Daily Bow: Why Classical Music Needs Saving


Classical Music Needs Saving. Why do we say that? Some might think it’s perfectly fine, but if you have been reading String Visions you know why. In “The Future is Now” series we covered the reasons why we are here. A recent article (via the Taipei Times) looks at why orchestras in particular need heroes.

…Music Makes a City, an engaging documentary from last year about the Louisville Orchestra that was just released on DVD, offers an inspiring and cautionary tale of creative chutzpah and financial mismanagement. The orchestra, which itself filed for bankruptcy in December, was founded shortly after the floods that crippled Louisville, Kentucky, in 1937.

It began as a ragtag ensemble that rehearsed, according to the film, “in a gloomy room that smelled of stale beer.” A young conductor, Robert Whitney, quickly drummed the ensemble into shape, but financial problems loomed from the start. Charles Farnsley, the mayor of Louisville from 1948 to 1953, suggested that the orchestra, instead of spending money on glamorous soloists, commission new pieces: a policy that the board, though initially shocked, adopted. The endeavor was facilitated in 1953 by a US$400,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to commission and record 52 compositions a year for three years…

…This remarkable venture, which resulted in works by Lukas Foss, Paul Hindemith, Roy Harris, Gunther Schuller and many others, put Louisville and its orchestra on the international cultural map and attracted luminaries like Shostakovich and Martha Graham to visit the city. But that wasn’t enough to fend off the regular financial crises that have dogged the orchestra over the decades since, until its recent bankruptcy filing.

This perennial instability has stemmed in part from an over-reliance on bailouts from private sponsors and large corporations, some of which reduced donations during difficult economic periods or moved out of town. “No one wanted to face the reality that one day support would end,” said Jorge Mester, the orchestra’s current music director, in a telephone interview.

We talked about the Louisville Orchestra in particular in our very first article. One proposed solution to their predicament is to cut the number of salaried players by about one-fourth and “fill in the gap with freelancers.” That direction has already been adopted by top orchestras such as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and Orchestra of St. Luke’s, both in New York.

While the freelance model can be perilous for musicians, the upside for orchestras is a more flexible operating system. The rotating work force of the Orchestra of St Luke’s, for example, makes it easier to survive challenging times.

“One of the things that makes us resilient is our flexibility,” said Katy Clark, the orchestra’s president and executive director. “We don’t spend what we don’t have. We don’t guarantee work to our musicians and don’t require that they turn up. Even though you might think this would be anarchic, we have very stable personnel to an amazing extent.”

Another benefit of freelance orchestras, Clark added, is that they tend to have more inclusive management styles and thus suffer less labor friction.

St Luke’s currently has balanced budgets, no operating deficit and a new revenue stream from the DiMenna Center for Classical Music, a complex for performance and rehearsals that opened in March, with rooms for rent by outside groups at affordable rates. The orchestra, which is often presented by Carnegie Hall and other organizations in collaborative partnerships that Clark described as fundamental to its success, has not cut any of its self-produced programs but has received fewer fee engagements during the recession.

The point is not that freelancing is the way to go. There won’t (and can’t be) simply one model for the professional music industry. But that kind of creative problem solving… and a willingness to do away with institutionalized rules or norms… can help to protect industry as a whole.

Read the original article for more on this subject

Classical music needs saving… are you going to be one of the heroes to do it?

If you believe that classical music needs saving, share your thoughts with us on these two questions

  1. If you could solve one problem in the classical music industry, what would it be?
  2. How would you (help) solve it?



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