Tipping point

Two big thoughts for today. First, that the Philadelphia Orchestra bankruptcy opens a new era of classical music distress. And second, that we should treat this as a time of opportunity, a time to foster the rebirth of classical music. Which means that we should devote ourselves to classical music with more passion than ever. 

The Philadelphia Orchestra bankruptcy is a huge, huge event. I told my Juilliard students yesterday that it’s the biggest thing that’s happened, related to the future of classical music, since I began teaching my course on that subject in 1997. I’ve been talking for years (as have others) about gathering clouds, signs of trouble, signs that the classical music mainstream can’t survive too much longer, without big changes. 

Many people haven’t believed that. But the Philly bankruptcy makes the truth of it very plain. Inescapable. You can find fault, if you like, with the orchestra’s past or present board and management, and with its corporate culture, just as many people (beyond doubt rightly, in this case) found fault with the management of the big American car companies, GM, Ford, and Chrysler. 

But when a major player in a huge and supposedly well-funded industry drops below some basic financial baseline, that means the industry is in trouble. And this is the case here. I was amused — or is it grimly amused — to read a statement from a musicians’ union representative, saying that other orchestras hadn’t gone bankrupt, because they (in contrast to Philly) had good management, and weren’t in financial trouble. (You’ll have to follow the link to the second page of the Philadelphia news story to find the statement.)

But that’s not true. The outlook for major orchestras isn’t good at all, and behind the scenes, many people are seriously worried. Philly is just the beginning. Along with Detroit (which almost died), Baltimore (which a few years ago spent one-third of endowment to get out of debt), Syracuse (which may have died), Honolulu (which died), and, as announced yesterday, the New Mexico Symphony (which dissolved itself). 

(Note that the link takes you to a Google search for the New Mexico news story. The Albuquerque Journal, where the story appeared, hides behind a paywall. But you can get through it, as you can with the paywall at the New York Times, by linking to the story from a Google search.)

The tide is rolling out. This doesn’t mean that orchestras can’t save themselves. But they’re going to have to shrink, or change — and change a lot. 

Coming: what the problems are. 
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  1. JonJ says

    I think the point is that, good or bad management, the whole symphony orchestra concept as it has been inherited from (it seems) the Stone Age has got to be thoroughly revised, as you, Greg, have been arguing very well.

    I like to think of it in terms of a contrast between the Phila. Orch. and the Phila. Museum of Art a few miles away. Symphony orchestras have, in part, a museum function, as many people have pointed out: a Beethoven symphony is as much a part of the artistic heritage of the human race as a Rembrandt, and Beethoven has to be heard in live performance to be fully appreciated, but while genuine Rembrandts and contemporary works can be housed in the same building simultaneously, old and new music has to be performed simultaneously, and too often they don’t appeal to the same people.

    Unlike other countries, we don’t have a government that spends tax revenues on musical museums (for that matter, it looks as though it won’t spend much money keeping old people healthy much longer, even), but how else can it be done? Maybe Americans will have to go on foreign vacations to hear live orchestras.

    It seems that contemporary composers no longer want to write for the Strauss- and Mahler-sized band, so lovers of contemporary music will be able to attend concerts by the modern stripped-down performance groups (which are much less expensive to support), but what can be done about the Strauss and Mahler museums for those who still want to hear those old dinosaurs roar?

  2. says

    @JonJ You make some very interesting points, and they’re well-taken!

    Please allow me to present a different point of view: that of the “contemporary composer” himself to whom you referred. Speaking just for myself, it’s not for lack of writing grandly-orchestrated neo-Romantic pieces that you are not hearing them: it’s that there’s no room on today’s programs to include such works.

    I don’t envy the modern Program Director: damned if you do, damned if you don’t. You’ve got to include the favorites or you’ll play to empty houses, and that leaves very little room left over for so-called “new music”.

    My problem is that what the public is offered as “new music” comes from a handful of stale, “established” composers. What I wish the term meant was “new music” from “new” composers, to bring back the freshness of discovery. At the particular Symphony I attend (nationally recognized), when “contemporary” music is featured, you should see the audience flee: as soon as the familiar strains of “cling, clang, bing, bong!” are heard. That the PD’s are programming for their friends, and are out of touch with the tastes of the audience should be apparent by now…

    I sincerely hope this doesn’t read like a “diatribe”– not trying to rant here. I was simply using the Philly’s demise as a launch pad. After all, my own Symphony Hall is half-packed most of the time, so I’ve spent many an hour ruminating…

    As it were, having submitted one of my beloved pieces to over 200 orchestras– to no avail– I decided to market it “direct to consumer”, and it’s been well-received. That’s the power of the internet: the live experience be damned, you don’t need the musicians. Then, I’ve done what every enterprising DIY composer has done lately: moved into Film & TV.

    If the orchestras won’t have me, maybe Hollywood will. So next time you ask where that Strauss and Mahler music is, that’s where we’ve gone, having turned off the light behind us.