IF you’ve been following the creative economy lately, it’s hardly a surprise, but this makes for dispiriting reading: A New York Times story chronicles how American groups are responding to tough times. Through the 19th century, orchestras got bigger.
But as some American orchestras struggle in the post-downturn economy, they are taking a page from the corporate world and thinking smaller: They are downsizing, shedding some full-time positions while making up the difference with less costly part-time musicians.
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra ended a contentious labor dispute and a two-month lockout this month by agreeing to a new contract that will effectively keep it smaller for the next few years — placing it in the company of major ensembles in Philadelphia, Detroit, Indianapolis, Minnesota and elsewhere that have temporarily or permanently trimmed their number of full-time musicians in recent seasons to save money. Some are now slowly rebuilding.
… musicians warn that an overreliance on freelancers endangers the things that make orchestras great: the cohesion that comes from playing together over many years, the performing traditions that are developed and passed down, even the ability to divine in a flash what a familiar conductor is seeking with a cocked eyebrow or a flick of the wrist.
Is this move inevitable? Is there a point — a number of players or proportion of shrinkage — where serious and irrepperable damage to an orchestra’s mission takes place? How low can you go?
We’re surely better off with these groups surviving in smaller form than shutting down completely, but isn’t there a better way?