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Are City Orchestras a Dying Breed?

With lockouts, deficits, and dwindling audiences, classical ensembles fight for survival.

| Mon Feb. 4, 2013 12:46 PM EST

Indeed, major donors have taken their concerns to the op-ed pages, and one local writer has referred to the situation as the "orchestral apocalypse." The February 1 concert was actually a masterful work of Minnesotan passive-aggression: Vänskä probably wouldn't have been there had the Mayor and a wealthy donor not decided to "host" the event and then publicly invite the orchestra management to participate, which gave them little choice.

As the months wear on, observers are becoming increasingly nervous that the ongoing dispute, as Vänskä suggested, will be the orchestra's undoing. "It's very very hard to be optimistic," says Lebrecht. "None of the disputes have been as long as Minnesota, or as harsh." Drawn-out labor disputes among orchestras tend to end with a change in management, he adds, and many orchestras never fully recover.

A "Musical Miracle"

As bad as times may be, it seems the nation's municipal orchestras are perpetually in financial trouble: A New York Times headline from 1903, the early years of municipal orchestras, reads: "'Permanent Orchestra' Season a Bad One: Poor Financial Returns in Most Cities that Support This Form of Music." During the Depression, when orchestras in the Northeast were losing a combined $1.3 million annually, their patrons discussed merging them together. When the San Francisco Symphony managed to shrink its deficit during the 1960s, the Times declared it a "musical miracle." (Read our interview with SF Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.)

An orchestra, much like a university, is not the sort of business where productivity goes up and up. According to a 2008 analysis by Stanford University professor Robert Flanagan, when orchestras increase their costs over time by raising musicians' pay, it's nearly impossible to cover that increase through higher ticket sales. Instead, orchestras have to grow their fundraising base, recruiting more well-heeled donors who believe cities need a symphony.

Some orchestras have learned to innovate. The Cleveland Orchestra, widely considered one of nation's best, was running multimillion-dollar deficits throughout the 2000s—by 2006, it was $13 million in the red. Its solution: Go where the fans are. "The idea of performing in Florida came about relatively early," says executive director Gary Hanson. "The only tour that the Cleveland Orchestra had been on where we had earned money at the margins had been a tour to Florida." Now the Cleveland Orchestra spends several weeks of its season in residency in Miami and also Vienna, and has set up local boards of directors to raise money in each satellite location.

"The subscription business model is breaking down," says Hanson, who believes that all orchestras will have to change the way they operate if they want to survive. For Cleveland, besides "more concerts in more places," this means "more kinds of music for more people." The orchestra has teamed up with popular musicians such as Bela Fleck, and accompanies screenings of Charlie Chaplin films. "You get the Bela Fleck fans in the door. That's show business!" Hanson said. The orchestra still plays its classical season, but has fewer concerts than in the past.

The Detroit Symphony, which was almost ruined by a strike in 2010, now sells $25 season passes for students, projects concerts onto the outside of its hall, and live-streams them in high definition. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has brought on the enigmatic Gustavo Dudamel, perhaps the biggest living classical celebrity, to spark interest. Other orchestras are doing things like playing concerts in the lobby so that fans can be close to the music. In Europe, one is touring pubs.

"I don't think people assume anymore that the generation coming up, the millennials, will behave like the Baby Boomers did—that they'll hit 50 and start going to concerts," says Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras. And orchestra attendance was falling for all age groups throughout the 2000's, before the recession began. "People who like classical music now are equally likely to be big fans of world music, and dubstep, and electronica," Rosen says. "Their tastes are more eclectic so they're not as loyal as they used to be."

Hanson knows he's fighting an uphill battle. In January 2010, Cleveland Orchestra had a brief strike that ended with the musicians taking a pay freeze, and the musicians again had to make a few concessions during contract negotiations this past fall. And the orchestra is still running deficits. But it's also on track to post record ticket sales this year—revenue for November and December was up by nearly 50 percent from the same time in 2011. "The people at Cleveland are at least trying to think outside the box," said author Lebrecht.

It's telling that most orchestras weren't bothering with these new ways to connect with their communities until the recession drove them to it. But they seem to be awakening to the fact that they will have to innovate in order to survive—to figure out ways they can maintain the traditional repertoire while adjusting to the tastes of a modern audience. The "permanent orchestra season," as the Times called it, will probably always be a bad one, but with a little hustle and grit, many orchestras will find a way to play on.

Click here for more music coverage from Mother Jones.

Correction: A previous version of this article included St. Louis in a list of cities whose orchestras had strikes or lockouts in the past two years. The St. Louis labor dispute was actually in 2005.

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