Would saving symphony orchestras help with survival of classical music?

15 Aug 2016

Unlikely, because orchestras in order to save themselves are turning to a non-classical repertoire such as pop, rock, jazz, hip-hop, movie soundtracks and gamer music.  This is today's global tendency.


Even the presumption that the workload of symphony orchestras remains steady  (which is not true in a great deal of cases), then the increase of a non-classical repertoire means the decrease of the classical.


It is very difficult to find any direct data on these issues. The League of American Orchestras has the statistics for non-classical vs. classical concerts. Unfortunately the access is not available to the general public.


But  we can still use the indirect sources. Even in the most optimistic reports for eg. “Omaha Symphony announces records in ticket sales, attendance”, one can see the following notation:


“The fastest growth is in the Rocks and Movie Music series.”


Here you can see how it looks like. Seattle Symphony and rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot are performing "Baby Got Back", famous hip-hop hit orchestrated by composer G. Prokofiev (not to be confused with S. Prokofiev). 



A large conference of American orchestras took place in Baltimore last June. It gathered about 1000 orchestral administrators, musicians, critics and business representatives of the industry. The conference was dedicated to the subject of diversity. Here are some abstracts from the review “Diversifying the classical music world” to get the gist of the matter.


“This is the first time the group, which represents the major symphony orchestras in the U.S., has devoted its yearly conference to the subject, and it comes not a moment to soon.


That's because, to a great extent, the fate of America's symphony orchestras is intimately tied up with the question of who listens to the classics, as orchestras rely on public funding from state and local government to sustain their mission. Along with that public support has come pressure to make orchestras and their programs more reflective of the communities they serve, so diversity in classical music has become a political — as well as an artistic — imperative.


...Jesse Rosen, who heads the orchestra league, says.....  it's past time for the country's orchestras to strengthen those efforts.”


Yes, diversity probably would help to provide employment for orchestras and all those musicians who were professionally trained to play classical instruments. But, in reality, the diversity in repertoire means (at least for now) the decrease of classical repertoire, and this doesn’t serve as the salvation of classical music by default.


Looks like to stay in business classical musicians have to limit their activity as classical musicians. Many american orchestras, probably, see no other option.


“BSO (Baltimore Symphony Orchestra) president Paul Meecham says what's at stake isn't just a matter of what music the orchestra plays or which performers it presents but rather an urgent embrace the community and its needs.” (above-mentioned review)


To embrace the community means here to embrace non-white community as well. Some orchestras really succeded in diversifying their audiences by attracting people of non-western cultures, but hardly they did it with the music of “a dead white man”, i.e classical repertoire.


Besides, who said the multicultural diversity would work as an universal recipe? Cressida Pollock, one of the VIPs in the industry, the chief executor of English NationalOpera - she was brought in precisely to save the organisation from the bankruptcy - is quite critical on it. She claims:


“Most audiences for the performing arts will inevitably be white and middle class, no matter what is done to try and increase diversity”.


If she is correct, the situation is starting to look even worse, as white population of the western world is decreasing from year to year. Its birth rate is around 1.5 whereas 2.1 is needed to replace itself.


In addition, let's not  forget that the western cultural landscape is changing permanently, and not for the better. People with classical cultural background are ageing and are replaced by digital natives whose frame of mind is less equipped to enjoy classical music (see my post “Who will listen us tomorrow: a glance on digital natives”).


There can be no doubt that everything possible must be done to sustain classical orchestras - by means of diversity or anything else.  But  this is not the root of the problem. The strategy to save classical music by saving orchestras is insufficient. It guarantees nothing. To play on classical instrument doesn’t mean to play classical music.


Opposing strategy appears more reasonable – first to provide the validity of classical music, and then the salvation of orchestras will follow.


Hope to touch upon these issues in the next posts.



Photo collage: Seattle Symphony Season Brochure & Sir Mix-A-Lot

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Violinist deeply rooted in classical tradition and concerned about the future of the genre >> more about the author 

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