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
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
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
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,
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