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.)
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.
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.