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What orchestras can learn from the blooming dance revival

It is 25 year since Ernest Fleischmann, visionary leader of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, proclaimed the death of the orchestra. He proposed to replace it with a ‘community of musicians’.

photo (c) Lebrecht Music&Arts

Ernest’s warcry was howled down by a complacent US musical establishment and the business of American music carried on regardless in the same confrontational way – threats, strikes, cave-ins and closures.

This season is no different from any other, except worse than most. In my monthly essay in Standpoint, I argue that the time has come to take Ernest in earnest.

In partocular, orchestras need to look at the dance world which, three decades ago, went into tailspin and has since reinvented its appeal in a bewildering enriching diversity.

Read Ballet lessons for the orchestra here.

Read Ernest’s 1987 speech here.

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  1. The community of musicians was (and still is) an interesting concept. I believe Boulez proposed something similar at one point, though he called it a ‘variable geometry orchestra’.

    I’m not sure how much we can learn from the dance world though. Certainly ballet companies in Europe seem to be struggling just as much as orchestras. I wish it were otherwise.

    • Boulez and Fleischmann discussed the matter closely.

    • There are a lot of younger groups right now who seem to at least be tackling this challenge – perhaps without the huge $$$ of the more established organizations. My friends and I have had a fair bit of success in starting our new group – The Declassified – and we’re not alone. In NYC alone there are many thriving young sister organizations like I.C.E., Alarm Will Sound, The Knights, A Far Cry, Metropolis, etc… Each group has a slightly different take on how to organize, and offers an interesting artistic model on how to move forward as an art form. There is often a lot of overlap of players, but….collectively to me, it feels like music renewing itself… At least that’s how it feels to me as a young musician in the thick of it….and I suspect similar scenes are emerging in places like Berlin, etc. What remains to be seen is if groups like this have staying power, and whether we can develop a business model that supports long-term sustainable careers….time will tell!

      - Paul

  2. The ironic thing about looking to the dance world is that most ballet companies no loger dance to live music. They use recordings rather than pit orchestras or even live pianists. Watching them is rather like watching a dancercize class.

  3. Dear Mr. Lebrecht:
    Thank you for linking this blog entry with your article. We musicians do not want to end up on the “remaindered” shelf–it is indeed time for a classical music reinvention revolution.
    Lloyd Arriola

  4. We (well some of us!) who conduct and manage orchestras are keen to explore any number of new ways to reinvent ourselves. Witness the late-night concerts in unusual venues by such groups as Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and City of London Sinfonia in London.

    I would say, however, that diversifying and spinning- off seems to suggest something more like chamber groups. Where that would leave major full-size orchestra’s sounds like a contradiction in terms.

    Can we hear more detail about Fleischmann’s actual proposals?

  5. Ernest was right. Period.

    • another orchestra musician says:

      I agree with you. Ernest was right.

      • So when exactly will someone start one of these “communities?” I suspect when there are no longer any positions offering a steady income. Would any of you give up your current regular orchestra income to start a “community of musicians?”

  6. I think people are ignoring what the likely results of Fleishman’s idea would be. Orchestral formations would be largely dissolved and replaced with more flexible mixed, chamber ensembles with far few personnel. This would also lead to more flexible, temporary contracts instead of permanent positions. Eventually, the artistic identity of the “community of musicians” would become so diffuse that it would gradually dissolve all together.

    The practice would be far more efficient in economic terms, and it would give the symphony orchestra a gracious, gradual death – which is far over due – but it’s not going to result in higher cultural standards. It will result in classical music, or serious art music, having an even smaller position in our society than it already does.

    • another orchestra musician says:

      I sense you misread Fleishman’s proposal. He doesn’t argue in favour of a large pool of freelancers; he wants a large pool of salaried, tenured players, whose members would rotate through a wide range of performance activities. Put differently, he wants to keep his LAPhil, but greatly augmented in musicians; and to use the increased scheduling flexibility the added manpower gives him to invest a broad spectrum of musical endeavours with LAPhil production values.

      Seems to me we would have more musicians earning a good wage than we do at present, and that the events away from Disney Hall would be of generally higher artistic standard than they are at present. Too, that for many of the LAPhil pool, their daily routine would be more varied, and more stimulating than it is at present. I think this all would tend to improve, not diminish the stature of art music within the community served by the LAPhil.

      • I agree that such a system entailing chamber ensembles would provide variety to the factory work drudgery of orchestras. And I agree that this might raise artistic standards by giving the musicians more engaging work. It might also allow for more community engagement since small groups could go into schools, retirement homes, or whatever. On the other hand, the quality of symphonic formations would probably drop since the focus and regularity of work would no longer be there.

        But I do not think it would lead to more permanent positions. It’s much easier to trim the personnel of varied, mixed chamber ensembles than orchestras. And it is much easier to give them temporary contracts.

        There would also be a loss of status in the organization since these mixed formations serving community endeavors would not create the same kind of exclusive public image as a symphonic formation where people pay $300 for decent tickets. The wealthy donors often don’t want music for the community, they want it for their cultural country clubs – which is more-or-less what our arts institutions are. (Think of the Met’s 300 million per year budget while the NYCO (“The People’s Opera’) is now essentially defunct. So funding problems would evolve. An analogy would be how the wealthy massively fund elite, private schools while they give very little to our public schools and public universities – especially in relation to the number of students each serves.

        Anyway, Fleishman’s idea is worthy of thought, but it is still very green. Many problems would need to be solved, and some might be insurmountable under our current funding system. On the other hand, a humane system of euthanasia for orchestras is always worth consideration…

  7. The financial crises and collapses of symphony orchestras everywhere, are only a symptom of the true cause of the disasters afflicting classical music today. The true cause is to be found in the erosion and disappearance of the amateur. To be an amateur means that one is in love with a certain art and does not imply mediocrity or lack of standards. In the Vienna of Mozart or Brahms there was good music being performed everywhere in the city, on every block in some places, by competent string quartets, pianists, soloists and evern small orchestras. These were the bedrock of serious music, and when the bedrock is eroded the building cannot stand. Today the gulfs (several of them), between “professionals” and “amateurs” are staggering. The professional is scarcely an artist any more: he just “follows orders” (from conductor, composer, etc.) lives an upper middle class life and sides with the monied elite in politics and lifestyle. He has lost all originality and imagination; indeed he is forbidden to have them. The audience is filled with people who dare not do any performing at all, so great is their embarrassment and sense of incompetence. This cannot go on forever and we are reaping the whirlwind

  8. Fleischmann’s proposal has never really been tried in North America. But the structure he imagined resembles Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra in some ways, does it not?

    • Does Leipzig earn its income in any new ground breaking ways? No. So the only difference is how the money is spent, musicians are hired and programs are devised a bit differently. There are two sides to the crisis, how money is raised and how it is spent. We must not forget this. It’s easy to change how it’s spent, easier outside of the USA, but so much harder to figure out how to raise it and keep it coming.

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