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:

1. 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

2. New Work

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

3. New Audiences

An improved effort to recruit a younger audience

4. 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.

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.

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.

Help Audiences Read Scores as Though They Were Leonard Bernstein

Learn how MITA’s 4000+ pages of annotated Interactive Scores and other rich learning tools can be put to use for orchestras.

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 »