Recently WQXR in New York held a panel discussion called American Orchestras: Endangered Species? And, unfortunately, I’m afraid the title of the session betrayed its bias. The session began with the moderator pronouncing that “orchestras from Honolulu to New Mexico to Syracuse have shut down entirely.” It is this sort of misleading language from within our own field that leads to negative journalism. Most businesses seek to avoid negative publicity, but the symphonic field seems to cultivate it. Of course, the moderator should have said (if he wanted to be accurate) that orchestras in Honolulu, New Mexico, and Syracuse have shut down. Saying essentially that orchestras from sea to shining sea (and beyond) have disappeared implies that the country is littered with dead orchestras. The assertion that orchestras in a path as straight as the crow flies are bankrupt ignores and damages the many success stories along the way. In fact, he might have wanted to mention the successful negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement for a long hoped for re-start of the Honolulu Symphony. The number of orchestras sustaining themselves quite well depends on whether you take I-40 or I-70, but the opening statement of the moderator did its damage nonetheless.
There is no doubt that there is a conversation that needs to be held about orchestras in America, and there is no doubt that it is not being held. In June, the League of American Orchestras (League) held its annual convention in Minneapolis. In response to the “crisis” that has been declared, the League added a plenary panel at the last minute, which they described this way:
In response to pressing field-wide needs, some Conference content has been changed to address the issues that have led to the crises in Detroit, Louisville, Honolulu, Syracuse, New Mexico, and Philadelphia…
The warning signals have been there for years: persistent deficits, less-than-packed houses, concerned patrons and funders questioning continued support, communities in transition asking more of us than we ably deliver, and too many concerts amidst changing and shrinking demand.
Despite great sacrifices from musicians and staffs and stepped up giving from boards and volunteers, too many orchestras—not all, for sure—but far too many, are in critical condition. We can and must act—first, by speaking openly and frankly about our challenges, and next by looking deeply at how we operate.
When the League made this announcement, we felt that surely if they wanted to hold an “open and frank” conversation, then they would want to include the elected representatives of orchestra musicians. So, I contacted the League and offered to be present for the panel at ICSOM’s expense. I was eager to participate in a positive dialogue, especially as my orchestra’s concert schedule had made it impossible for me to participate in the WQXR panel.
Unfortunately, for its own reasons, the League declined to issue such an invitation to the elected leadership of ICSOM. While the request led to a cordial conversation with the League’s leadership, it nonetheless also led to disappointment and a little bit of confusion, as I was informed that at this conference the League will be awarding its highest honor, the “Golden Baton,” posthumously to Fred Zenone.
Of course, Fred Zenone is widely recognized among ICSOM’s greatest historical leaders, and one who sought to build bridges between all facets of the field. This summer’s ICSOM Conference in Detroit will be dedicated to his memory. That the current ICSOM chair is not welcome to participate in an “open and frank” exchange of ideas at the same conference where a former ICSOM chair will be receiving the League’s highest honor is as ironic as it is disappointing.
I’m not writing about this event to fan the flames of anger and distrust that are so prevalent in the field. No, in fact I am writing with the hope of extinguishing those flames, because that negativity is destroying our field.
In the December issue of Senza Sordino, I wrote: “We can always improve—and we must improve. We can express ourselves in a way that will inspire our audiences and the next generation. No one is inspired by ugly language.” I went on to call for “a teachable moment” for our field among “musicians, orchestra managers, artist’s managements, and journalists.” And while my call has not yet been heeded, I am not ready to admit defeat.
I have often written and spoken about the destructiveness of our field’s propensity to undermine its own potential for success. A new crop of pundits for our field has emerged, often with a negative message and (I fear) an ulterior motive. There is an undignified style of self-promotion that sloughs off the pages of newspapers and blogs when established people write indefensible claims such as “there are no sustainable orchestral models in this country that the field can point to and emulate.” Not only is that untrue, it is destructive to those very places that are succeeding. When a person writes such damaging statements, and then uses a non-profit’s website to heavily promote a personal blog, we have to ask ourselves what it is they are really hoping to achieve.
There is no lack of prosperity in America. What has changed is the nature of philanthropy. People like to give to organizations they believe in, and they simply won’t believe in organizations that are poorly managed and are discussed in the press as “unsustainable.” Why would anyone donate to a field where industry leadership describes orchestras as unsustainable? Really, it kind of boggles the mind. Even people who sell destructive products know how to portray them in a positive way, but the symphonic field doesn’t know how to be its own advocate. At times it seems that our field only knows how to create radio programs that refer to orchestras as “Endangered Species.”
There has never been a greater disparity of wealth in America than exists today. Often our managements claim that economic conditions inhibit fund raising. But according to the Associated Press, America’s corporate CEOs earn more today than they did in 2007, before the onset of the recession. Just last year alone, CEOs averaged an increase in salary of 24%. In the late 1970s, the wealthiest 1% of Americans earned 9% of the income. Today, that same 1% earns 23% percent of the income and controls 40% of the nation’s wealth.
ICSOM occasionally finds itself the target of those who preach the doctrine of failure for orchestras. One prolific blogger recently posted a suggestion that it was ICSOM that has led to the problems the field faces, though to be fair he was generous in pointing out that the managements agreed to our apparently unreasonable requests.
When managers and boards enter into the stereotypical debate that demonizes unions, they are overstepping the support of the American people. Even in Wisconsin, polls show that Governor Scott Walker would not be re-elected now, largely because he has overstepped his perceived mandate and brought negative publicity to the business community of his state.
As Alex Ross wrote in the New Yorker on May 9: “What’s new about the current crisis is its sharply political edge, mirroring bigger battles that are taking place across the country. Managements and governing boards have often adopted an anti-union tone, charging that the costs of employing up to a hundred musicians year-round…have become insupportable….That classical music can still draw a crowd was made clear in March, when YouTube Symphony…lured in thirty-three million people online….Two orchestras that nearly went bankrupt in 2001—the St. Louis Symphony and the Toronto Symphony—are now thriving….The problem cases tend to show multiple symptoms of poor management: dubious real-estate moves, ham-fisted labor relations, klutzy P.R., and, above all, a lack of artistic focus…. The classical business needs to start thinking of itself not as a luxury item but as an essential part of the average thinking person’s life.”
We have a document written by the president of the Chicago Symphony (CSO), which states: “[The CSO] now must solve a problem which has arisen from economic conditions beyond its control. A deficit has been incurred, and undoubtedly there will be annual deficits for some years to come. This affects the future of the orchestra….Our problem does not differ in kind from the financial problem that faces each of the…major orchestras in the United States.”
Shocking news—except this was written in April 1940. It is this type of stereotypical and disproved rhetoric that must be rejected as we seek to find positive solutions for the arts management field.
Just as I have called upon our members to engage in a dialogue of the highest tone, I hope that someone who is actually invited to speak at the League conference will have the courage to do the same for their membership. I challenge them to do so. No, I implore them.
I want to assure the League that while the lack of an invitation to an event that will honor Fred Zenone is an insult to ICSOM, I do not take it as a personal insult. I remain willing to meet with all leaders of our field, to build friendships and engage in serious debate. In fact, two weeks after our offer was declined, the president of the League did write with an invitation for me to meet with the League board at some point in the next year. We will of course accept that invitation with the hope that it will lead to a positive, open, and frank conversation. But it does not alleviate the lost opportunity of having a public conversation at this critical moment. There are real issues before us. We have problems with marketing, media, leadership, board cultivation, and advocacy. We have created a climate where bankruptcy appears to be thought of as a negotiation tactic—when, in fact, bankruptcy is a terrible fund raising tool and a rather undignified way to attempt to escape one’s obligations.
For nearly fifty years, ICSOM has been a leader in this field. Now we must lead again. I urge our members not to cast aspersions toward the League over this event, and I call on the League to change as well. We must not perpetuate this destructive dialogue further.
So if there is a discussion to be had, let’s have it. Name the time and place and I’ll be there, assuming I am not playing a sold-out concert. If we meet this challenge and build an actual dialogue where we aren’t staked out in foxholes, we have a brilliant future to look to, where orchestras thrive and serve the entire community, where young children build foundations for their education through arts activities, where musicians need not lose their jobs, where their salaries will allow them to support their families, and where spouses of musicians facing illness need not lose their health insurance. It is the American dream, and it is not lost to us yet. But should we fail in this effort, then all we have to look forward to is more writers promoting their own names with statements like “American orchestras will keep failing…Darwinism is at work.”
The way things are is not the way things have to be.
On a recent evening, I looked to the upper balcony during my orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s 9th to see it full of young people clearly under the age of 15. Apparently none of them had been told that their dreams are unsustainable.