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Reimagining the American Orchestra

Audience at the American Orchestra Summit.

That screeching sound accompanying the economic slide of the past 18 months has sent waves of disharmony into the culture sector, dramatically changing the rules of the game for professional and nonprofit arts organizations. With hope and optimism for an economic upturn comes a particularly cold-water slap of reality for American orchestras.

Standing at what some long-time observers call an unprecedented crossroads, American orchestras are searching for ways to reinvent and reimagine themselves. The challenge doesn’t simply involve those orchestras, cities and communities that risk the loss of vital cultural and economic contributions, but also pose a profound challenge for music schools to come to terms with fast-changing trends for professional musicians.

Over three days in late January, representatives from orchestras around the country came to the University of Michigan for the American Orchestra Summit, an open-ended discussion on how to address what many orchestra leaders are calling dire financial challenges that call into question their survival and require a rethinking of their fundamental mission.

Resonating Idea

U-M’s Mark Clague moderates the panel, “Re-Conceptualizing the Symphony.

Changes in the ways orchestras increase earned revenue and attract donors will be accompanied by a shift in orchestras’ missions, said Joseph Horowitz, who gave the keynote address at the summit.

“Orchestras need to think of themselves more as educational institutions and less narrowly as purveyors of concert,” said Horowitz, a cultural historian, who specializes in American Classical music. His books include “Classical Music in America: A History,” and “Artists in Exile,” both named best books of the year by The Economist.

An idea resonating throughout the summit was to think of musicians under contract as expanding their work to include educational outreach and mentoring, in addition to rehearsing and performing. “More orchestras need to think of this possibility, and if they do, this will expand the scope and role of orchestras in communities,” he said.

While the summit offered practical suggestions to ride out the perfect storm of dwindling public revenue, decreasing attendance and less foundation support, there was a prevailing sense that survival was only the first step in a long process toward self-sustainability.

“The DSO has been at this crossroad before,” said Paul Ganson, historian of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, who spearheaded the public campaign in the 1990s to save Orchestra Hall from the wrecking ball. “It’s simply going back to redefining who we are and facing the challenges head on.”

Community connection

For many, the answer of how to respond to the financial and organizational challenges lies in deepening community connections.

“What we’ve done in Memphis won’t work in other cities, but it is part of the answer,” said Ryan Fleur, president/CEO, Memphis Symphony Orchestra. “We play the great works, but also mentor in inner cities, have developed a leadership training program with Fortune 500 companies in Memphis, and we’re working with a children’s hospital on music therapy programs.”

That type of community connection appeared common among the attending orchestras. But Patricia Walker, DSO chief operating officer, noted how there needs to be stronger collaboration among cultural institutions.

“The percentage of earned revenue (from ticket sales) is much smaller for national orchestras,” she said. “The model is unsustainable, and we must collaborate to save costs.”

What’s at stake

Beyond the cultural contribution of orchestra, there’s an undisputed economic impact.

Nonprofits arts and cultural-base organizations generate $166.2 billion in economic activity annually, according to the Arts & Economic Prosperity study conducted by Americans for the Arts.

The report estimates nearly 6 million jobs and $29.6 billion in government revenue are generated by nonprofit arts and cultural organizations.

The recession has severely impacted nonprofits. Half of orchestras reported “severe” or “very severe stress” from the recession notes a report from the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies Listening Project.

In part, the financial stress is caused by:

  • Declining revenues
  • Increased costs
  • Declining endowments
  • Decreased cash flow caused by restricted credit and government delays in transferring grant funds

New tune

Amid the precarious economic predicament facing orchestras, the U-M sponsored summit called for a renewed partnership among orchestras and music schools.

Part of the issue is the tight job market, and the need to prepare today’s students – and tomorrow’s professional musicians – for a more diverse workday.

“More people graduate from music schools per year than we have positions in the top 51 orchestras,” said Bryan Rood, president of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ISCOM). There are about 4,200 positions in tier-one orchestras.

“It’s important to have back-up plans, but it’s also an impetus to give it all you can because there are surprisingly few jobs out there,” said Rood, a U-M grad, who is also a member of the Kansas City Symphony.

At the end of the summit, U-M organizers pondered intriguing educational possibilities at the music school.

“We’re trying to think outside the box for what schools can become, and what potential partnerships between music schools and orchestras can do for musicians,” said Michael Mauskapf, summit co-organizer and a U-M doctoral student in musicology.

“Some possibilities could include a peace corp of musicians,” he said. “A lot of conversation is about not only building musicians, but building human beings.”