Orchestras in Crisis

July 02, 1992

The large symphony orchestra as a musical institution is in deep trouble.

In recent years orchestras in major American cities have dissolved under financial pressures. Last month, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announced it expects to run a deficit of about $800,000 this year -- the orchestra's first shortfall since 1986 -- as a result of reductions in anticipated government support. Expenses are up; so are fund-raising and marketing costs. Attendance has increased, but mostly for pops concerts.

A recent report by the American Symphony Orchestra League warned that "the future of the orchestra industry is in serious jeopardy" if present trends continue. It said only "substantial and systematic" change could rescue the orchestra as an institution from irrelevance.

There are many reasons for the crisis. The traditional audience for symphony concerts is aging (the average symphony subscriber is 55 years old). Meanwhile, the decline of musical education in the public schools has reduced the pool of young potential concert-goers. Demographic changes also have alienated the orchestra and its musical activities from the cities in which they are located (in many towns, the orchestra's subscribers now come mainly from the suburbs).

All these problems are most immediately felt in terms of financial distress. But long-term solutions require more than simply pumping money into an orchestra. The institution must redefine its role in the community. For example, the orchestra should get out in front in the fight for musical education in the public schools. The concert program also could stand revamping: more emphasis on thematically or historically related works and less on superstar performers.

To its credit, the BSO is already working on many of these ideas. Its summer series, Saturday morning programs and children's concerts all aim to make symphonic performances more accessible and the orchestra more truly a community institution. These are steps in the right direction but they don't go nearly far enough to challenge the cultural hegemony of the mass entertainment industry -- pop music, television and the movies. The orchestra is custodian of a 400-year-old tradition. It need make no apologies for its mission. To fulfill that mission, however, will require making adjustments to keep up with changing times.

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