Imagining 2023

Suppose in 10 years all problems that orchestras have will be solved!

Suppose that orchestras have a vibrant young audience, that people all over the country are talking about what orchestras do. Suppose there aren’t funding problems. And that all of this has been accomplished without the slightest artistic compromise.

How — looking back now from this imagined 10-year perspective — would we have gotten there? What would have changed?

That was the conversation I led last month at the League of American Orchestras national conference. You can watch the entire session, if you like, since the League filmed it, and put the video on YouTube. Thanks to everyone there for that!  

I’ve asked my invaluable assistant to transcribe the discussions that happened, the things people who attended the session said in response to questions I asked, and what I said in response. Once that’s done, I can post in more detail what the session was like.

But I thought I’d share the outline I made in advance — my script, if you like (though I was more than ready to toss it away if discussions erupted that were better than anything I’d planned).

I’m sharing this because the session seemed to be a great success. And because the questions it asked proved to be very useful. It’s something I’d be happy to repeat, for any orchestra or other institution that thought this would be a helpful internal discussion. Conceivably I could even do it long distance, via Skype.

But enough preluding. Here’s what happened.

Outlining the dream

GeekyMe blogI started by laying out my premise. Imagine, I said, that your orchestra — since I was talking to people who worked for orchestras, or were invaluable volunteers with them — in 10 years has solved all its problems.

It has a large, new, excited young audience. College students go to your concerts on dates. Not a crazy idea. I’ve seen reports of Philadelphia Orchestra concerts being hot items for date nights back in the 1950s. So your orchestra builds on that. You have special nights for area colleges, and students turn out by the hundreds.

Again not crazy. A century ago, the Boston Pops had college nights. MIT students snakedanced through the streets — all the way from Cambridge, across the Charles River — to get to their evenings. When it was Harvard night, the Pops asked for extra police, because the Harvard students were rowdy, loudly demanding to hear the Academic Festival Overture. (These priceless details come from a 1940 book, Our American Orchestras and How They Are Supported, by Margaret Grant and Herman S. Hettinger.)

In 10 years, your community talks about everything you do. The buzz is amazing. You measure it  — people are tweeting about your orchestra every day, whether they go to your concerts or not.

Though of course people do go to your concerts. They also listen to them online. They buy your recordings. They buy your merchandise, which isn’t just sold at your symphony store. They can buy it in stores and shops all over town.

You have no funding problems, and, as I said, you’ve done all this with no artistic compromise. In fact, you’re in a better artistic position than you’ve ever been in, more able to play whatever music you want. That’s because your support is so solid, and also because so much of it comes from younger people, who welcome hearing new music.

Why hasn’t this happened?

I freely admitted — as of course I’d have to — that this is a dream. But dreams can be useful. They offer goals that, for all anyone knows, just might be achieved. They help us think in new ways. They jog us loose from preconceptions that, we might discover, are holding us back.

I quoted “Happy Talk,” a song from South Pacific:

You gotta have a dream, if you don’t have a dream,
How you gonna have a dream come true?

And then I moved on to the first exercise of the session. I asked the participants — more than 80 had signed up, and the room must have held around that many — to quickly write down three reasons why the dream wasn’t true right now. Why, I asked them, isn’t your orchestra having this kind of success?

(Maybe I’m not quite remembering the order I did things in. I haven’t watched the video. Doesn’t matter for now. The session could have worked in many ways.)

To be honest, I was expecting some difficult replies. Attacks, maybe, on popular culture, how it’s destroying appreciation for any kind of art, classical music included. Or maybe orchestra staffers would blame their unionized musicians, given the ugly labor disputes we’ve seen this year. Or maybe musicians (a few were there) would blame orchestra managements.

I was ready — gently — to resist negativity, to suggest we put problems aside for the hour the session would last. To suggest, also, that if we put them aside, we might come up with solutions. That we should be wary of blaming others for our problems, not least because that might blind us to things our orchestras could do on our own.

And I had examples of success, most of which will be familiar to faithful readers here. The Toronto Symphony, which really does have a youngish audience, one-third of it younger than 35. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, in London, where a large young audience comes to specially-branded late-night concerts. Present Music, a new music group in Milwaukee, which for decades has had (if what they told me some years ago still is true) a subscription  base of 200 or so people, with as many more, sometimes, showing up for their concerts.

But I didn’t need any of this. When I asked what people had written down — either waiting for hands to be raised, or else descending on people who hadn’t raised their hands, because I’ve learned from long experience (I do this each week in my Juilliard classes) that their thoughts are as valuable as those coming from people eager to speak — people just about universally blamed their own orchestras.

Here’s where the transcription I’m going to get will be helpful. I could tell you exactly what some people said. But basically they blamed their orchestras for not doing enough, for being stuffy, for not reaching out to their communities.

So the people at my session were ahead of the game. They thought (hope they don’t mind me putting it this way) that they themselves were the problem. Which meant they were ready to change.

That’s enough for today. i’ll continue this post tomorrow.


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  1. Larry Wheeler says

    While certainly an important part of orchestras, the session’s participants- people who worked for orchestras, or were invaluable volunteers with them- represent only part of what makes up an orchestra. Orchestras are made up of managements, boards, musicians, and audiences. Asking only the attendees at the League these valuable questions leaves out two very important parts of the equation. Audience members need to be polled more often about what they would like to hear, see, and feel at concerts. The musicians who make up an orchestra are intelligent and creative people, and if asked, would have many ideas for preserving their art and protecting their future. Some places have shown the wisdom to do just that. For a great example, I suggest reading the recent convocation speech by Aspen President and CEO Alan Fletcher at this link:

    • says

      Hi Larry!
      There is no fee for ICSOM members to attend the LAO conference, yet almost none attend. Since the conf was hosted by St Louis Symphony, about seven SLS musicians DID briefly attend a pre-conference session on education and community engagement, as well as a post-SLS concert reception. There is a conference track for volunteers at the conference. I don’t know what kind of numbers they saw but it stands to reason that these constituencies are invited and welcomed.
      I believe however that the point Greg, AND I, are making is that we really need to ask the audience we’d LIKE to see begin attending symphony concerts what kinds of things THEY’d like to hear, see and feel at concerts. As wild, predictable or impossible as we can imagine their answers will be, the orchestra that responds sincerely to its larger community will earn the support of that larger community.
      The music preservation business is going just great! It’s the “building new audiences with introductory services which complement the traditional experience” that hasn’t yet left the launchpad. The fuse seems to be wet. I notice Mr. Fletcher didn’t invite students or faculty (or donors) to address this in any way. Having attended Aspen myself in the mid-80s, I wonder if anything will change there. Suffering change is always very difficult: EMBRACING change is often surprisingly wonderful… something I learned busking on the mall that summer.

  2. Ariel says

    Mr. Sandow , I hope you will click on to CEO Alan Fletcher as suggested by Mr.Wheeler and read the Fletcher convocation speech , it is great for a laugh if nothing else .

    • Larry Wheeler says

      One would hope that anyone reading Greg Sandow’s blog cares about classical music and its future. Cynicism adds nothing meaningful or positive to the discussion.

  3. says

    I think the biggest challenge that we face as musicians is amplification. This is the biggest difference between classical music and all other forms (today). Amplification would destroy classical music. Is this an opportunity to present something unique and excitingly different?

  4. says

    Hi Christopher!

    I’ve been experimenting with amplification of my chamber groups for 3 years now while hosting readings and performances in bars and clubs as part of the Classical Revolution movement. While certainly not ideal, it does enable us to make sure most people can hear much of the music and what is said. (Speaking is a huge part of the relevance-making experience.) While some CR chapters enforce a “listening room environment”, I’ve encouraged a speakeasy environment so people will feel at home (no one gets shushed out) and we musicians feel less pressure to be note-perfect, esp. since we’re sight-reading.
    Using minimal ambient miking, the various cardioids and omnis we’ve tried have been sufficient for the audience and do not get in the way. It’s just like playing an outdoor venue: we set it and leave it, understanding it can’t possibly be perfect. When I can afford a techie to balance the mix, we try to mike each player.
    I believe this is the broncho we need to mount now that most states ban indoor smoking, to welcome new people to our universe. And speaking, esp. into microphones, takes some practice just like anything else. I invested in an amp system and good mics for this reason. We will soon experiment with doing a single, short work where we request silence and encourage everyone in the bar to listen in a spirit of meditation. With a small audience and a little luck, it just might work!

    • says

      Rick, it sounds like you are using this tool (amplification) with intelligence and sensitivity. I heartily encourage you, and would love to hear how it works out. I get grouchy about amplification because so often it is used without any intelligence and sensitivity to just beat people over the head.

  5. John Porter says

    I tend to think that the orchestras are fighting against the changes in time, taste, and culture. We used to have a robust culture of concert bands. Every town used to have at least one and there were major stars that toured all over the world, such as Sousa, Goldman, Pryor, etc. For the most part they’re gone. (You still see them in the academy though…) In fact, they were much more popular than orchestras were at the same period.

    Once Vaudeville was a predominant form of entertainment. It’s long gone, not even in the academy…

    Once many homes had pianos. Today they’re thrown out like garbage and Steinway has just been sold to a private equity firm.

    I think there are these serious shifts that occur and we see them in business all the time. Comcast now owns NBC. Not only are the modalities that made TV king for so many years rapidly breaking down, but now cable itself is coming under attack. You’ve got at least two big forms of change in that industry happening at the same time.

    It feels to me that the problems with the orchestras are really much larger than the technical sorts of things people tend to focus on, such as the pathetic state of labor-management relations. The form itself is lost in the shuffle of time and its hard to imagine that it is going to return. The only thing propping it up is the 1 percent, who keep it alive with their contributions. A recent study of philanthropy showed that the vast majority of foundation giving goes to the large canonical organizations like orchestras and museums, while the rest of the non profit arts world gets the crumbs. Even with a disproportionate share of philanthropy, the orchestras are still having problems. Sure, there are the strong orchestras like LA with their goldmine (Hollywood Bowl) and the BSO with their goldmine (Tanglewood). I am not arguing that all the orchestras will go the way of the British Music Hall, but rather it is going to make it harder and harder for the field to remain vital and stable and little by little even the big ones will feel the brunt of a world that isn’t very interested in what they do.

    And they can try all they might with their El Sistema sorts of things which won’t make a bit of difference.

    Simply put: there are certain changes that can’t be stopped and I think the way our world has changed. has not and will not be kind to the orchestras as a form and field.

  6. says

    Thanks Christopher! It’s easier to hold the position that ANY amplification would mar the beauty of classical and leave it at that. But seen as a TOOL to bridge to a culture of amplification, it’s still hard to LET GO of such refinements temporarily. Experimenting is the only way to find a practical balance. If we’re going to be “voices crying in the wilderness”, make sure people can hear us. I’ll soon get to the point where I can experiment with the high volume of rock venues… to see if that wins more attention from the young audiences. By including young folk in our system, the feedback loop we generate COULD spinoff some positive results.

    I realized meditation is a potent word which most can agree is desirable. I preface that by saying, “there is a time for everything… a time to sing and dance along with music, and a time to listen quietly in a spirit of meditation; to let instrumental music lift us by the lapels on a dramatic adventure.” I then invite people to close their eyes to SEE where instrumental music will take them. I share this freely to encourage musicians to share likewise.

  7. says

    I was very interested in this topic and went to view the YouTube–pretty useless as you can’t hear what anyone in the audience is saying. Greg repeats some things but it’s too frustrating to continue to watch.

  8. Ariel says

    Mr. Porter is of course correct – but unfortunately those” in the know” and and those that should
    know cannot be bothered by facts and a reasoned observation . One has to only read the
    sad exchange on amplification and convocation speeches .

  9. John Porter says

    There’s no doubt in my mind that arguments over things like amplification as well as those who think the Baltimore Symphony is blasphemous for rethinking concert dress and technology, tells you that a lot of the audience is extremely rigid. Naturally, this makes the innovation even more problematic.

    The amplification thing is particularly interesting. In my view, the best opera of the past 25 years is Nixon in China, which requires in the score that the singers be miked. Isn’t that an interesting irony?

    What is more, it is pretty clear that few of the orchestras have much of an idea of what’s going on in the new music scene. And it’s not just the new, it’s music written across the past century.

    How many program or even know the name Lou Harrison? (MTT excepted). When the folks playing in and running the orchestras don’t take much of an interest in the evolution of their own art form, you’ve got a big problem.

    While Greg Sandow was quite positive about the NY Philharmonic biennial, I think it’s pathetic from the perspective of composers being performed. It is extremely narrow and could have used a big dose of the spirit of bigger and better things the Phil did years ago, like the Horizons Festival. It could have taken a page from MTT’s Mavericks or the things he does in Miami.

    It’s bad enough that people on the outside don’t care about the orchestras fading like vaudeville. It’s even worse that the artistic administrators, conductors, and orchestra members don’t even know much about the composers living today or yesterday. There are a few exceptions like David Robertson…