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.
The Modesto Symphony, the Walla Walla Symphony in
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.