Stretching their strings

Through helping out in schools and wider repertoires, orchestras bond with communities

Willem Wijnbergen is an impatient man, which is fortunate, since time is not on his side.

A decade ago, culture mavens were crying that the symphony was dead. Since 1990, nationwide symphony attendance has continued to slip 0.4 percent every year. The new director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (in what some have dubbed a fool's errand - selling classical music here in the belly of the mass-entertainment beast) wants to buck that trend by broadening the orchestra's audience and reach.

"If they don't like the core classical music," maestro Wijnbergen muses, "people feel outside the orchestra. We don't need to change what we are, but we must expand our abilities and reach into the community."

In announcing a wide range of new programs from jazz to world music to film-music concerts, Wijnbergen joins what observers are calling a slow, but profound transformation of the symphony orchestra.

In the United States, the 800 or so large, medium, and small ensembles from San Diego to Bar Harbor, Maine, are shifting from the domain of the elite to a wide-reaching community resource.

A lost generation

The change isn't coming a moment too soon, says Wijnbergen, a native of Amsterdam and former director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra there. "We are losing an entire generation of people with no exposure to classical music," he warns.

Michael Steinberg, lecturer and author of "The Symphony: A Listener's Guide" (Oxford University Press), agrees, pointing out that today's under-30 generation is the first in more than a century to grow up with little if any contact with classical music. "The main challenge for the classical music community as a whole," Mr. Steinberg says, "is to find a way to make up for the disappearance of the classical-music experience for school kids."

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra has become a national model for how institutions can work together to engage children. Five years ago, the orchestra, the second-oldest symphony in the US, took over an ailing community music school. The musicians taught classes, the students began performing, and the orchestra developed a new outlook, seeing itself as both a community resource and a source of entertainment.

Executive director Don Roth says it was not enough that the St. Louis Symphony was winning Grammies and touring the world.

"We've discovered that it isn't enough to be honored," he says. "We realized that wasn't a sufficient [community] use of our most basic resource, namely well over 90 highly talented and motivated individuals."

Mr. Roth says his orchestra has begun to operate around three principles:

Meet community needs. The orchestra has shifted focus from solely attracting audiences to looking at how its resources match the needs of its neighbors. For instance, the symphony's community-partnership program offers musicians the choice of two or three weeks off in exchange for working in schools.

Partner with other institutions. Exchanging ideas can help work on mutual goals, like fund-raising.

Redefine the role of musicians. Players have to take their individual place in the community, helping to shape the orchestra's activities. They are more than "just" performers.

Roth points out that since 1995, when the symphony began to work with the music school, annual giving to the symphony has blossomed from $3.5 million to $6 million. "I don't believe that a St. Louis Symphony that was only interested in [performing at] Carnegie Hall could've done that," he says.

Many orchestras have offered summer pops programs for decades not to mention children's programs and guest performers. What is changing now are attitudes, says Charles Olton, director of the American Symphony Orchestra League. A decade ago when an alarming number of symphonies were going bankrupt, many that survived did so only by innovating.

"A lot of orchestras are beginning to find new ways to connect to the people upon whom they depend," Mr. Olton explains. "That's really good news because it has meant they've had to think more broadly about audiences."

In Los Angeles, the three-month summertime concerts by the L.A. Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl account for more than 50 percent of ticket sales. In addition, musicologist Tom Schnabel spearheads a new summer world-music program. He wholeheartedly agrees that there's a need to redefine what music means to a community and plans to find ways to reach out to this sprawling urban region, home to no fewer than 83 languages.

'A broader vision of what classical is'

Is this simply more tinkering? "We're finally getting away from old formulas," Mr. Schnabel says. Pointing to a summer schedule full of exotic-sounding programs, he adds, "What we hope to do is embrace a broader vision of what classical music is by drawing on the classical traditions of Morocco, Bulgaria, Spain, and the like."

John Clayton, whose ensemble will be the linchpin of the Philharmonic's expanded commitment to jazz, points out that his involvement will run throughout the year and will help underline the presence of serious musicians in the city. "This is a about a larger sense of family," he says.

Ever since passage of budget-cutting Proposition 13 in 1978 put arts programs in the luxury category, the job of putting classical music together with California's schoolchildren has been a tough one. Those cuts were mirrored nationwide.

Recent research showing that musical training enhances academic performance may change that trend, Steinberg says.

Drawing students to music because it will help them get ahead is "like a form of bribery," he sighs. But "perhaps that's all right, because getting them in the tent is most of the job, isn't it?

"The music can take over from there."

* Gloria Goodale's e-mail address is

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