The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Monday, June 30, 2003  

Times Critics Offer Diagnoses But Not Prescriptions

Eight orchestras have declared bankruptcy during the latest economic downturn and several others are struggling. How does the future look for American orchestras? Not very bright, according to two articles in yesterday’s New York Times.

Orchestral Survival: It's Not Simply the Economy, Stupid,” by James R. Oestreich, reporting from the annual conference of the American Symphony Orchestra League provides the painful summation of the problems facing orchestras today and their seeming inability to cope with what may or may not be the current “crisis.” Much wringing of hands and assigning of blame, but no solutions there.

Meanwhile, “How to Kill Orchestras,” by Bernard Holland, is at once angry, sad, and disarmingly pragmatic:

[T]he model on which American orchestras are built…no longer works. It survives in a few big cities, but even musical fortresses like the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Chicago Symphony are, by all reports, leaking blood by the quart....

Orchestras are not sick because they have bad management. They have bad management because they are sick. Failing industries do not attract top employees....

The incidence of musical illiteracy in symphony offices, staffed with music lovers and record collectors, is high. Symphony boards tend toward successful businesspeople admirably devoted to keeping orchestras fiscally afloat but who, with little knowledge of music or real interest in it, have no capacity to fix a purpose or a path.

As for disappearing audiences, no amount of managing will solve that one. Classical music has only itself to blame. It has indulged the creation of a narcissistic avant-garde speaking in languages that repel the average committed listener in even our most sophisticated American cities...

Rejecting the new, symphony managements and the patrons who keep them in business have fallen back on the tried and true, repeated endlessly. So have American opera houses. One is happy watching as they attract new listeners for old favorites. But our blind faith in immortal masterpieces is just that: blind. La Bohème is not a renewable resource. Use it too often, and it wears out.

Holland, though, offers no real answers. “Deal with it,” he essentially concludes, the glory days are over. Unfortunately, he’s probably right about that.

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