Orchestral Maneuvers

by Marty Demarest

Music is a slow art. Today, when everything in the world changes at the speed of thought, that great relic of the 18th century -- the symphony orchestra -- continues to lumber along. Or at least it tries to.

This struggle -- both current and future -- was the topic of a recent symposium at Gonzaga University. Entitled "The Evolving Symphony Orchestra?" the event was moderated by Gonzaga's Scholar-in-Residence Robert Herold for the department of Organizational Leadership. Herold, also a columnist for The Inlander, opened the event by observing that "symphonies across the country find themselves in an unusually high degree of difficulty. Many are in bankruptcy; many are in a process of reorganization."

The discussion ostensibly used two New York Times articles by Bernard Holland and James Oestreich as points of departure. Both articles detailed the economic crisis that Herold summarized, and laid the blame variously on divisive orchestral management, unimaginative artistic direction and extremely high fixed costs.

Many of these problems were confirmed by one of the panelists, Don Thulean. A former music director of the Spokane Symphony Orchestra and a past executive director of the American Regional Symphony Orchestra Association, Thulean pointed out that orchestras, by definition, are going to be expensive.

"The orchestra is unique among other performing arts organizations in that it's defined by its repertoire. You perform a symphony orchestra piece, you have to have an orchestra there.

"An opera company can decide to do an opera without a chorus," he continued. "Or with a small cast. A theater company can do a small play. A ballet company can put tapes in the pit, and somehow, unfortunately, it's acceptable. But an orchestra isn't an orchestra unless it's an orchestra."

Verne Windham, programming director for KPBX and director of the Spokane Youth Symphony, detailed how those costs relate to the musicians. Referring to some of the musicians in the Youth Symphony, he said that they were "contemplating what they should do for a living. Many of them are doctor's kids, and they're thinking, 'OK, should I be a doctor or should I be a musician?' Well, they can choose to make $10,000 a year or $100,000 by whichever choice they make."

Windham's comment echoed one made in the New York Times articles under discussion, which placed the starting annual salary for a musician in the Chicago Symphony at $100,100. It also referred to the fact that most professional musicians employed by the Spokane Symphony Orchestra make considerably less -- in many cases, not a livable wage.

Nevertheless, listeners owe a great deal to these artists. Windham noted that "now we can go back and hear just how out-of-tune the [mid-20th century] NBC Symphony was, because the entire standard has changed. In my own life, I've seen it so dramatically. The kids in my youth orchestra play so much better than I did at that age -- [there's] this incredible rise in everything."

But while that rise in artistic standards is not free for the orchestras, neither is it free for the musicians. What Windham did not detail were the remarkable costs incurred by most professional musicians in pursuit of their art. Not only are graduate academic degrees common among symphony musicians, but many musicians have also spent years earning low incomes so that they could devote time to practice. In addition to these costs, an instrument for a musician can regularly cost tens of thousands of dollars. It is, in short, extremely expensive to be a professional classical musician. It is natural for them to seek accommodating salaries.

If the fixed costs of symphony orchestras are unlikely to change -- although that issue was never actually debated, but merely mentioned -- what can change, so that orchestras might evolve? Despite the name of the colloquium being "The Evolving Symphony Orchestra?" the topic was discussed infrequently by the panelists. It's tempting to conclude from this that perhaps the orchestra hasn't stopped evolving so much as it has just fallen into a sort of a nostalgic laziness.

The panelists seemed more inclined to discuss the past than the future. However, the Spokane Symphony's artistic director, Fabio Mechetti, who was unable to attend the forum, contributed an essay that detailed his conception of the symphony orchestra's future place in society.

Mechetti began his essay by crediting "committed patronage" with the rise of the symphony orchestra into the cultural juggernauts of 18th-century Europe. "These patrons," he wrote, "used to be aristocrats who commissioned works by composers and maintained, in some cases, symphony orchestras in their communities with the intent of making their domains more progressive and to conform with the advancements brought forth by the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment."

It's a tradition that Mechetti rightly defends, stating that "what we are talking about here is nothing more nothing less than the concept, so vilified today, of elitism." Unfortunately, Mechetti then goes on to blame institutions like the media and public education systems for failing to continue the tradition of enlightened patronage.

However, public television (which Mechetti criticizes for its lackluster commitment to serious orchestral music) and public schools (which have cut back music education programs) were never destined to be the ongoing supporters of the public's cultural education. The aristocratic and industrial patrons of orchestras worked to make symphonies themselves independent and self-sufficient -- a state that many of them have achieved, or are struggling to maintain, today. It is the symphony orchestras that must accept the responsibility of educating the public. That is why, as Mechetti observes, they were founded and sustained, and that is why they grew to sizes that would allow them to sustain themselves with the public's support.

As Thulean noted, "We are community orchestras that are supported by the community, for better or for worse, that draw some support from government both local and national, but [which] for the most part are supported by the communities themselves, and the musicians who play in them. They are probably the greatest supporters of the American symphony. It's a unique situation with a unique set of problems."

Robert Spittal, chair of the Department of Music at Gonzaga, elaborated. "Throughout history, professional arts organizations have relied on institutional support, and that's really where the responsibility lies. Ticket sales, dwindling audiences -- that has always been the case. In Cleveland, which has one of the greatest orchestras in the world, it wasn't the community that supported the orchestra. It was the corporate enterprises that existed in Cleveland. And I think that's a big problem today, as we live in a culture of multinational corporations. There were at one time major benefactors -- major industries -- within cities that were closely identified with the city. And they were the ones that supported the activities of the orchestras. And we've lost some of that."

William Simer, the president of the Spokane Symphony Orchestra, addressed the local effect of this issue when he pointed out that, on the healthy side of affairs, the Orchestra is supported more by local listeners than orchestras in other communities. "We find that more of our income comes from performance than any other orchestra in our peer group," he stated. "Or at least we're ahead of the average."

He also pointed out that the Orchestra had fortified itself during better times. "Less of our income comes from contributed income. More comes from investment income -- in an endowment that my predecessors had the foresight to establish in this community, and that supports this orchestra."

Unfortunately, relying in recent years on that endowment has meant that the Spokane Symphony Orchestra has been unable to grow. "We've also seen that we've not been able to have a major growth in the number of services that we perform every year, and in the compensation to our musicians for those services," Simer continued, "because we haven't had the bloom in contributed income that other communities have. But we're not now retreating from that bloom, either," he noted, referring to the bad situation that some orchestras are now experiencing. "We seem to have a much more moderate pace, and again, I think it's our strength."

As for the subject of educating the community, Simer provided one of the few views heard in the discussion of the symphony's -- particularly the Spokane Symphony's -- future. Simer seems to place more of the educational burden directly on symphony orchestras than Mechetti, and he said hopefully that "we will move back to a period of growth, and we'll move back largely in educational areas."

Education also seemed to be a topic of great importance for Mechetti. "How can we expect to increase the numbers of subscribers today," he asked, "if what we do is so foreign to the great majority of our public?" It's a useful question. However, it treats the public as a single, homogenous entity that, once exposed and properly educated, will take an immediate liking to classical music.

What's really going on is that the majority of the public is foreign -- quite literally -- to the guiding forces behind symphony orchestras. Mozart and Beethoven certainly have a powerful impact on almost any listener, but they're not the only musicians available. Whether it's the white-boy hip-hop of Eminem, African drumming, traditional Celtic dance music or low-fi Japanese techno, listeners today have access to a body of music that appeals to their diverse sensibilities and backgrounds. And even though much of this available music is "foreign" to listeners, that fact doesn't stop them from enjoying it. Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms are just one part of the musical landscape, and they'll need to make room.

But in the end, none of the panelists addressed, nor did Herold present as significant, this change in the racial and cultural backgrounds of the American audience pool. Similarly, the remarkable drop in the average age of Americans with disposable income -- a group of people that could attend the symphony -- was not discussed. Certainly, the economy will rise, and things will become easier again. But until the American symphony orchestra looks sincerely at the problems it is currently facing, and addresses the issues realistically, this will be a temporary, and superficial, solution. The real trick will be directing the American symphony orchestra toward self-sustainability, and that will require addressing complicated issues head-on.

Youth Movement -- One of the persistent questions facing symphony orchestras is simply, "What do people want?" Of course, an orchestra must find a balance between furthering the artistic tradition of classical symphonic music and connecting with a contemporary audience. When the balance is perfect, the orchestra gains a lifelong fan -- someone who will listen to Mozart one week and a contemporary piece by a Brazilian composer the next. When it backfires, however, the orchestra loses a paying customer, and the audience member is deprived of immediate access to the live symphonic tradition.

And so in asking "What do you like? What do you want?" we decided to turn to young adults who are engaged by classical music to varying degrees. These are the people who make up the symphony orchestra's future audience, but who also constitute its most fickle groups of paying customers. It's about time that their voice was included in the discussion of where the American symphony orchestra should be headed.

Of the six young people we spoke with, every one confessed to being a sporadic symphony-goer. While everyone liked classical music, and many wished that they could hear more, everyone felt similar to Brandon Livingston, a 23-year-old social worker who recently graduated from Eastern Washington University.

"Part of the reason I don't attend concerts regularly is money: I have to choose where I spend my money," Livingston explains. He also touched upon an issue that seemed to prohibit many young people, who are working or have other commitments, from attending a concert on a single night. "As far as I know, most of the symphony performances are on Friday nights, and I can't always make that one specific time. If there were other options, that might help."

Aaron Ring, a 17-year-old senior at Lewis and Clark High School, and a cellist in the Spokane Youth Orchestra, also suggested that orchestras could make themselves more approachable for different audience members. "The problem lies in the fact that many potential audience members are intimidated by the formal nature and esoteric etiquette surrounding a symphony performance," Ring says. "One way of attracting audience members might be to have more relaxed concerts: Symphonies should play shorter programs with easily appreciated music and should also abandon the dress code not only for the audience, but for the players as well."

As to the music that young people want to hear, everyone we spoke with was enthusiastic about classical music. Pops concerts were mentioned only in passing. And everyone felt that symphonic music, even in the face of remarkable solo and small ensemble performances, was very valuable. "I've grown up with the symphony as the center of the musical experience," explains Katie Frankhauser, an oboist who recently graduated from Western Washington University with a degree in environmental science and a minor in music. "The symphony is such a unique combination. You can find woodwind quintets, or percussion ensembles, or other ensembles that play more modern music; and something that small does provide a better forum for that variety. But there's another kind of variety that can only be found in a symphony. You can bring the lowest winds and the highest strings -- and everything in between -- together, and that's magical to my ears. They have the numbers to do wide-ranging pieces with a wide spectrum of colors."

Ring also noted the variety of music that is available to symphony orchestras, should they choose to explore it. "Through the symphony, a local resident can be exposed to the joviality of Mozart -- a German composer of the 18th century -- and the pathos-evoking political dissidence of Soviet composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev. But the music need not be aged or distant -- the symphony often plays the music of living American composers."

"Simply put," adds Livingston, "every live performance I've ever been to was always worth it -- more than simply hearing a recording. But I can't go to everything. If an orchestra performed a piece that I already knew and loved, I would probably go. Also, if there were a piece being performed by a composer, or from a time period that I knew I liked. But I don't always know the specific pieces. So it's important to find out, from some external source, if it's worth the effort. If I read an article, or if someone tells me about the music, I'll become interested in attending. I'm not a musician, but a lot of young people with college degrees have at least a passing knowledge of music and can understand somewhat technical descriptions. So if someone speaks to me intelligently about music, I'm more likely to go to a concert."

Publication date: 11/20/03