Community Engagement: Sea Change in the Orchestra World

I was recently lunching with one of the country's more important music journalists, and he asked me what was the most meaningful change I'd seen in orchestras recently. Only a week earlier, Jesse Rosen, then executive vice president of the League of American Orchestras (he succeeded me as president in July) was lunching with another highly visible and widely read music journalist, who asked an almost identical question: What is the most interesting development in the way orchestras are operating?

There were certainly a number of important innovations and experiments that I could point to: the opening up of orchestra podiums to women; a growing tendency for conductors to actually talk to audiences; removing the almost unbearably stiff formality of the concert-hall ritual; the vitality and wide range of music being composed today. All would have been good answers. But it was actually fairly easy for me to say that the number-one change was in the way that orchestras are relating to the communities in which they live and perform. What used to be called "outreach"--a somewhat condescending and certainly one-directional word if ever there was one--had morphed into "community engagement." But even that was originally thought of as an extension of marketing, as orchestras "engaged" with their communities in hopes it would lead to more ticket sales.

Only recently--over the past ten or fifteen years, perhaps--have symphony orchestras of all sizes started to think about becoming true community resources, valued members of their communities serving people who may never in their lives come to a subscription concert. At the League of American Orchestras, we call this behavior "achieving civic stature." And this, I believe, is the significant change that we are witnessing in symphony orchestras now.

Twenty years ago, if you had flown in from Mars, and had, without reading or listening to anything that any specific orchestra said about itself, simply observed it for a year and then been asked to write a mission statement for that orchestra based solely on what you observed, you would have been able to write with almost complete accuracy (perhaps just a tad of exaggeration), that the XYZ Symphony Orchestra is an organization that performs, at a high level, great music written for western symphony orchestra, for those people who already like it and can afford its ticket prices. That is not a mission statement most orchestras would trumpet with pride. But it is a moderately good description of how many of them were behaving.

When community engagement programs began, boards would ask managers--and I know this, because I was there--whether these programs would improve our ticket sales, and whether, if we did programs in communities of color, within a year or two we could expect to see a far more diverse audience in our subscription concerts. You may think I'm making this up, but I'm not. I've been in the room when that question was asked, in all seriousness.

But over the past decade or so there has been a strong movement toward real community engagement, toward making the orchestra a true community resource. After all, orchestras do take a considerable amount of money out of the community to support what they do; making high-quality symphonic music is an expensive proposition. They must be of value to a broad range of community citizens, far more than may ever attend subscription concerts. Orchestras do recognize their responsibilities at the center of their communities' cultural life. And they do recognize that while giving great concerts is central to that role, it is not the total role.

To give you a few examples of what I mean, I will risk annoying any number of American orchestras whose excellent and imaginative efforts I omit. Clearly I have space for only a small number of examples from orchestras I have visited recently. I put these forth because they are excellent examples of what hundreds of orchestras are doing--not because they are the only, or even necessarily the best, examples.

California's Modesto Symphony Orchestra has a broadly based program called "Arts Access Initiatives." Its stated mission is "presenting and promoting music to the widest possible audience by increasing involvement between the MSO and the community."  The responsibility, in the documents describing these programs, is squarely on the orchestra to network with the community and community leaders to uncover unmet needs, or needs that can be met with new partnerships. One example (of many) is a program called Youth at Risk. In cooperation with the county government's Center of Human Services, the MSO makes tickets available to selected young people and their families for a wide range of concerts. This program is run in a totally collaborative way with county officials, to choose the right young people.

The Modesto Symphony, the Walla Walla Symphony in Washington State, and a number of other orchestras operate instrument loan programs for the benefit of school children from families who might not be able to rent or buy musical instruments. These orchestras encourage their supporters, musicians, and audience members to donate instruments to the orchestra--for which they will get a tax deduction--and the orchestra then operates a monitored program of lending instruments out to families, observing the care of the instruments, and ensuring that the youngsters do in fact study on the instrument. 

There are orchestras with music therapy programs that take musicians into hospitals and senior centers. Orchestras are working more and more closely with school systems to incorporate music into the full curriculum. There was a time when orchestras' administrations and boards thought "well, the decline in music education in the schools is terrible, but fixing it is not our responsibility."  I don't hear that attitude much any longer. It is our responsibility to do anything and everything we can to keep this art form alive for the present and future generations. And if that includes getting deeply involved in communities and in educational systems, then that is what we will do, and are doing.

July 18, 2008 1:19 PM | | Comments (3)



"I know I'd be offended at a memorial service if someone I knew wore a NIN T-shirt hanging out over distressed "Lucky Dungarees" and sandals"

Come to a classical concert - it's like a funeral for music!

Hi, Henry. Nice blog. You're the perfect person to be doing this.

As for stiff formalities in concerts, I have to agree somewhat with the person below, not because of a few letters from audience members (a statistic of a few doesn't mean anything) but because seriously, how more ritualized is classical music than is art gallery exhibition, or a rock concert, or eating in a fancy restaurant? Yet people don't stay away.

I sometimes fear classical music-going is getting too informal. At concerts these days people think nothing of talking in the middle of a piece or at least right up to the moment that bows touch string. They also check their BlackBerries and iPhones and take calls while the lights are down and the musicians are playing. And while I can understand how some people may find dressing up to listen to Brahms to be a bit off-putting, the outfits I now see at concerts--ripped jeans, dirty T-shirts, flip-flops, etc.--blow my mind. I can't believe every person doesn't have at least one nice, dignified outfit in their closet--it's too much to ask them to wear dark pants with no holes in them and a dark top or jacket without the name of a rock band or some snotty slogan on the front? What do these people wear to family events such as funerals? I know I'd be offended at a memorial service if someone I knew wore a NIN T-shirt hanging out over distressed "Lucky Dungarees" and sandals.

I don't think a little more respect and formality and civility would do *any* of us harm, really.

I agree with a lot of what you say, but I don't agree with the premise that
concertgoing used to be "almost unbear-ably stiff and formal". Now I am all for orchestras experimenting with new ways to reach out to audiences and try to attract young people, as long as the music is not dumbed down. But I have never gotten the impression of any stuffiness in all my years of concertgoing and playing them. If that were the case, I don't think that orchestras would have ever retained their audiences. And unfortunately, when people who have never been to orchestral concerts hear the idea that they are stuffy and boring, they get the idea that they should not even try them.

Back in the 90s, when I was auditioning for the New York Philharmonic, I saw letters put up backstage sent by various audience members written to the music director saying how much they had enjoyed certain concerts, describing in detail what they liked.

Obviously, the orchestra was very proud of these letters. Do you think these people would have even bothered with this if concerts were so stuffy and formal?

I will admit that I probably overstated the case to make the point - but the truth is that there is an element of stiffness and ritual about the classical music concert that does appeal to some people, but does turn off others. Clearly the music has the power to overcome that element, and make the impact that it can make. And clearly the experience is (or was) not so stiff as to discourage all attendance. But I do believe that a less ritualistic, less rigid and more varied atmosphere would help develop a broader audience.


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