Had a drink last night with someone in the orchestra business, and found myself challenged to change the way I think. “Admit it,” this person (whom I like a lot) said to me. “When the New York Philharmonic plays a concert in the park, you think that’s less valid than their concerts in Avery Fisher Hall.”
I had to admit that he was right, at least in the sense that I think the parks concerts are less interesting. (And no, my friend doesn’t work for the Philharmonic.) But why do I think that way? My friend kept pointing out that orchestras are reaching out to their communities, and — maybe in a profound sense — rethinking their mission. Their responsibility, in the future, might be to serve the cities that they’re in, maybe even more than they serve the classics of the repertoire, or the cause of art. I’ve run into to thoughts like that before, and in fact last spring I heard two notable orchestras (one very large, the other not so large) talk at a private meeting about how they’d reoriented some of what they do.
But now my friend posed the challenge even more strongly. Why shouldn’t the Philharmonic’s parks concerts be at least a part of their central mission? Why — at least for the sake of argument — shouldn’t they play more parks events, and fewer paid concerts (paid for the audience, I mean) in their concert hall?
I have to admit I found this alarming. Is this just me, or is the idea my friend proposed — and which the orchestra world might be considering — not quite right? Parks concerts typically get just one rehearsal, and almost always offer easy repertoire. The conductors might not be top-rank. And when I say “easy repertoire,” I don’t just mean that they don’t include new music, or the lesser known pieces from the past that critics like to hear. I mean that we’re not likely to hear Mahler symphonies. Is anyone going to play Mahler’s Sixth for a festive audience of picnickers in Central Park?
So the parks concerts function on a lower artistic level. That doesn’t mean they’re bad, that their audience might not love them, or that they don’t fulfill a function. But it’s not the function I want orchestras to have. It’s not the reason I want them to exist.
I’d also like to see a financial model showing how this could work — how it could keep orchestras alive. Parks concerts are cheaper to perform, and make the orchestra more visible, which might open doors to new funding. But performances in the concert hall bring in ticket income, and also are crucial, I’d think, for bringing in traditional big donors, many of whom respond to the glitz and glamour, to the star quality (not to mention the artistic heft) of orchestras playing at their very best.
And what about the orchestra musicians? How would they feel about this new proposed arrangement? My friend made sure I understood that 25% of all orchestral events are free community performances. (This is a national average; the percentage for individual orchestras varies quite a bit.) So in many orchestras, including many big ones, musicians understand that they’ll be playing at community events. But suppose the percentage rose? Suppose it was 50%, or even higher? Would musicians then be excited about playing in orchestras? Or would the jobs be less attractive? Would orchestras eventually find that they were hiring musicians who are (how should I put this) less ambitious, less demanding, or just plain not as good?
And would that then lower music school enrollments, and make donors less interested in giving money to music schools? Or would a new emphasis on community relations make orchestras more attractive.