In September 2013 I shared an article on Facebook from the New Republic called “America’s Orchestras are in Crisis“. Published in the August 25, 2013 edition, Philip Kennicott’s article explores not only the financial crisis affecting orchestras around the country but the struggles of these institutions to define their mission for the 21st century. I’ve attended many performances in our local Symphony Hall recently and have been struck how, 18 months later, the strategies discussed in Kennicott’s article have been so aggressively pursued. Whether that is a good or a bad thing is a matter of opinion but the direction taken, at least for our local symphony, could not be more clear.
To paraphrase the article, orchestras are confronting the new reality that audiences buy tickets for individual performances rather than in the traditional ‘season subscription’ model. Aside from increasing promotional cost, this means, to a degree, each event has to stand on its own to attract an audience. This leads the organization to confront the issue of how to balance their responsibility as leaders in their artistic communities bringing audiences to concert hall for traditional classic fare vs. putting programs in the hall that will fill the seats. Kennicott quotes The New York Times’ Edward Rothstein; “Cynically led by its managerial class, the orchestra is explicitly urged to lean toward pop and make courting audiences its primary activity.”
The opposing view is represented by a quote from Richard Dare, then the CEO and managing director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, who compares the tradition philosophy of classical music venues to “A musical North Korea.” ” Quickly now: Rise to your feet and applaud. The Dear Leader is coming on stage to conduct. He will guide us, ever so worshipfully through the necrocracy of composers we are obliged to forever adore.”
Our local symphony seems more closely aligned with the latter point of view. They stage not only the traditional “classics” and “pops” series but a buffet of concerts and special events designed to fill the seats. It may be anecdotal but when I compare attendance to the classical concerts to which I subscribe and the Pops and special events for which I often usher, the strategy must have a positive impact on the ‘bottom line’. There are usually large numbers of empty seats for the classics concerts while the special events are frequently sold at or near capacity. And for many of the attendees, this event is their first visit to the symphony. Say what you will about ‘cultural decline’ or ‘dumbing down the arts’ but there is much to be said for selling enough tickets to meet payroll, not to mention, giving audiences what they seem to want.
Box Office Blockbusters
All Night Long – The Music of the 1980’s
replay: A Video Game Symphony of Heroes
Sound of Speed (an evening of music inspired by auto racing).
There were popular guest vocalists:
The Texas Tenors
And the group I like to call “Symphony as Tribute Band”;
Evenings of the music of:
The 2015-2016 season seems to continue the trend. The classics series is an extremely conservative offering of what Harper’s Other Dad refers to as “Old War Horses”. These are pieces that classical music aficionados love and have seen a dozen times before. I imagine the hope is a list of recognizable favorites will retain, if not attract, subscribers.
For the ‘butts in the seats’ concerts there are some repeats and some new events targeted toward audiences that might otherwise not be drawn to Symphony Hall.
The Music of John Williams
Pixar in Concert
Cirque de la Symphonie
A Night at the Oscars
“Pitch Perfect: a Celebration of Sports and Music”
The Gershwin Experience
Star Wars: The Music
The guest vocalists will include:
Human Nature (“Bigger than the Beatles in Australia”)
The ‘Symphony as Tribute Band’ offering includes the music of;
Sinatra Sings Sinatra
Returning to the Kennicott article, there is a quote that strikes me each time I read it. “Americans tend to draw the line between connoisseurship and fatuousness at a level just slightly higher than their own degree of appreciation.” In context that might be viewed as a negative but I actually find it a little optimistic. It means the sophistication of our tastes is aspirational. We want to be lead to a level of cultural appreciation slightly above where we are. Whether the audience will actually follow the lead of any arts organization that seeks to take them there, however, is to be determined.