New mission for orchestras?

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.


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  1. Marko Velikonja says

    I would certainly agree that most orchestras now consider their main subscription concerts in their primary hall to be their highest-priority events, and other concerts to be considerably less important. There are a number of reasons, including more preparation, better conditions (no amplification, no wind, etc.). But it’s also because the orchestra wants to show itself off at its best, and that’s simply not possible to do in a park concert.

    My priority is that wherever they happen, concerts should matter. Whether it’s commemorating an occasion, featuring some music or performer that is particularly deserving of exposure, or making create use of a particular venue. I’ve heard plenty of subscription programs (and skipped many more) that simply had no reason for being, other than that the orchestra’s business model is to crank out a certain number of concerts each year, and they already own the hall.

    When I played in a community band a few years ago, I actually looked forward most to the concerts we did in parks during the summer, especially on the Fourth of July. It was mostly outdoor band music rather than the “serious wind ensemble” repertory we did during the indoor season, but we had a crowd out there on a pleasant evening with their picnics, and it was a much better atmosphere than in a hall.

    When an orchestra does 150 concerts or more in a season, it’s obviously difficult not to fall into a rut, but certainly greater effort needs to be put into presentation, whether it’s playing in the parks, churches, school gyms, other odd venues, accompanying films, etc.

    I would think what most orchestras need is to attract a crowd that is really into whatever is being presented, regardless of the venue.

  2. Yvonne says

    Marko’s sentiment rings true for me, too.

    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?

    Well Mahler, no. Picnickers don’t want to pay close attention to music over a sustained period of time, nor should they.

    That said, some are trying to do interesting things within a format that demands shorter pieces with attention-grabbing characteristics. This outdoor program, for example, features four living Australian composers of different generations in pieces that, while great fun and very striking, are in no way insubstantial.

    This is one reason I love the comments here. I learn things.

    Here’s the program Yvonne is talking about:

    LiteSpeed by Matthew Hindson

    Elevator Music by Graeme Koehne

    Maninyas (1st movement) by Ross Edwards

    Cudmirrah Fanfare by Nigel Westlake

    Colonial Song (1919) by Percy Grainger

    Handel in the Strand (Clog Dance) by Percy Grainger


    Symphony No.9, From the New World (1st movement) by Antonin Dvorak

    Paganini: Gern hab’ ich die frau’n gekuesst by Franz Lehár

    Lustige Witwe: Vilja-Lied by Franz Lehár

    Land des laechelns: Dein ist mein ganzes Herz by Franz Lehár

    Symphony No.4 in F minor, op.36 (4th movement) by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

    1812 – Festival Overture, Op.49 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

  3. says

    Financially, I would think an orchestra would make plenty of money from sponsors at a park concert since any advertising would be visible to exponentially more eyeballs. A big sign under the Central Park podium for Credit Suisse would get, what, 20 times the audience of something in a Fisher Hall program?

    What a great program listed in the above comment. There must be countless composers who would enjoy writing something for a park concert, catchy and humorous, even if it’s not their most monumental work.

  4. Thomas says

    The Philharmonic is in fact playing Mahler in the Parks this coming July, though it’s his sunny first symphony, not the tragic sixth.

    The Pathetique of Tchaikovsky was played a year ago, which seemed a bit odd, what with fireworks following the ending.

    It’s not easy to program Parks music, it seems, though certainly some solos by the Principal brass would be welcome and in character to the occasion.

  5. says

    I can’t speak for other cities, but I’ve attended a few concerts at the annual Grant Park Music Festival here in Chicago held in Millenium Park, and I’ve always found a few surprises in the mix.

    They did a good job pairing lesser heard pieces with more standard fare this summer. The first concert, for instance, featured Barber’s Violin Concerto paired with Brahms’ second symphony. Another concert found Adams’ “The Dharma at Big Sur” alongside Beethoven’s 7th. And yet another featured Grieg’s Piano Concerto and Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4. I could point to a number of other similar programs that, while not groundbreaking, certainly aren’t beating the traditional repertoire too heavily.

    The quality of the performances has ranged from okay to great, but I’ve never been terribly disappointed.

    The size of the crowd that gathers in the park is always surprising to me, and while I can’t say whether the concerts do anything to spike attendance for other events in the city, I’m certain that they draw in folks who don’t make it a point to get to Symphony Hall during the CSO’s season.

    So, at least here in Chicago, I know a lot of folks look forward to them… to me, they’re not a replacement for a place where it’s a bit easier to focus, but they can still be a pretty nice treat.

  6. says

    Would it be that difficult for the New York Philharmonic, which certainly has played Mahler’s symphonies many times, to perform the 9th Symphony or Das Lied von der Erde? Aren’t there any number of more-complex-than-light/lite pieces that the Philharmonic could try? And again, what about some of the interesting pieces by late 20th and contemporary (American) composers? Selections of pieces by Torke, Corigliano, Adams, Glass (who is pretty popular, no?), Reich, Singleton, Danielpour, Taaffe Zwillich, León, Hartke, Mackey, Sandow (!), Gubaidulina, etc., would be REFRESHING, especially if mixed in with orchestral versions of…yes…contemporary R&B, rock and other forms of popular music. If the Kronos Quartet can do it, why can’t the Philharmonic? Or other orchestras? Do they think it’s just not possible? Why? Just think of how it might help to change the conversation about classical music if it occurred more frequently than less.