Management, Musicians, Missions

In many cities across America, including my own, the  survival and the very idea of an orchestra is under assault by the people who have been entrusted with their development and financial sustenance: management and boards.

Orchestra musicians, have, within the current system, relinquished responsibility for repertoire, contractual obligations, and working conditions to people who are not musicians and usually have no vested interest in the orchestra other than as a means to acquire social or business advantages. (Union representation is marginalized.)
Symphonies, as well as museums, ballet companies, and theatre companies are non-profit organizations. And, since profit is something that carries great weight in capitalist America as an indicator of "success," the governing boards, usually made up of non-musical corporate leaders, can't wrap their heads around the amazing fact that cultural entities aren't businesses: their success lies in the quality of aesthetic experience they bring to their audiences. They can't be run like businesses. And, "making money" is not part of their mission or obligation. Art is their mission.

But we seem stuck with the corporate business formula: "lean, clean business machine." "Reduce overhead,"( i.e., personnel), increase hours, reduce salaries and benefits, hire marketers, advertise, heavily, after "re-branding" and revising the "mission statement." Appalling  thoughts, appalling language: appalling results.

For instance: a 100 piece orchestra can deliver the demanding music of Wagner, Mahler, Bruckner, Shostakovich, or Ravel. A 75 piece band, less so, and a 50 piece band, not well. And yet, the latter size is the current formula for a "successful business model" of  management-boards. Thus, come reductions in repertoire: fewer performances, if at all, of larger works for orchestra and chorus. The knowledgeable members of the audience become bored with the predictable musical "chestnuts," and they don't re-subscribe. They crave more music of our time, from late 19th-21st century, to balance the "classics." They want to hear the lesser-known works; they want to be surprised. The musicians want to be inspired; refreshed by new musical challenges.

Another important factor unrecognized by boards and management is that an orchestra is made up of musicians who, through the process of many rehearsals and performances grow, organically, into a cohesive unit. The seamlessness of truly great performances depends on players who listen to one another, respect one another, and inspire each other. It is a "family," and when it has worked together for many years, gives us a sound which is unique to it, and to no other orchestra. (The Philadelphia Sound, The Berlin Sound, etc.) This takes time to develop. A great orchestra can't develop within a policy of adding temporary players here and there to perform works requiring larger forces. "Temp" workers may be useful in the business world, but it's no way to run an orchestra, i.e., make really great music.

There are so many reasons to respect the musical profession. Musicians, who are exceptionally intelligent, have advanced degrees, own expensive instruments, practice many hours a day besides rehearsals, have children in college, mortgages, attend church, and epitomize  American values of self-improvement and hard work. They make many important contributions to society. Generous, good citizens, all.

Orchestras represent the cooperative community spirit by which, it is said, American society is inspired. They bring original thinking in the form of art, something which boards, dominated by corporate conformists and shaped by marketing stratagems, seem unable to grasp. It's not the same thing as selling soap.

Keep the orchestra, fire the board.