The Future of American Orchestras May Be Bright after All the Picture Was Bleak Five Years Ago, but Musicians Are Finding Innovative Ways to Draw in New Listeners

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Five years ago, the American Symphony Orchestra League (ASOL), a national service organization of 850 orchestras around the country, initiated a multiyear project that resulted in a stunning wake-up call for those in the field of classical music.

The initial assessment, "The Wolf Report," was sobering, charging that the American symphony orchestra was "economically fragile" and in danger of becoming "both culturally and socially irrelevant."

Then, with the 203-page "Americanizing the American Orchestra," released in 1993, the ASOL offered its constituents a kind of workbook for typical management issues, such as volunteerism, repertoire, developing orchestra leadership, and relations with musicians. But two chapters - "Achieving Cultural Diversity" and "The Orchestra as Music Educator" - sent up red flags to orchestras around the country.

Both dealt strongly with popularizing the orchestral product by finding ways in which orchestras could reflect the cultural and ethnic world around them.

These aspects of the report were initially met with strong criticism. Leaders throughout the industry charged that the ASOL had opted for political correctness over practicality and substance, subverting the traditional mission of the symphony orchestra - to make music - by fusing it with social, political, and community agendas.

But at the ASOL's 51st annual conference, held in Cincinnati last month, it became clear that many of the ideas suggested by the report were being successfully integrated into current orchestra objectives.

And the recent Harris poll on participation in the arts shows attendance for classical music up 7 percent from the National Endowment for the Arts' (NEA) 1992 figures. This suggests that orchestras, long known as bastions of staid tradition, are finally letting down their hair and meeting with greater enthusiasm by a wider American public.

"The reason is terrific music-making and a lot of hard work," says Catherine French, the ASOL's executive director for the past 16 years. "We shouldn't underestimate the sophistication and dedication orchestras have to finding ways to connect with an audience.... All those disasters people have been predicting about the field have not happened because orchestras have paid attention and started taking care of business."

What became evident during the conference, which served as a sounding board for ideas among almost 1,600 musicians, conductors, administrators, board members, and volunteers from orchestras of all sizes, was that many orchestras used the report as a guidebook for more progressive thinking.

"We weren't telling orchestras what to do, but giving ideas, providing food for thought, in some cases giving permission to think in different ways," Ms. French explains. "And each orchestra has responded in the ways that are right for that orchestra in that particular community."

The strongest concern faced by most American orchestras today is that of creating and maintaining a wider audience in an era of aging, shrinking constituencies for the arts in general. Those concerns took center stage at the ASOL conference.

The most sobering seminars there dealt with the latest demographic and social research, culminating in dire prognoses if the industry cannot keep up with the extraordinary rate of change occurring in society and the public's need for value, independence, and flexibility.

This was countered with examples of the ways in which various orchestras are trying to meet those needs: subscription packages and series in conjunction with other arts and sports organizations; full-season exchange policies for flexibility; free concerts; theme concerts; mixed-media presentations; preconcert talks; new concert lengths and starting times; and Web sites and hot lines.

The need to nurture young listeners looms paramount. National Public Radio special correspondent Susan Stamberg posed the overriding question during her keynote address: "How do you go about filling your concert halls with young, unfidgeting audiences, and how do you find a place for tradition for tomorrow's generations? …

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