Is The Symphony Orchestra Dying?

  • Buffeted by spiraling costs and falling ticket sales, frustrated by shifting urban demographics and paralyzed by a lack of innovative artistic vision, the nation's 1,600 symphonies today face the greatest challenge ever to their existence.

    Long considered indispensable indicators of a community's sophistication, orchestras are in danger of becoming cultural dinosaurs. Some are already extinct: within the past decade, major ensembles have collapsed in cities as disparate as Oakland, California; New Orleans; Denver and Birmingham, Alabama. Endowments have been tapped and seasons shortened; crowd-pleasing pops concerts have been added and community-outreach programs established. And yet the slide continues. Gathering last month in New York City for their gloomiest convention in years, the members of the American Symphony Orchestra League heard a stark message: Change or die.

    The numbers are grim. Last year, in the most detailed study of the problem to date, the Wolf Organization of Cambridge, Massachusetts, analyzed data from a 20-year period and declared that the orchestral industry is facing a financial crisis of unprecedented proportions. Deficits of the 254 major orchestras the report traced have soared from $2.8 million in 1971 to $7 million in 1991, while operating expenses rose from $87.5 million to $207 million in the same period.

    Although ticket prices have increased substantially, they have not kept pace with operating costs; the average gap between earned income and the cost of making music has risen from $5 per listener in 1971 to $26.17. Further, government support, after rising in the '70s and early '80s, has trailed off, falling more than 4% in the past seven years. "Everybody is hurting," says Joseph Kluger, president of the Philadelphia Orchestra, whose subscriber base has fallen the past two years.

    That the American orchestras should find themselves scrambling for survival is ironic, for they are without a doubt the best in the world. The U.S. can boast at least two dozen ensembles that are better than all but a handful of European orchestras. Foreign conductors routinely rave about the quality of the American orchestral musician and applaud the high level of professional music education in the U.S. "In Europe we always have had the impression that the teaching in America is stronger and more serious," says conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch, who takes the helm in Philadelphia next season.

    Further, American symphonic culture is not some recent import but a populist movement whose roots stretch back to the mid-19th century: the New York Philharmonic, the nation's oldest, was founded the same year, 1842, as the Vienna Philharmonic. Many of the major U.S. ensembles are more than 100 years old.

    The three principal causes of the orchestras' current woes are financial, artistic and social. All have been visible for years, and are gathering steam. But it was not until the recession struck in force that their cumulative weight was felt.

    The first and most obvious problem has to do with money. Unlike the newly fashionable lean and mean corporations, symphonic ensembles cannot readily strip down. It takes the same number of musicians -- about 100 -- to play a Strauss tone poem today as it did a century ago, and a major Beethoven symphony still requires almost an hour to perform. Orchestras raise funds through ticket sales (about 35% of their income), government funding and private donations, but income is hard pressed to keep up with expenditures even when an orchestra is performing to near capacity houses.

    New Orleans, which folded in 1991, is a case in point. Even with a relatively small $3.8 million annual budget, the orchestra had been struggling for years. Cutting back the season, from 40 weeks in 1980 to 23 weeks in 1990, didn't help. The symphony's demise left it owing $75,000 in back insurance premiums, $29,000 in pension contributions and nearly $100,000 in conductor Dmitri Shostakovich's salary.

    The San Diego Symphony was luckier. In 1985 its accumulated deficit was $2 million, and a bitter labor dispute closed the doors of Copley Symphony Hall for the entire 1986-87 season. A management change, coupled with more pops- oriented programming, produced several seasons of balanced budgets. But in the teeth of the recession, a million dollars had to be slashed from the orchestra's $7.7 million budget, accomplished by staff cuts and a 7% decrease in players' salaries. Says symphony president Warren Kessler: "The musicians made the concessions we needed to operate."

    Changing demographics have also hit orchestras hard. As bastions of Dead White Male supremacy, they are, to some critics, politically incorrect targets whose Eurocentric offerings are out of harmony with the larger, more black- and Hispanic-influenced American culture. As the urban cores have changed color, downtown-based orchestras have had an increasingly difficult time persuading affluent suburbanites to come into town after dark. And the collapse of music education in the country's public schools has meant that orchestras can no longer take for granted a constantly replenished, educated audience.

    In response, orchestras are busy innovating. The New York Philharmonic, invigorated under the new leadership of managing director Deborah Borda and conductor Kurt Masur, recently instituted a series of informal Rush Hour Concerts, which begin at 6:45 p.m. and feature off-the-cuff commentary from the podium before each piece. The New York musicians also open up the stage to local schoolchildren, encouraging them to try out the instruments, as do players in Baltimore and elsewhere. "It is wonderful to interact with the kids and to see my colleagues do something from the heart," says Baltimore flutist Mark Sparks, the main force behind his orchestra's program. And if minority audiences will not come to the symphony, the symphony will go to + them. The Los Angeles Philharmonic offers free concerts in inner-city neighborhoods and, in the wake of the 1992 riots, gave a special free performance at a black church in South Central L.A.

    The Dallas Symphony is widely admired as a model orchestra for its fiscal health and user-friendliness. When retirees George and Gwen Beardsley appeared at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center to inquire about season tickets one Sunday morning six years ago, marketing director Douglas Kinzey himself was there to persuade them to sign on; returning to their car, they found the garage had closed, so Kinzey drove the elderly couple home. Since then the Beardsleys have been loyal subscribers. "We abandoned the whole concept of selling tickets and started building relationships with our customers instead," explains Kinzey.

    Perhaps the most serious problem, however, is artistic. Concert programs have changed relatively little in a century, and not at all in the past 30 or 40 years. New works are often presented as a bitter pill to be washed down with familiar symphonic staples. Conductors, meanwhile, too often treat the Central European classical repertoire as a kind of competition course, with each one eager to put his stamp on the Beethoven symphonies or the Stravinsky ballets and thus climb the career ladder. "When I was a student in New York, you could hear orchestras playing diverse repertoires," Leonard Slatkin, music director of the St. Louis Symphony, told the Symphony League convention. "There is now a common repertoire. The overuse of a repertoire results in a malaise and an ennui among your audience."

    Another irony is that in the '30s, when the repertoire became codified, prominent conductors like Sergei Koussevitzky in Boston and Leopold Stokowski in Philadelphia were far more adventurous than their contemporary counterparts. Koussevitzky, the Russian-born bassist turned maestro, commissioned and performed dozens of new works by American composers, and Stokowski routinely surprised his audience with major premieres of challenging works, such as Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck. As the recent history of opera in America has shown, there are large untapped audiences hungering for something new. But as long as symphonies insist on treating their customers to the same handful of well-known works -- masterpieces though they may be -- symphonic music will lack the excitement that attends a new music-theater piece by Philip Glass, John Corigliano or William Bolcom.

    Despite all the problems, there are hopeful signs. More than 26 million people attended concerts in 1991, and if season subscriptions are off in many places, single-ticket and short-series sales have gone up. Out of the ashes in Denver and New Orleans have risen new player-managed or partnership ensembles, the Colorado Symphony and the Louisiana Philharmonic. Younger audiences -- the norm in Europe, the exception in America -- are showing a new discrimination in what they want to hear.

    Some years ago, Ernest Fleischmann, the feisty chief of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, proposed a "Community of Musicians," a kind of superorchestra that would provide all of a city's musical needs, from performances of Mahler to string quartets in the schools to playing at weddings and bar mitzvahs. For it is only when the orchestra is seen not as a careerist battleground for carpetbagging conductors but as a vital part of the community, bringing music to a wide and diverse public, that its survival will be assured.

    "The measure of the future will be, How can we respond to this changing society and time that we are in?" observes the New York Philharmonic's Borda. "Those who haven't got the vision and the courage to make some of the changes that are going to be needed will fall by the wayside. That may not be a bad thing." In short: some may die that others might live. After all, the American orchestra first arose in response to a city's needs. In the end, a solid, productive marriage between ensemble and community may be the soundest innovation of all.


    CREDIT: Source: The Wolf Organization, Inc. CAPTION: Orchestrating Debt