Do Orchestras Need Improvement?

It’s no surprise that North America orchestras are in a crisis situation. Orchestras like Philadelphia, Honolulu and Detroit have experienced serious problems with sustainability, despite the popularity of classical music in general. The situation in Europe is slightly better. European orchestras enjoy state sponsorship, but they have had problems as well. Orchestras in the Netherlands and Austria (the ORF orchestra) have had threats to their survival in the last several years.

With the economic problems and the worldwide recession, it’s no wonder that this has happened. It has always been difficult for most musicians to make a decent living, and I can only wonder what it would be like to live in a city that is declining rapidly in population. In many cases the pundits and critics have written that classical music is in decline. Classical music is NOT in decline and is NOT in trouble. What is changing is the way people are “consuming” music.

I left an orchestra that had been successful for a long time, and was engaging its community with what it was doing. At the same time, some of the “outreach” concerts were less than what they should have been. It often seemed that bringing Classical music meant “dumbing” down what we were doing as musicians. In fact, the notion that orchestras and classical musicians live in isolation from the rest of the world is just specious.

There are no easy answers. But – the lack of arts education of any kind certainly makes a huge difference in our public. We now preach to a public that may know very little about any kind of art music. Other factors include the simple lack of accessibility for most people to go to concerts. Many people might like to go to a classical concert but they simply can’t afford it.

Access to classical music ought to be a right, not a privilege just for the rich. And on that note, I strongly feel that we as North Americans need to adopt more of a “European” model for orchestras. As it stands now, there is no real sense of ownership for musicians in North America for their ensembles. Orchestras are run by managers, boards of directors, and the conductors. It’s positively feudal! This situation doesn’t exist in Europe nearly as much.

The premiere ensembles in Europe are all player run. These are orchestras like the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, and the London Symphony.

The singular exception to “top-down” run orchestras in the United States is the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra which is “conductor less.”

The one thing that all these self-governed ensembles have in common is great esprit de cor. They have also defined excellence in the field of orchestral music. For me that says it all. Everything comes down to the music.

If we are to get our ducks in a row again, we need to enlist the music makers in finding their own solutions. It won’t be easy. But hopefully for job satisfaction in the future, the job of orchestral musician won’t be ranked so low.

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