While we’re talking about orchestras…

Two big developments. The Toronto Symphony seems to be finding a young audience. Or that’s what a Los Angeles Times story the link takes you to says. Thirty-five percent of the orchestra’s audience, we’re told, is younger than 35. 

Which compares to data from past generations, when the classical music audience was no older than the rest of the population. In 1955, for instance, more than half the Minneapolis Symphony audience was under 35. (That orchestra, of course, is now the Minnesota Orchestra.) 
If the Toronto story really is true, it might be the biggest news in classical music, even bigger than the Philadelphia bankruptcy. Good news, I’d like to think, trumps bad news. I’m thinking of going to Toronto, maybe this fall, to see it all first hand. 

And the second development is Jesse Rosen’s speech at the League of American Orchestras annual conference last month. He’s the president of the League, and his speech — though delivered in a wonderfully calm and friendly and constructive way — was dynamite. Here are links to the official text, and to a video of Jesse giving the speech. The text, of course, is quicker to read, but watch the video, if you can. It has things not in the official text, and the tone is masterful. 

What did Jesse say? That orchestras are in serious trouble. They’re spending more, and taking in less money. Deficits are rising. And the deficits are structural — not simply the result of economic troubles, but instead built in to the way orchestras function. 

On top of all that, fewer people go to classical concerts. Orchestras haven’t learned how to reach their audience — existing or potential — in other ways. Donors are wary of giving money; support from foundations and corporations is way down.

And, in the face of growing diversity in the world at large, their audiences (despite efforts to change this) remain almost completely white.

The solution, as Jesse outlines it?

Orchestras have to face these facts, transparently admit them (with data on how they’re specifically affected), and take steps to change things. 

They have to realign themselves with the needs of their communities. 

And — very important for the series of posts I’ve been doing lately — they have to become more creative:

If we are to be a creative form, not just a re-creative one, then we must work to attract creative people, as well as nurture the gifts of those already in our orchestras.
We need to be asking, what kind of talent must we include to create the musical experiences  that will usher in the next generation of people who passionately want us in their lives?
Young entrepreneurial musicians, some of them in our orchestras, are finding a following with audiences and funders by performing in small and often unlikely venues. 
They may cross genre boundaries, or simply rethink their approaches to traditional repertoire, but they thrive on intimacy and audience engagement. If we want — and I think we do — this next generation of creative artists involved with our orchestras, our current audition system needs to change to embrace a broader range of talents than just superb musicianship and technique.
Of course Jesse doesn’t go as far as I do, in questioning whether the playing itself — apart from new ways of presenting it — is arresting enough to seize a new audience. But I think his points are allied to mine. 

And one more thing. It might be tempting to say that what he says is simply his opinion, or the opinion of the League management, and that it doesn’t speak for orchestras. Of course there are complex issues buried in those thoughts — when you speak for an orchestra, who, exactly, would you be speaking for? The board? The management? The musicians? 

But leaving that aside (even though it’s a question that matters), Jesse was hardly speaking only for himself, or his colleagues at the League. The League doesn’t work that way. It’s a membership organization, and it can’t get far ahead of its membership. 

So anyone setting official League policy has to get buy-in at least from prominent members. Which, as Jesse notes in things he said that aren’t in the official text — one reason you might want to watch the video — he went over this ground with some of the member orchestras, long before drafting the speech. Some of the orchestras objected, saying that even though what Jesse said was true, they couldn’t admit it publicly. (Something I myself have heard said behind the scenes.)

But later these orchestras came around, and backed this extraordinary public announcement of orhcestras’ troubles. 

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  1. says

    The man’s speech (the speech proper, that is) lasted some thirty minutes. In those thirty minutes he said…absolutely nothing. He did little more than pile generalized platitude upon generalized platitude, all of it old news, and all of it perfectly useless.

    What so impressed you about this speech?



    Well, AC, it’s easy to be an armchair critic. I’m sure that what you say is true for you, and God bless you for it. It’s your right to think whatever you want.

    But among people who heard the speech at the conference, or came across it later, the reaction was very different. It was a bombshell. People were saying, “My God, this is what we all say to each other at 2 AM. And now it’s out in the open.” Orchestra managements have thought this way for a long time, but never said so in public. So the result of the speech, one result, anyway, was to galvanize a lot of people, so that they felt they now wanted to openly confront serious problems that up to now they’d been evading.

    The speech also redefined the League’s relationship to the field. It now was out in front, taking the lead in ways it rarely had before.

    You can also judge the significance of the speech by the opposition it generated, for instance from Drew McManus. He treated the speech as a betrayal of everything orchestras are about. And as an inexplicable reversal of the League’s past positions. So to him, this wasn’t a collection of platitudes.

    An exercise for you. Find someone else with a position in the orchestra community as prominent as Jesse’s, who’s said equivalent things in public, at an earlier time. If these thoughts are really platitudes in the orchestra business, then they should be all over the Internet, right? Publicly credited to major orchestra figures. So find those public statements, and then we can move this discussion forward.

  2. D Shapiro says

    The Toronto news is good news, but with the caveat that young people are getting very cheap tickets. As a symphony-goer with a daughter in her 20s who takes advantage of the cheap tickets, I can inform you of a couple of good things: first, and most important, the orchestra concerts are very much worth attending; Maestro Oundjian has taken a good orchestra and made them better, and his personality on the podium, including opening remarks done not only with real serious intent but also with sparkle, enlivens the experience for all. Young people actually seem to be talking of the concerts as an alternative to movies or other such events.

    My own experience is relevant, I think: in my twenties I wasn’t going to symphony concerts, even though I still bought some records reflecting those tastes. When you’re younger, you need to be connected to what’s current, not what’s tried and true. The audience coming to orchestra and chamber music concerts will always be older, because the music requires more of its audience than Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, or Enrique Iglesias. The reduced-price tickets encourage people who would not otherwise experience some of this more demanding repertoire to give it a try.

    Time will tell if it’s a good way to bring in an audience in the long term; will they continue to come when they’re forty-five, and paying full price? I attend an annual series of three concerts played near my part of town and the prices are not unduly onerous: forty-some dollars a ticket; but that’s much more than a movie. On the other hand, it’s less than a popular current act: the cheapest tickets for Taylor Swift’s concert here next week are $51.

    So the experiment is worth trying, and looks good, but we’ll know if it was a good idea only fifteen or twenty years from now.

  3. Jonathan Gresl says

    I would add my voice to the comment above, That Rosen’s speech was much less than meets the eye. He simply repeated a lot of platitudes that have been said in the debates over the last few years, without any new information, or even interesting synthesis old information.

    For something that was billed as an important and frank discussion of the orchestra community, there just wasnt much there there.

    I think Mr. Sandow you might be reading too much in-between the lines of his speech, or perhaps just grateful that an important person gave such a public endorsement of many of your views.

    The knight foundation’s “Magic of music” initiative, ‘americanizing the american orchestra” are just two examples of near constant debate about what ails the orchestra world over the last 20 years.

    My hunch is that the speech was designed to give cover for the actions of the management in places like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, without having to take responsibility for the consequences. If he had endorsed those actions directly, of course, he would have faced a riot.

    Yes, this is a common view, what you’re saying, particularly from the musicians’ unions. The idea is that orchestras are in trouble because they’re badly managed, and that now the managements and the League are saying that the problems are structural to evade taking responsibility for their actions. And in order to make the musicians pay (by, for instance, accepting pay cuts) for management’s incompetence.

    This is nonsense, of course. Orchestras are hit with the same structural problems as any other economic institutions, profit or non-profit, with the added problem that they’re facing a long-term drop in interest in classical music, which is one of the easiest things in the world to document.

    Why should orchestras be the only group that can continue doing things as they’ve been done in the past, when hospitals, universities, art museums, newspapers, TV networks, the pop music industry, and automobile companies — to cite examples almost at random — can’t do that? When, in fact, nobody in business can?