Want your orchestra to thrive? Just invite a dinosaur

12 May 2017

There are not many symphony orchestras today that could manage without coming up with some special attractions that get listeners to the concert hall. Even fewer are those who can boast a full house on regular basis. Music itself, even performed on the highest possible level, became inadequate to guarantee the attendance.


Nevertheless, after a years of decay, symphony orchestras are definitely beginning to adapt to modern realities. Douglas McLennan, founder and editor of the popular ArtsJournal, reported half a year ago:


“There’s been a change in the news coming out of symphony orchestras over the past summer. Usually there’s a background drumbeat of struggle as orchestras fight to stay alive. But for months now, the beat has shifted, and we’re hearing about orchestras that are not only surviving but thriving.


Yes, Fort Worth Symphony musicians are on strike, the Pittsburgh Symphony is in the middle of contentious contract negotiations, and the Philadelphia Orchestra is still struggling with crushing financial challenges.  For every good news story below, there are other orchestras struggling to just stay alive, but here are some recently-reported successes:


Colorado Symphony: “For the first time since it was organized in 1989, the Colorado Symphony is beginning a new concert season with a budget surplus, $1.7 million in cash in the bank and substantial financial commitments toward a goal of creating a $50 million permanent endowment.”” (Some Of Our Orchestras Seem To Be Thriving – Is This A New Trend?)


There are five more orchestras menioned in this list of success, although with a bit more modest financial achievements.


Let’s take a closer look at Colorado Symphony, perhaps a leader of the “New trend” according to Douglas McLennan's report. How did they manage to compel people to attend and open up their wallets for classical music?


According to the orchestra website, Colorado Symphony is a highly professional team that collaborates with such artists as Yo-Yo Ma and Renee Fleming (two concerts in the upcoming season).


The overal concert schedule for the 2017/2018 season comprises of 45 different programmes that are categorized in the eight thematic clusters: Classical, Special, Symphony Pops, Movie at the Symphony, Listen/Hear, Family, Holiday and Fundraiser.


What is inside of these categories?


Classical -  16 programmes by 12 composers: Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Ravel, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Mahler and also Gershwin, Copland and Bernstein.


Special – 7 programmes including the music by popstar Prince, Ravel’s Bolero, an American journery by John Williams, music from Video games, and the concert for Banjo and orchestra. Programmes with Yo-Yo Ma and Renee Fleming also come in this section with no repertoire revealed.


Symphony pops – 5 programmes: a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, a tribute to Arthur Fielder, Selebration of the music of the Academy awards, a Rocky mountain high by John Denver, and the entire Rock programme.


Movie at the symphony – 3 programmes: Disney, Harry Potter, Jurassic Park.


Listen/hear – 4 programmes (probably, a series of talks about the music): Decoding Classical&Baroque, Hard-core Romantics, the American voice and Musique Nouveau


Family – 4 programmes: Haloween, Drums of the world, Carnival of the animals, and Pirates of the symphony sea.


Holiday – 5 programmes: Handel’s Messiah, Colorado Christmas, Holiday brass, Too hot to Handel, and a Night in Vienna.


Fundraiser – 1 programme: Colorado Symphony ball.


The first thing that we see in this breakdown,  is that the orchestra had skipped a traditional classical repertoire exclusively. It actually covers all the main spheres of musical interests of the community – rock, pop, jazz, folk, music from video games, music from blockbusters, light music, classical and modern music as well. 


Canonic classical pieces account for about half of the entire seasonal repertoire. Actually, the orchestra turns into a type of the universal musical service similar to one that existed two and more centuries ago.


The other side of the coin is a significant reduction in the classical repertoire. Not a single Bach, Haydn, Paganini, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Mendelsohn, Sibelius or Prokofiev is included in the 2017/2018 season. And not even a single violin concerto with orchestra as well.


We have this instead:



And this as well (look the clip till the end)



This way, the secret of the Colorado Symphony financial success is quite simple – diversity. People come and pay not so much for the great musical revelations of “a dead white man”, but for what they love in their everyday life. And they love to be entertained.  If we had an access to the orchestra’s bookkeping, we could probably see that the main income of the orchestra is not generated by its classical part of the repertoire.


Douglas McLennan writes:


“I have been struck over the last several weeks by the number of good news orchestra stories we’ve been finding on ArtsJournal. In my experience, this is a change from the usual. Maybe not yet a trend, but who knows.” (Some Of Our Orchestras Seem To Be Thriving – Is This A New Trend?)


This is a trend indeed. Just because there is no choice for many symphony orchestras of our age to survive in any other way.


What lies behind the “good news of orchestra stories” is a general shift from art to entertainment.


This means that nothing special is happening with classical music - it continues to shrink. Futhermore, it shrinks faster than we think. At least in the case of Colorado Symphony, it shrinks twice as fast as the overall audience of the orchestra shrinks – only half of the concertgoers come for the genuinely classical repertiore.


We should not be mislead by the “good news of orchestra stories” of such kind. As well as by the epic debates and definitions on what “classical” really means. Star Wars' “Imperial march” sounds as great at the symphony as Beethoven’s “Emperor”. This fact is quite enough to realize what is happening.


The bizarre twist of our time is that the more classical orchestra wants to thrive, the more it has to reject a classical repertoire.


We are voting with both arms for the symphony orchestras to thrive, both for the community engagement and good job opportunities for classical musicians. But we should not to be a turkey that votes for Christmas.


The dilemma is not only how the orchestras are made to thrive, but also how to maintain a robust classical repertoire.


Looks like no one has an answer thus far.



Photo collage from Youtube Epic orchestra cover

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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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© Yevgeny Chepovetsky 2015-2017