Few American institutions are more beholden to tradition than the symphony orchestra. But even tradition evolves in response to changing circumstances and needs. American orchestras, prompted by financial crises and dwindling audiences, are undergoing serious soul-searching in which their programs, mission and structure have come in for vigorous re-examination.
Recently the American Symphony Orchestra League issued a report that sparked a lively controversy. Entitled "Americanizing the American Orchestra," it suggested the orchestras' money woes are symptomatic of a larger failure to make themselves vital parts of the communities they serve.
The report contends that orchestra programs lack meaning for many people because the repertoire is dominated by 18th- and 19th-century European composers and because they are prisoners to performance traditions at odds with the demographic and cultural diversity of contemporary America. The authors argue that, without comprising artistic integrity, the orchestra must redefine itself to become more representative of the groups that comprise American society as a whole, and each orchestra's community in particular.
That's a tall order, one not likely to be achieved quickly. Critics fear that any serious attempt to implement all the report's recommendations would destroy the orchestra as a recognizable institution. They charge that changing the orchestra's repertoire and performance standards are incompatible with maintaining its commitment to artistic excellence.
The truth probably lies somewhere in between. The report was compiled by six different committees, so it is inevitably something of a pastiche, one that contradicts itself in places.
Also, much of the shouting misses the point, which is that the orchestra's problems reflect ongoing conflicts over such issues as race and cultural differences whose solutions lie in the larger society. For example, the small numbers of minorities as performers and audience members at symphony concerts probably has more to do with economics and the failure of public schools to offer arts education than with what's on the program.
Many of the report's ideas had previously been taken up by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, for example, whose programs and personnel are already quite diverse compared to many other American and European orchestras. Still, the league has performed valuable service by stimulating discussion of the orchestra's role in a changing society. It points the way for both musicians and their public to envision a new American orchestra for the 21st century.