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December 28, 2010

The downbeat side of 2010: Orchestras in peril

For a while, it looked like the worst of recession's effects had done their damage on arts organizations and 2010 would be the turnaround year.

But as the days on the calendar dwindle down to a precious few, the clouds have thickened considerably. Things are especially dark on the orchestral front.

The Detroit Symphony, an ensemble fully deserving of the term world-class, remains shut down by a musicians' strike that started Oct. 4, and the two sides appear to be as far apart as ever.

In early December, the Louisville Orchestra went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, just shy of its 75th anniversary; the history of contemporary American music is tightly and richly connected to that orchestra.

Within a few days of the bad news from Kentucky, the Honolulu Symphony, having been in Chapter 11 for nearly a year, was heading into Chapter 7 liquidation after a remarkable 110 years of admirable service.

Compounding the loss for musicians and music lovers in those cities is the downright tragic realization that so few people seem to care about what has happened. No last-minute rescues, no sense of outrage. I guess we're all too used to this sort of thing by now.

I worry about an attitude that seems to be spreading inside some orchestra management and consultant circles, as well as among some music journalists -- an attitude that essentially dismisses professional musicians as

unrealistic. You want a 52-week contract and a good wage? Too extravagant. Go sell insurance or shoes on the side and be happy with 12 or 22 or 32 weeks. You think artistic standards will slip if we lower your pay and some of the best players leave to find greener fields? Who cares? There are young, hungry conservatory grads all over the place willing to take any wage. No one will know the difference.

(I wonder if full-time, nicely-compensated music journalists who buy into this argument would feel the same way if their publications pulled the plug on them, reasoning that there are a lot of young, eager writers willing to take any wage -- and, besides, no one will know the difference.)

The establishment of numerous full-time orchestras was a major achievement in this country during the past 50 years or so; the maintenance of dozens more was likewise a source of pride. If any more slip away in 2011, we will all be the poorer.

Henry Peyrebrune, writing on the Adaptistration site of Drew McManus, recently addressed the matter. After noting that people have long "raised questions about the sustainability" of the 52-week orchestra model, Peyreburne says

"We should keep in mind that we arrived where we are today as the result of a conscious long-term set of goals, shared by the leaders of business, government, arts and philanthropy. President Kennedy clearly articulated this philosophy in 1963:

'I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.'

Among the many challenges of the new year will be the one to find more leaders, political and otherwise, willing to stand up for the values Kennedy espoused. We need more forces to bolster endangered orchestras, to rekindle local pride in them. We need more people to acknowledge the value of music and all the arts to a community in the micro sense, to civilization in the macro.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:59 AM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes


"I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business ... " Sorry, but it doesn't work that way...or perhaps it does. Thousands, perhaps millions, of people in business, have seen their jobs lost, their paychecks cut and/or their benefits cut during the past few years. Why should musicians be any different? A "business" (i.e., the arts) where financial sustainability is so heavily dependent on donations and government subsidies as opposed to the box office is uniquely at risk during economic downturns. For years, musicians have believed their compensation should rise to some "fair" level no matter the economic state of the organization. That sort of insulation has come to an end.

BRAVO! for you wise and helpful commentary. Every point you made should be well-taken. We need more people to acknowledge the value of music and all the arts to a community in the micro sense, to civilization in the macro. These words are the best I've seen for explaining the need for management and the Board to wake up and listen to the beautiful music of our World-Class Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Very Well Put Sir! From a very sad and Disappointed music fan in Louisville, Ky. A terrible situatation for all arts lovers, indeed.

The reality is that the arts have historically existed as the result of patronage from one or two sources, usually private citizens and the church. Governmental assistance, while a nice idea, has rarely served as the backbone of arts funding. I love Kennedy's ideas, but I think this is more a question of connecting with human donors.

Unfortunately, we're a largely un-philanthropic society - my generation, in particular. I see petitions going around Facebook and Twitter to "save our symphony," but upon inquiring whether the petition signers have donated cash to their cause, I'm often met with stony or confused silence.

I think that symphonies need to find a way to revitalize their cultural relevance, to cultivate new audiences, to appeal to the 30-somethings who are more than happy to plunk down $40 to see a rock show a few times a week. My generation isn't as tied to the idea that symphonies are "a nice thing to have." We'll rally behind things we love, and we'll do it with dollars. I think that many orchestras are missing the opportunity to connect with this crowd. I don't know what the answer is, but I believe that there's a way to do it.

Yes, the arts are critical. The arts define who we are as a people. I absolutely agree with this. But I also believe that I, as an individual, have to put my money where my mouth is, if I purport to care. I can't just demand that the government step in, or that someone else pick up the tab. "Save our symphony" requires action, not just good intentions.

Really great article, Tim. Keep up the good work. You make me think!

Here's an upbeat comment. Since it's the end of the year, let's give a honorary award for the most unlikely promoter of classical music to Larry David. Indeed, there are many references to classical music in both Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, to the point of even inviting violinist Chee-Yun to an episode of Curb. And one should point out that after Larry David left Seinfeld, there were no more references to classical music in the show - and who can forget the three tenors or the maestro?

Perhaps more such references from popular culture could help...

"Unfortunately, we're a largely un-philanthropic society ... "

Abby, I respectfully disagree. The problem is that the money that most people would use to fund the causes they believe in never gets into their hands - it is confiscated by our local, state and federal governments to fund the causes politicians believe in ... and additionally, as I understand it, a lot of the Facebook generation find themselves crippled by student loan payments - so don't be too hard on them.

But I love your passion and your realization that you do "have to put your money where your mouth is". Government assistance HAS been a backbone of the arts in Europe, but in the current economic climate that backbone is folding like a cheap accordion. With apologies to JFK "Don't wait for your government to do for you what you can do for yourself!" Demand the politicians let you keep more of your own money so you can support the causes YOU believe in. Arts organizations are better served by large lists of subscribers than by government grants. In my opinion, anyway. Happy New Year!

We need a cultural bailout plan. Maybe enhanced tax incentives for those who contribute to the arts.

Well done, Tim.

I agree with the author and many of the comments below. The arts will suffer with the rest of the economy, that is just a fact. But that we should aspire to be a better country through our support and leadership in the arts also, should go without saying. Kennedy was, among other things, a genuine visionary. His statements ring as true today as they did many years ago. We can do better, we must do better.

As a country we need to embrace the arts with the same passion we seem to have for sending soldiers overseas to kill and "protect" people from their own governments and their own ways of life. The arts are the only thing that can protect us from our own way of life! The more people who appreciate art and music the fewer people with enthusiasm for war and killing.

We must support our symphony orchestras as a way of realizing Kennedy's vision of America as a cultural leader in the world not simply as a "world power" or economic entity in an uncertain world, the arts are the answer!

Thanks very much for sharing your very persuasive thoughts. TIM

After reading the comments on many arts and symphony blogs, I'm distressed at the "if it doesn't pay for itself, let it fold" attitude of almost half the commenters. While opining that their taxes shouldn't go to support the arts (they mostly don't), they forget the many real tax breaks given to profit-making sports stadiums and teams. They also seem to be largely unaware of the money multiplier that arts bring to a city.

It's been said countless times that a civilization is identified by its arts, but that message is lost on far too many.

I couldn't agree more. Thanks. TIM

As mentioned in the earlier post by NYMike, the arts are good business. A couple of examples:

Where Lincoln Center now stands was a poor, crime-ridden area; that cultural center lead the way in transforming that area into a vibrant neighborhood.

And one can look to the area around the Meyerhoff. Where a deserted building used to stand, the Symphony Center Apartments and two office buildings now occupy that plot of land. Near by is the beautifully renovated Hotel Brexton as is the recently opened Fitzgerald apartment building on West Mount Royal Avenue.

As for Ms. McKee’s remark regarding the orchestra’s need to appeal to the 30-something crowd, may I suggest she and her peers attend the concert on February 18 at the Meyerhoff – this concert is custom designed for you!
30-something Ingrid Fliter is performing the Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Baltimore Symphony. Also on the program is the Symphony No. 2 by Tchaikovsky, written when Tchaikovsky was 30-something and the Overture to William Tell by Rossini, written when Rossini was 30-something.

One more thing. If the arts are to survive indeed they must be patronized and in these cash-strapped times that is difficult to do. To those of you that are unable to attend for financial reasons, would you please consider writing your city, state and federal representatives and the heads of the various arts institutions in the city – let them know you want your city to be known for nurturing the arts.

Raymond Kreuger
Associate Orchestra Librarian
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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