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About that New Republic article

0 Robert Levine

It’s not surprising that a recent article by Philip Kennicott in the New Republic by the title of “America’s Orchestras are in Crisis” got some favorable play in the musician community. The writer, who is Art and Architecture critic for the Washington Post, focused very heavily on what he believed was the League of American Orchestra’s role in causing the current crisis, and anything critical of the League is catnip for orchestra musicians.

For my part, I found Kennicott’s argument rather incoherent. Fortunately for me (and perhaps others), Kennicott wrote what amounted to a synoptic version in response to a letter by League President and CEO Jesse Rosen. Both are short enough to quote in their entirety. Rosen first:

Philip Kennicott sounds a false alarm by suggesting that orchestras’ efforts to address changing realities of audience patterns, civic and philanthropic priorities, digital technology, and demographics represent an abandonment of artistic quality. I will happily agree that orchestras are re-examining practices in order to reach a broader audience, but am unwilling to concede that, by doing so, the quality of orchestral music is in decline. As nonprofit organizations, the more than 1,800 orchestras in the U.S. have added to their unfaltering commitment to artistic excellence a resolve to broaden audiences and address civic needs. The League of American Orchestras’ substantial work in advancing artistic development and organizational health among members confirms that orchestras continue to perform time-honored repertoire while presenting the most challenging works by living composers. Riccardo Muti’s commitment to the highest artistic standards seems hardly diminished by his major civic engagement effort in correctional facilities, senior centers, schools, and hospitals with the Chicago Symphony, spearheaded by another artist of unassailable excellence, Yo-Yo Ma. The high performance quality and programming ingenuity of community-based orchestras like the Alabama Symphony Orchestra and Oregon Symphony have been showcased to critical acclaim at Carnegie Hall’s Spring for Music Festival. Kennicott’s caricature of audiences and U.S. orchestras smacks more of ideology than analysis, and underestimates the capacity of complex orchestral music to engage a diverse array of listeners. The challenges for orchestras, as with most institutions in this century, are serious. I’ll place my bets on the wide variety of innovative solutions being advanced by our musical leaders, musicians, and managements.

And Kennicott’s response:

I don’t underestimate “the capacity of complex orchestral music to engage a diverse array of listeners.” Complex orchestral music is in fact the only hope of salvation for American orchestras, but first, listeners need to hear it. The problem today is that orchestral programming has become generic, heavily dependent on a small number of widely popular works and celebrity soloists, with little room for new composition, logistically challenging core pieces from the nineteenth- and twentieth-century tradition, and forgotten or neglected symphonic masterpieces from the past. Unfortunately, orchestras have been struggling to reach a wider audience for decades now, and have mostly failed, often because outreach efforts are based on a vitiated musical repertoire rather than the intellectually and emotionally challenging orchestral experience that appeals to serious listeners. When faced with repeated failure, it makes little sense to keep repeating things that don’t work. My analysis isn’t novel, but it has distressingly little currency among orchestra managers: That orchestras are very well suited to playing orchestral music, and not particularly well adapted to being social service organizations.

There are, perhaps, some exceptions, and Mr. Rosen cites the inspiring example of Riccardo Muti and Yo-Yo Ma. More power to them. Would that all American orchestras could afford to hire them. But alas, they can’t, and so must make choices. If they chose to abandon the music that appeals to their core audience of sophisticated listeners, they will have little of value to offer the new audiences they seek.

What I continue to find confusing about Kennicott’s argument is that he states that “complex orchestral music is in fact the only hope for salvation for American orchestras,” goes on to correctly point out that orchestra programming is “heavily dependent on a small number of widely popular works and celebrity soloists,” but never connects this to orchestras’ need to sell lots of tickets. Nor has he figured out that the reason that “orchestras have been struggling to reach a wider audience for decades” is because that’s how they believe the bills are going to get paid. His analysis - “that orchestras are very well suited to playing orchestral music, and not particularly well adapted to being social service organizations” - doesn’t address the problem.

Nor does his claim that most American orchestras can’t afford to hire artists like Muti and Yo-Yo Ma to do “community engagement,” and therefore “must make choices,” make sense. Muti and Yo-Yo aren’t the only people who can take music into the community; what’s important about the example cited by Rosen is that the Chicago Symphony is applying the same artistic standards to community engagement as they do in Orchestra Hall. Any orchestra can do that if it chooses to.

In short, Kennicott conflates the issues of community engagement (which is not “being social service organizations,” by the way) and repertoire, when in reality there is little overlap between the two. That the repertoire is so restricted (assuming that he’s right, for which assumption he provides no data) is a function of orchestral economics and the perceived need to sell tickets; it’s not dumbing-down for the sake of “social service.” And it’s hardly clear that the situation regarding repertoire, or the focus on celebrity soloists, is any worse than in past decades. I went to a lot of San Francisco Symphony concerts in the 1960s, and the repertoire was very vanilla and the soloists very celebrity-ish back then too.

The real driver for orchestras doing things other than the kinds of high-end concerts that Kennicott advocates is the need to raise more money, not to sell more tickets. Funders don’t much care about repertoire, but they care increasingly about how many people, and how broad a cross-section of an orchestra’s community, is/are reached by the orchestra. And this need to address what orchestras are being told by funders is ignored by Kennicott.

The underlying problem, addressed by neither Jesse Rosen or by Kennicott, is that orchestras are still driven, whether consciously or not, by the idea of the orchestra as an entertainment enterprise whose core mission is to sell tickets, when orchestras have become, in reality if not in self-image, cultural service agencies whose fundamental mission is not economic. There are, I suspect, a fair number of major orchestras where the true marginal costs of selling tickets to subscription concerts come close to, or even exceed, the income derived from those tickets.

It used to be that orchestras raised money to cover the gap (comparatively small by today’s standards) between earned income and total expenses. The situation, for many orchestras, is now reversed. Unfortunately, our thinking isn’t. That’s the issue we need to talk about.

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