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
A continuing quest for strong, new work that will be attractive to a still relatively untrained audience
An improved effort to recruit a younger audience
A search for new sources of funding
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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Robert Freeman is ArtsInteractive’s senior educational liaison and the author of the acclaimed The Crisis of Classical Music in America (2014). As a dean (now retired), he directed three of the nation’s leading music schools: the Eastman School of Music (1972-96), New England Conservatory (1996-99), and the College of Fine Arts of the University of Texas at Austin (1999-2006).