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John Cage Quote of the Day 10

Another one lost...

Another U.S. orchestra has shut down, meaning we've lost FOUR this season: Honolulu, New Mexico, Syracuse, and now Bellevue (WA).  As well, Louisville and Philadelphia have filed for bankruptcy protection.  Lebrecht gives the story here.

As regular readers of this site know, our position is that the basic problem remains relatively uncomplicated to understand: the potential American listeners that orchestras need to reach simply are not interested in what they are offering.  It could be different specific things: programming, modes of presentation, ticket prices, competition, etc., but it seems that many American orchestras somehow think that if they can just preserve what audience they have through the recession or whatever, things will spring back to normal eventually.  This does not acknowledge that the larger culture has changed and is changing in fundamental ways to which artists must adapt if their work is to resonate with listeners.

In this writer's view, these changes are the new normal and there is no going back: a cultural shift that has been occurring over the past 2-3 decades has finally reached maturity.  The U.S. is a culturally omnivorous culture that greatly desires diverse, participatory creative experiences that resonate with the world in which we currently live.  U.S. orchestras must figure out ways to make themselves authentically American musical ensembles rather than continuing primarily to perpetuate late-19th century European models of what is acceptable or correct in the realm of concert music performance presentation and programming, or I fear we will continue to read news of orchestras folding and liquidating, at increased rates.

What's most frustrating to me is that solving these problems, figuring out how as musicians to connect to our larger culture in meaningful ways, is a dazzling creative problem that could provide years of interesting work to those willing to dive in.  Why is there so much passionate, entrenched resistance to genuine creative exploration?  Why must American orchestras only function in the ways they have for over a century?  Why are so many highly-skilled, amazing musicians so dogmatic about what musical art ought to be?

Music is a creative art.  I thought this meant that we are supposed to make it up as we go....


Nice post.

I know of an ensemble who will remain nameless, whose board is split, almost down the middle. One side is made up of those who want to remain traditional, present concerts/music only performing the meat and potatoes of the literature. It is their belief that if they can increase the quality level of the group, the patron count will increase as well. This is their current model.

Their patron count has steadily decreased over the past season.

Then there are those on the opposite side, who believe the ensemble needs to be more creative, reach out and do more special concerts, more collaborations. That special events and presentations are the way to go. They are currently the slight minority.

If I were on that board, I would be in the minority partly due to a recent concert I designed and implemented with the ASU sinfonietta. The program was titled "The Art of War" and as such, featured music about war (battle scenes, musical dialogues about the act of war, etc...). The evening was designed to explore art as a byproduct of war, two ideas not commonly associated. In and of itself, a nice program. But, the concert didn't stop there. I envisioned it as more of an event. This included the selection of about a dozen artists who were commissioned to created new works of visual art based on the music from the concert, and sharing the same title of the piece they were inspired by. There was also a martial artists doing fighting exhibitions before the concert and a special routine at intermission. Finally, instead of the normal volunteers handing out programs, the ASU ROTC was there in camouflage/battle gear to greet patrons and give them a program.

And why does all that matter? Because the Sinfonietta, who normally sees an audience of about 300 this year, performed that night for an audience of well over a thousand, more than triple the normal attendance. Advertisements went out on craigslist and posted on local event sites which welcomed anyone who wanted to attend in whatever attire they wanted (t-shirts, jeans, ball caps, whatever.) For me, I would rather have 1,000 people in street clothes being engaged than 100 people in suites and ties/evening dresses who are there for the pageantry and nostalgia.

Even if every concert isn't a full blown event, I believe presentations like the previous in programing/concert presentation can greatly aid a performing ensemble's presence and in the end better serve the purpose of music.

Hi Stuart,

You and I have talked a lot about this stuff over the last couple years. I do have to disagree (again) with you on your essential premise that "the potential American listeners that orchestras need to reach simply are not interested in what they are offering."

The idea that orchestras are not interested in presenting creative, explorational concerts and events just doesn't hold up. I see constant efforts by orchestra to present the most thoughtful, creative, and impressive concerts - LA, Atlanta, NY, St. Louis, Toronto, SF, Dallas, Chicago, Baltimore, Minneapolis, and on and on. All of them have had fascinating concerts, festivals, and more.

I believe that in light of the severity of the recession the country has been going through, the orchestra business has done pretty well in its survival.

Additionally, and most importantly, the failure of the ensembles you listed above is not evidence that orchestras (as a whole) need to change who or what they are. It is evidence of bad fiscal management at those individual institutions. And as we see in Philly, filing for bankruptcy is being used more as a negotiation tactic, not a last resort to save an institutions assets.

Jacob, Philly disagrees with you and is overhauling their programing to recapture their audiences who were "simply not interested in what they are(were) offering."



I'm sure they would. It is bad PR to admit outright what it is they are actually doing. Unfortunately, I don't see much in the way of new concert ideas there. The same stuff has been offered for multiple decades - Pop Acts! Big Video Screens! Semi Staged Opera!. All of it well and good, but it is not a grand re-imagining of what an orchestra is and what it should be.

Here is an article on the Philly business situation - or the "sitch" as we cool kids like to call it. Much of that trouble seems to have little do with artistic programming problems and much more with bad business decisions:


A lot more related links are available here:


Yes, I did just plug my own blog on Stuart's blog. :-D

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