Orchestras on the brink?
Financial woes in some cities force a rethink of the relevance of these cultural flagships
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At a cultural summit last week at the Ontario provincial legislature, urban guru Jane Jacobs was quoted as saying of the symphony, "To even contemplate that this organization could die is like saying 'Bees make a nice humming sound, but we can do without them. We can listen to crickets instead.' They don't do the same job in the habitat."Skip to next paragraph
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In St. Louis, the orchestra lived beyond its means for several years; its artistic leaps forward were not matched by growth in its endowment.
An example of orchestral health, on the other hand, is the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the largest-budget orchestra in the world, according to Mr. Volpe. The orchestra is "in a modest surplus situation," but is not immune to the current slowdown. Rental income from Symphony Hall is down, for instance.
But Volpe makes success in the music business sound like success in any other industry: A diversified product line is important, for one thing. "The New York Philharmonic is a great orchestra - but it's only one 'brand,' and they don't even own their hall."
The BSO, meanwhile, has three "brands" - the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Pops (almost as old as the BSO itself) and Tanglewood, summer home of the BSO in western Massachusetts. Each of these brands has its own market - and funding base.
Deborah Card, executive director of the Seattle Symphony, presides over another musical organization in the black: It ended its last season with a surplus of $909, she recounts. "All orchestras need to connect with their local communities," she says. "Different communities have different traditions. Ultimately, the only people who support you day in and day out are those who live in your community."
In guiding the musical tastes of a community, there needs to be "a balance between leading and following," she says. "We tell our audiences, 'We're presenting things we believe you will like.' Somebody has to put eggplant in front of you for the first time."
One of the biggest challenges for orchestras, their managements say, is the lack of music education in the schools to prepare new generations of audiences. As a result, orchestras are programming educational concerts intended to introduce not only new music but standard repertoire that people used to be exposed to in schools. A sign of the times: diaper-changing tables for the littlest concertgoers in the restrooms at Benaroya Hall, the Seattle Symphony's new (since 1998) home.
In discussions of the role of orchestras in the cultural landscape of their communities, it is striking how often the comparison with sports comes up. Volpe recalls from his earlier days with the Baltimore Symphony a fundraising campaign run shortly after the Colts had departed and civic pride was smarting a bit: "We said Baltimore has three major-league franchises: Johns Hopkins, the Baltimore Symphony, and the Orioles. We couldn't lose another team. Cities define themselves by certain institutions."
Stephanie Tretick is a violist with the Pittsburgh Symphony and is treasurer of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. But talking about the financial health of orchestras, she sounds as attuned to the challenges as managers like Volpe. "You can never think you're sitting pretty." She suggests, perhaps in jest, that musicians might be taken more seriously if they weren't said to "play" the music. "It's not play, it's work. Maybe if we said, 'The orchestra 'operated....' "
"For a city to lose its symphony orchestra - it would be an incredible tragedy. You lose something really basic to the humanity of the community."