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Looking Beyond the Cleveland Strike

The recent Cleveland Orchestra strike has produced a flurry of commentaries about the financial woes of American orchestras and the impact of declining urban centers on declining audiences. A longer view and a larger picture will be pursued at the forthcoming “Orchestral Summit” at the University of Michigan.
I remember when the annual conference of the American Symphony Orchestra League (now the League of American Orchestras) was a sanguine affair. By the late 1980s, concerns about graying audiences had fixed worried attention on marketing and fund-raising strategies. Gradually, the field has come around to the inescapable realization that artistic methodology and purview could benefit from some fundamental rethinking.
The look and sound of concerts are changing. Earlier this month, I had occasion to script and produce a multi-media “Tchaikovsky Portrait” given on subscription by the Pacific Symphony (Orange County, California). A conductor/commentator, a host, an actor, a visual track, and musical examples were employed in a concerted attempt to promote intense personal engagement with the Pathetique Symphony. We surveyed our audience and discovered that 88 per cent reported “deeper appreciation” of classical music. Twenty per cent reported having “concentrated conversations” about the concert. For that matter, hundreds stayed for post-concert discussions lasting 45 minutes all four nights.
In the US, the traditional template for symphonic concerts was well established by 1900. In terms of concert-giving, Henry Higginson’s Boston Symphony, founded in 1881, was strikingly similar to the orchestras of today in all respects save one: no guest conductors. Its subscription concerts, tours, and summer pops programs totaled more than 100 per season. Overtures, concertos, and symphonies were purveyed, same as today. There was no talking from the stage.
But the context, in retrospect, was strikingly different. Four factors produced an automatic sense of occasion. There were no radios, phonographs, CD players, or TVs to reproduce the sound of the orchestra in a living room. With the exception of Theodore Thomas’s Chicago Orchestra, there were no other great orchestras to be heard. Contemporary music (Tchaikovsky, Dvorak) was popular, not esoteric. Local composers (Chadwick, Loeffler, Foote, Beach) greatly mattered.
In fact, Higginson’s Boston Symphony completely fulfilled Theodore Thomas’s credo that “a symphony orchestra shows the culture of a community.” Because of the multiple worlds occupied by Higginson himself (a banker/aesthete), because of Higginson’s insistence upon reserving 25-cent non-subscription tickets, the orchestra interfaced with a network of Boston constituencies. State Street bankers, university students and professors, Brahmin families were all represented in force.
Two generations later, when Virgil Thomson reviewed his first New York Philharmonic concert as music critic of the New York Herald-Tribune, not one of the conditions for an automatic sense of occasion any longer prevailed. And the Philharmonic was run not by a Higginson, but by a self-described music businessman: Arthur Judson. Thomson notoriously ended his review (Oct. 11, 1940) with the sentence: “As a friend remarked who had never been to one of these concerts before, ‘I understand now why the Philharmonic is not a part of New York’s intellectual life.'” (Thomson’s friend was the painter Maurice Grosser.)
Many things can be said about the sea change separating Higginson’s Boston Symphony from Judson’s New York Philharmonic (and I will say some of them in Ann Arbor this week). The larger failure, as the twentieth century would make increasingly evident, was a failure to emulate people like Higginson and Thomas. They were artistic leaders, artistic innovators.
When I was teaching graduate students in Orchestral Performance at the Manhattan School of Music many years ago, I invited my friend Larry Tamburri to address the class. Larry was running the New Jersey Symphony at the time (he now runs the Pittsburgh Symphony). Larry drew two circles on the blackboard. The smaller circle, he told my students, represented the traditional function of the orchestral musician: rehearsing and performing concerts. The larger circle signified what orchestral musicians would need to become: partners in adaptable cultural institutions that served the community in a variety of ways. The same simple metaphor applies to orchestras themselves.
The larger circle suggests what my historian’s perspective tells me: that orchestras need to think of themselves more as education providers, less as concert producers. This redefinition, which may already be glimpsed in various parts of the country, can take many forms. It may mean subscription concerts like Pacific Symphony’s “Tchaikovsky Portrait.” It may mean sending musicians to inner-city schools. It may mean collaborating with local museums and universities. It will be the topic of Larry’s presentation at the Orchestral Summit on Wednesday morning — and will likewise be addressed by Ryan Fleur and Rob Birman, who are exploring new roles for orchestras in Memphis and Louisville. More than 200 participants are expected. The time is ripe.


  1. Sounds like a fascinating and timely discussion in Ann Arbor. What Joe describes in his last paragraph has become the reality at many if not most US orchestras. But too often these aspects of orchestral life are in the shadows. It’s not so much that orchestras aren’t evolving in all these ways, perhaps, as that the story isn’t getting out beyond those with whom we engage directly in schools, churches, universities, museums. The burgeoning online presence of orchestras is perhaps drawing a bit more attention.
    Theodore Wiprud
    Director of Education
    The New York Philharmonic

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