Saving American Orchestras from Themselves

Orchestra performing in big hall with empty seats
Filling seats and making orchestras economically sustainable are not new challenges. This article is meant to open up discussion about possible modern-day solutions.

The Community of Musicians Proposition

It was May 1987 when Ernest Fleischmann, the champion executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, gave a famous commencement address at the Cleveland Institute entitled “The Orchestra is Dead—Long Live the Community of Musicians,” a speech that long roiled the musical world. Its principal argument was that orchestral musicians, especially those without inspired musical direction, grew easily embittered, disgruntled, and bored by their too often under-rehearsed work.

Twenty-one months later there followed a symposium entitled “The Symphony Orchestra: Death or Transfiguration?”, in which Richard Clark (president of Affiliate Artists), Robert Finn (Chief Music Critic of the Cleveland Plain Dealer), Ernest Fleischmann, Samuel Lipman (pianist, critic, and publisher of The New Criterion), John Mack (principal oboe of the Cleveland Orchestra), Kurt Masur (Music Director of Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra), Tom Morris (Executive Director of the Cleveland Orchestra), and Jack Renner (Chairman and CEO of Telarc International Corporation), all participated. That session, also held at the Cleveland Institute of Music, came to several important conclusions:

Music Directors as Advocates

The need for strong, committed music directors who lead the cause of music each in his or her own community, spending many fewer weeks than at present on the road with other orchestras

New Work

A continuing quest for strong, new work that will be attractive to a still relatively untrained audience

New Audiences

An improved effort to recruit a younger audience

New Funding

A search for new sources of funding

Recent Trials

More than a quarter century has passed in the meantime. The seasons 2010-13 brought a sense of budgetary crisis for many American orchestras, with extended lock-outs for the orchestras of Atlanta, Indianapolis, and Minnesota, and extended strikes for the orchestras of Detroit, Pittsburgh, St. Paul, and Fort Worth, while the Philadelphia Orchestra filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and the New York City Opera, founded in 1943, went out of business altogether.

The Detroit strike, ending in April 2011, concluded with the Orchestra $53 million in debt, with endowment a little more than a third of the $60 million it had been, and with salary cuts of 25% for the players. In Atlanta the number of musicians was reduced from 95 to 88, with a 17% salary cut for the musicians in the first year of a two-year contract, and an additional 14% cut in the second. One can imagine the bitterness that resulted in Atlanta when the CEO’s salary, three times that of one of the players, was visited with but a 6% cut.

After a 15-month lockout the Minnesota Orchestra was obliged to cut its number of players from 95 to 84 while each of the musicians’ salaries was reduced by 15%, as were the salaries of the players of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Salaries for the members the Fort Worth Symphony were reduced by 15%, while in Indianapolis the combined cuts amounted to 32%. One can easily imagine the pain of players saddled with home mortgages, credit card balances, and college indebtedness, trapped in too many cases by very narrow educations that make it next to impossible for many of them to find employment in other parts of the economy.

Update March 12, 2019: Today’s New York Times indicates that the members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, whose minimum salary amounts to $159,000/year, are now on strike because they do not want their pensions moved from the present fixed benefit model to a fixed contribution plan. The world of post-secondary education agreed two generations ago on the latter, where the professoriate became convinced that each member could look out for his or her fiscal welfare by investing contributed funds in a manner that best fits his own needs. The board and administration of the CSO believe—rightly in my view—that the present arrangement is not sustainable.

Some Solutions for the Present Day

In what follows I have tried to list a number of changes in American orchestras that would mitigate at least some of the fiscal pressure that now impacts all of them, the result of economic forces well described by Baumol and Bowen in their 1966 book, Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma, and by Robert J. Flanagan in his more recent The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras: Artistic Triumphs and Economic Challenges (Yale, 2012).

1. Stipulate Director Advocacy Formally

Write contracts for music directors that oblige them to live in the city of their orchestra, requiring that the conductors spend 75% (85%?) of their working sessions in the city of their orchestra while encouraging them to own a home there. Such conductors would play a role not unlike that of university presidents in fund-raising and in representing the orchestra in the community.

Sir Simon Rattle, the Berlin Philharmonic’s former longtime chief conductor, plays bass drum on this raucous march. During his sixteen-year tenure with the Philharmonic, he launched ambitious educational initiatives and nurtured a sense of community around the orchestra.

2. Let Musicians Multi-Task

Encourage professional music schools to see to it that each graduate take at least a one-semester coarse in elementary business practices, including accounting, fund-raising, public relations, and marketing, thereby reducing the number of full-time staff members normally required these days in an orchestra. Further, the curriculum should be revamped with a focus on helping the musicians become articulate, informed advocates for the music they are performing. Eastman’s Institute for Music Leadership is a wonderful example for other professional music schools to emulate.

3. Value Good Team Players

Prospective orchestra members should not only be auditioned but interviewed as well. Wonderful performers who insist on sleeping with their colleagues or adding several members of their immediate families to the ensemble do as much harm as good, as has recently been demonstrated, with great pain, at the orchestras of Cleveland and New York, and by the Metropolitan Opera. Young people with excellent interpersonal skills who are fine players are worth their weight in gold.

4. Incentivize Advocacy Among the Musicians

All of the players need to be advocates of the orchestra. Imagine an ensemble in which each of 100 players were tasked with selling even two annual subscriptions or with making half a dozen unpaid appearances on behalf of the orchestra in area schools and colleges! Music faculties whose salary increases are tied in part to their entrepreneurial activities on a college’s behalf bring new life blood to any institution. The fact that orchestral musicians have so minimal a role in deciding who will lead them, and where and what they will perform, does a great deal to deaden the joy they might otherwise bring to their work.

5. Research the Audience. What Makes Them Tick?

Working with the students of a business school in the home city of an orchestra on researching who the audience is and why it is motivated to attend is the sort of market research which any organization selling cars, airplane seats, or toothpaste will routinely undertake in order to succeed in a competitive marketplace. Orchestras have marketed themselves to this point only by implying that symphonic experience is morally and socially good for them, introducing them at intermission to other leading members of the community. Imagine how many ticket buyers we could lure to a baseball game if the only attraction there were the greenness of the grass or the taste of the hotdogs.

6. Ease the Scheduling Burden

Develop a more flexible orchestral schedule so that soloists and chamber ensembles of orchestral players might perform in local colleges, churches, retirement homes, and private residences of the affluent, all in the name of the orchestra. Have a look at the video below of a concert conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi as a tribute to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and relatives of Maestro Von Dohnanyi who participated in the July 1944 effort to assassinate Adolf Hitler and were executed as a result. The very moving film was narrated by Bill Moyers and co-produced by Joseph Robinson, distinguished principal oboist of the New York Philharmonic. Imagine the result if it were a regular mission for each interested member of an orchestra to be encouraged to develop such a program of his or her own! This project came into being during the period when Robinson was a board member of New York’s Union Theological Seminary. Obviously, Robinson’s value to the Philharmonic greatly exceeded his ability to make hundreds of excellent oboe reeds, a process that the great Marcel Tabuteau understood was necessary but abhorred.

7. Enlist Players in Governance

Add two or three members of the orchestra to the board.

8. Teach and Engage with the Audience

Those who supported music before the French Revolution were almost always members of the aristocracy and the Church, and were trained themselves as amateur musicians. When their numbers and power began to wane in the 19th century, Beethoven wrote that his Pastorale Symphony did not depict life the country but made one feel as though he were in the country. When Berlioz printed 2000 copies of his original program for his “Symphonie Fantastique,” he did so in order to provide his audience with a point of departure for a work of art quite unlike anything any of them had ever heard before. Franz Liszt and Richard Strauss went further still with program music, no matter that Mendelssohn had once written to a lady admirer that there were no words for his “Songs without Words,” because music is a self-referential language. While we are now training young musicians to play and sing at higher technical and artistic levels than ever before in the history of music, the “music appreciation” courses taught in most of our colleges and universities are woefully inadequate in helping our would-be audience to find its own ways to the pleasure and satisfaction that comes from living within a piece of music.

Learn about using MITA’s integrated, multimedia approach to teaching music history theory, and performance to enrich the orchestral experience.

This brief essay is meant as a medium through which other music lovers can agree with or dispute what I have written above, aimed towards the preservation in the economically difficult times ahead of one of humanity’s greatest treasures.

As a little bonus treat, here is one of my favorite orchestral performances of all time. The adagio that begins Mahler 10 is all that he finished before dying in 1911. It alone is reason to fight for the preservation of this priceless art form.

Update April 16, 2019: On what in Boston we still call Patriots’ Day, I ran on the web into material about Aubrey Bergauer. At Rice she attained a BM degree in music performance and a BA in business, was initiated into music management at the Seattle Opera, and has now been executive director of the California Symphony in Walnut Creek for five years. She is truly a breath of fresh air. Since her arrival in Walnut Creek, ticket sales are up 70%, and new concerts have had to be added as the result of increased demand. The orchestra’s number of donors has quadrupled.

Bergauer makes full use of modern technology. She has her own blog and her own twitter account. Her principal discovery is that the orchestral problem is not the recruitment of new audiences but rather the retention of listeners who, though introduced to a symphony orchestra, in other venues return in very small numbers. Her audiences are encouraged to bring drinks with them into the auditorium if they wish, and to come to a performance garbed as they wish to be seen. Donato Cabrera, her music director, gives pre-concert talks that encourage an interest in the lives of the composers performed. She stresses the fun of the educational experience in concert attendance, encouraging her audience to applaud between movements if they wish. The audience she has recruited is a multi-racial one of all ages, and she has diversified the racial make up of her orchestra’s board, staff, and performing personnel. (Latinos now comprise 25% of her audience.) Fully 20% of the repertory performed is by living composers.

Hats off to the West Coast!

Update April 26, 2019: I have just finished reading for the first time a book published in 1940 by W.W. Norton, America’s Symphony Orchestras, by Margaret Grant and Herman Henniger. It describes a world of orchestral music in the United States wherein ticket income nearly equals expense, where endowment draw, when there is one, is held under 5%/year, and where an orchestra’s staff is very limited in number. Philip Hart’s Orpheus in the New World, published in 1973, paints a yet more optimistic picture, in which orchestras have increased in number and where minimum salaries have notably increased, the result no doubt of the establishment in 1965 of NEA and the nearly simultaneous gift by the Ford Foundation of $85 million to American orchestras. But Robert Flanagan’s The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras, published in 2012, describes a much grimmer present: one in which earned income from ticket sales has suffered marked decreases, where endowment draws now amount to 7% or more, and where the number of staff members normally equals the number of performing musicians.

The change just outlined results from several causes, among them women’s greatly increased place in the work force, greatly increased competition from other aspects of the entertainment world, the greatly increased availability of all sorts of music on the net, increasing concern about downtown safety, and the gradual disappearance of music as a vital force in our public schools.

Some of my own suggested changes in the way orchestras do business have already been outlined by myself and others in the blog at hand. To those I would add the broad imitation by America’s professional music schools of Eastman’s Institute for Music Leadership, in which more than 50% of Eastman students are voluntarily enrolled, and the willingness of some of our music historians to focus, as Joseph Horowitz has been doing for some time now, on the history of musical institutions as well as on the work of composers.

Help Audiences Read Scores as Though They Were Leonard Bernstein

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What do you think?

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Excellent article! I have often thought so many time, sitting in the orchestra as a musician myself, that if musicians simply used their comp tickets every time, we would at least be doing a little something to further our own promotion in the community. For whatever reason, this very simple act is rarely encouraged. We need to be our own most passionate advocates in the arts! Thank you for writing and sharing this very insightful article.


I’m interest please help me

Michael Drapkin

Hi Bob: Excellent essay as expected! I thoroughly agree with all of your points. From my experiences being on the orchestra side as a member of the Honolulu Symphony and the management side as a Board Member of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, I concluded that the single greatest challenge is to change the minds of symphony orchestra musicians that their role really needs to extend beyond the music stand if their orchestra is to survive and flourish and …. raise their incomes. When I was a student at the Eastman School of Music (we had a fantastic Dean when I was… Read more »

Andrew Balio

Its hard to argue with these recommendations because they are so practical in nature and could really only help. What I like about this short article that sets it apart from many in the genre of “what ails classical music”, is that it doesn’t claim any one thing will move the needle. Also, it doesn’t seek to chastise the art form as so many do nowadays. Classical music, as such, is an intrinsic good, something that persisted through the ages because it engenders so much love and admiration. To add a point, as a musician on the inside of one… Read more »

Paul Buttenwieser

I appreciated this thoughtful essay by Bob Freeman. The Boston Symphony Orchestra Board of Trustees has been addressing, with management, virtually all of these issues. I’m proud to say that the musicians of the BSO have been tremendous partners in implementing many of the suggestions Bob makes. We are particularly interested in lowering the average age of the audience, the orchestra members and the Boards, and are succeeding in all three ares.

David Scudder

I like very much your comments re American orchestras. Let me comment, however, on what I see to be among the more serious fund raising challenges. First, there is a very real generation gap between what people of my and your generation, and the one just under us, assume about non-profits, and what today’s generation wants from them. Particularly in the Northeast, but not limited to that area, people from the age of their mid 50s on up come from an accepted tradition of what used to be called noblesse oblige. You had a duty to assist in your area’s… Read more »

Ayden Adler

Bob, terrific ideas here. I appreciate your recognition of strikes as a costly and disruptive cycle in orchestral life. As dean of New World Symphony I had the great fortune to work with Robert Mnookin, Samuel Williston Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, the Chair of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, and the Director of the Harvard Negotiation Research Project. Bob graciously agreed to work with my students in Miami to help them understand the basics of interest-based bargaining. While over 95% of New World alums go on to find employment in orchestras, this was the… Read more »

David Louis Effron

Bob Freeman is one of the most active people examining the future of music in America. As he comes from a musicians household,as he has played oboe in orchestras and as he has been the leader of three major music schools,all with strong orchestra programs, his words are extremely important. In the 40 years that I have known Bob, I have learned much and have always respected his stance. Not to my surprise, I agree with all of the points he has made in his recent article concerning the path of American orchestras in the future. In today’s culture, the… Read more »

James Freeman

Two thoughts struck me on reading the NY Times this morning. 1) The article about the Philharmonic giving $5 tickets to firefighters and other city workers to expand the audience. It’s a good idea and worth trying, though i thought the program they presented ought to reflect more accurately a normal Philharmonic program, not something that is clearly dumbing down for the great unwashed. But it seems to me that the audience they and other orchestras should be seeking to attract are all the college, university, and conservatory kids in that city. Also the music professors at all those places.… Read more »

Joseph Schwantner

Bob’s blog post introduces an important conversation to the members of the orchestral community and offers thoughtful and common sense proposals that can help provide a creative road-map for orchestras and their future. Today, all arts face an uphill struggle for the public’s attention given the global reach of a commercial pop culture that so thoroughly saturates and influences the world’s mass media. Also, meaningful arts funding remains a serious issue and concern that goes as far back as the Regan administration’s pernicious attacks to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts. We see these appalling assaults even more unrelenting… Read more »

Paul R. Judy

I am glad you feel more education of young musicians about the economics of orchestra organizations would lead to better organizational processes. I spent a number of years with that hope, but am doubtful of it happening unless/until some orchestral musicians actually exercise their beliefs and vote to change the attitude the AFM and its historic position that orchestra organizations as employers are adversarial to orchestra musician employees. It’s as if orchestras are somehow separate and apart entities from the organization of which they are a part and on which they depend for their livelihood which in turn depends on… Read more »

Henry Fogel

I agree with most of the ideas/suggestions that Robert Freeman makes – in fact many of them are ideas I too have been talking about for many years. I do think that the idea of requiring music directors to spend 75% of their time in the city where they are Music Director is on the one hand unrealistic for the large orchestras (although certainly desirable), but unrealistic and even unfair for the smaller orchestras’ music directors. It would be unfair small orchestras that give five or perhaps six concerts a year to require their conductors to reside in their cities… Read more »

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NOW RETIRED, Freeman was director of the Eastman School of Music, New England Conservatory and University of Texas Austin. His blog entry, “Saving American orchestras from themselves,” sheds valuable light.