridge the gap this ersatz music inflicts on the musicians and audiences.

Posted by: robin Engelman at December 21, 2006 11:34 AM

It never occured to me to suggest that symphony musicians should be preparing to spend "a majority of their time" playing arrangements of jazz, popular, or other musics. Broadening the offerings of orchestras by offering a variety of musics in different ways, and in different parts of the community, whether in small ensembles or full orchestra format, does not mean "majority," -- it does mean, however, being flexible. And while I agree with you about many pops arrangements, perhaps an answer there is for an improvement in the quality of those arrangements.

Posted by: Henry Fogel at December 30, 2006 2:38 PM