Another Fabulous Invalid? The State of the Symphony Orchestra

The Broadway Theatre has been called "the fabulous invalid" for decades as a result of the periodic reports of its imminent demise, but of course it has continued to survive, albeit with challenges and mutations.

Now we have a similar debate around the symphony orchestra. Andrew Taylor recently shared some thoughts on his ArtfulManger blog, that included a quote from an article in Time magazine about the impending collapse into financial ruin of the American Symphony orchestra. The year the article was published: 1969! He is reporting on a recent article in Symphony magazine by the president and CEO of of the League of American Orchestras.

Yet since since the death knell was sounded in 1969, the number of orchestras in our country has grown exponentially as has the budget of our great orchestras. I won't repeat the exploration of this issue in the Symphony article, but if you care about symphonic music in this country, urge you to read it yourself.

This article comes at time when I have been musing about this issue myself, Our own Philadelphia Orchestra -- one of the country's and the world's great ensembles, with both an illustrious past, and a sound that remains extraordinary -- is struggling with huge financial problems and declining audiences. The recent appointment of a strong new Chair, a very experienced new President, and a young, charismatic Conductor and Music Director-designee (the French-Canadian Yannick Nezet-Seguin), have created a great sense of excitement and optimism even as it remains clear that substantial (and likely painful) steps will need to be taken to create a sustainable enterprise.

Yet, I can experience one of their free outdoor public concerts -- as I did in September on the plaza of our City Hall and later in the warm confines of the Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall -- and just be transported by the luscious sound, as well as the joy of experiencing it surrounded by a few thousand ordinary citizens of all ages, races and income levels (more on that later). The magic of this thing we know as symphonic music never ceases to amaze me, and I am going to wax a bit philosophical here. The huge array of talent, coordination, technology and business enterprise that need to come together to make this music is bewildering if you truly think about it. That all the instruments were invented, refined and perfected and organized to be performed as a huge ensemble. That an ordinary human being can imagine, compose, hear all these sounds in their head and write out all the musical parts for all these instruments that can actually be played. That one hundred or more of the world's best musicians must be able to come together and subsume their ego, their individual expression, towards the good of making real the notes on paper. That a conductor can read the notes and work with the orchestra to coax out a sound that is unique to his or her relationship to this orchestra and that piece of music. Astounding!

The fact that this art form, this collaborative music-making machine, has survived for hundreds of years is, I suppose, itself something of a miracle. New composers continue to write for the form, and new young musicians continue to aspire to play this music. And it still transports and delights audiences around the world. Every now and then the miracle that this thing exists and works and is happening in concert halls and auditoria and parks all over the world, just becomes real to me. It is akin to the miracle of life itself, as it is about the miracle of what human beings are capable of.

But I think we are putting our collective heads in the sand if we don't acknowledge that the system, the business model, may require substantial changes if this art form is to survive into the next century. I won't begin to elaborate on what those changes might need to be, as many others are engaged in that work with much more knowledge of the workings of an orchestra than I possess. It is easy to look at 40-year old predictions of demise and remain complacent that this is just an age-old "Chicken Little" cry of alarm. It is not. This is not to say that the orchestra is doomed, only that it must find a new way to operate where its cost can be covered by revenue, and where it connects as relevant to a large enough share of the population to generate that revenue -- because revenue flows from relevance. A big part of that challenge is reaching new and more diverse audiences, and creating opportunities for more musicians and composers of diverse cultural backgrounds. In Philadelphia the diversity and civic celebration of the free outdoor concert was, to be frank, in marked contrast to the more traditional concert hall experience a few days later where spotting faces of color in the audience was a challenge (maybe 1 or 2 percent of the audience?). This is an issue that I know the Philadelphia Orchestra is very much committed to addressing, along with others in our music community, and I applaud that.

There is something so magical and powerful in this art form -- when it all comes together, that we must not lose it. We have an obligation to find a way to make this gift available to more people today and into future generations.