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The Great Gnashing of Teeth

July 5, 2010

So the great gnashing of teeth and wailing to the orchestra gods of 2010 that was the League’s R/Evolution Conference in Hotlanta wrapped up a couple weeks ago.  And the blogosphere has recently been publicly digesting the ideas and questions that were posed there.  Of what I have read thus far, I think Drew McManus and Marc van Bree are probably two of the best informed and most thoughtful commentators on the whole event.

As with many things the league has done of late, I have my own concerns.

Ben Cameron, one of the speakers for opening session, was a very energetic, articulate, and very interesting speaker.  But I don’t know if I actually liked what he said.  Actually, that’s not entirely true.  I didn’t like a lot of what he said, but as importantly, I didn’t like what he didn’t say. But I will get into that in a later post.  Here is some of what he, quite passionately I might add, said.

We have to start by asking ourselves, “Why must we exist today?” Because having a concert hall and a board is no longer good enough, because having an endowment and a great staff is no longer good enough, because we have a scrapbook full of great reviews and critical notices and maybe even grammy awards is not enough, what is it in the external world that mandates that our symphonies flourish and thrive today?

Okay, so I agree that the accumulated items on his list – a functioning board, a reasonable endowment, good staff, previous accolades, a concert hall – are not enough to sustain future success. But who says it is? Also, who said that was the point?  Orchestras don’t perform to support the board , or the endowment, or the staff, or the hall.  I thought those things exist to support the orchestra.

Or am I missing something here?

What I also take serious issue with is this notion that what orchestras need to do is spend their time, energy, and money constantly asking questions like “Why must we exist?”  Because, I believe it is a question that has already been answered.

I really do.

Art has value, music has value.  Why?  Because, like the fight for social justice, like scientific research, like Ipads and pods, and like kites and ice cream cones, art’s purpose is to improve the quality of our lives.

Orchestras don’t have to and shouldn’t be expected to be more than that.  We offer a very specific kind of quality-of-life improvement.  And, no, it doesn’t save lives like cancer research, and orchestral music doesn’t appeal to some people.  But music is good (I think society  endorses this general statement), and ice cream is good (again, I think you could actually get a 100 votes in the Senate tomorrow if this statement was a bill in congress).

Maybe I’m naive, but I truly believe that when orchestras perform with guts and ambition, and provide that singular experience unavailable anywhere else, the Big Question of “Why do we exist,” fades away, and audiences, performers, communities start asking, how could we go on with out this?

I think It’s really just that simple.

I will continue this thread for a couple more posts.  There is a lot to discuss/digest.  I highly recommend that everyone go watch the video from the opening session of the conference here.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. July 6, 2010 1:04 am

    Interesting post, Jacob.

    Here’s another way to look at the situation, perhaps. Let me port this situation East of the furthest coast on the United States approximately 4,000 miles.

    Imagine a place where music is an integral part of everyday culture and where musicians, walking down the street with their instruments obtain not stares of bewilderment but paparazzi like curiosity. Performances on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday evening are sold out, and most of the general public knows more about opera than someone with a doctoral degree in music from the United States. People boo at the pause of Don Giovanni because they understand what they are listening to and are genuinely disappointed or do not like the set, or cheer for twenty-five minutes because they were swept away by the ability of a musician to communicate in a way that resonated emotionally with them.

    Welcome to Germany and Austria, and indeed welcome to much of Europe.

    I have been overseas for nearly a month with a month and a half yet to go. In the first two weeks I have been in Germany and Austria [shameful it took this long, as I am 32 but do not have the benefit of broad corporate branding] to no musicians surprise I have seen some of the most powerful and gripping performances of my life, and I suspect that I am in the majority of my colleagues.

    Certainly, the United States has wonderful orchestras and opera companies. What it lacks is an audience with the sense of urgency and necessity for art on a large scale. In Europe, art in all forms is an absolutely integral part of the culture. Art can be a way to develop empathy with other cultures, and that is important with traditions as diverse as in Europe.

    Ultimately, for me it then boils down to education.

    Perhaps there are other differences which will not be news to the readers of this blog. There is broad financial support from the Governments here, so musicians need not pander so much to the whims of private donors who while many have wonderful intentions, many times do not. Not that the grass is always greener here, I suspect, but it is certainly much healthier.

    There is absolutely a demand for music here. That is what must be recreated somehow in America, and it cannot happen without the proper education of our next generation. I believe the answer to the equation lay there.

    Best wishes,

  2. Rachel Ciprotti permalink
    July 6, 2010 10:31 am

    I was not in attendance at the conference, but I think you might be mis-understanding the point that Mr. Cameron was trying to make. He did not appear to be implying that the “point” of orchestras was the staff, musicians, board, or endowment. Nor was he questioning why music itself should exist…he was saying that each individual organization should ask itself:

    Why do WE (as an org) exist? What are WE specifically contributing to Our community/society?

    What should our mission be, beyond playing great music…or is that enough? Arts for art’s sake? If a beautiful Beethoven symphony is played and there is no one to hear it, does it matter? Is it enriching the world?

    No one should question the beauty, the power, and the necessity of Music…and I’m sure that’s not what Mr. Cameron was trying to do. It’s not about justifying the idea of an Orchestra, it’s about justifying the reality of Your Particular Orchestra. If you’re not improving and engaging your community, you need to change. And perhaps it’s time to take an honest look at that.

    • July 6, 2010 11:54 am


      Thank you for reading the blog and for your comment! I believe I do understand Mr. Cameron’s point, and I think it is in line with what you said. I just disagree with the premise of it. I disagree with still asking the kinds of questions he suggests we ask.

      “We” exist because this music exists, we enjoy playing it, and people enjoy listening to it. Ultimately, I just don’t think it is anything more than that. Everything else is details for the local people to figure out. What kinds of music does a community like, how much can they really support, etc.

      Obviously, I am coming from a conductor/musician perspective on this. And I completely agree with you that we need to be engaging the community, but I don’t know how much we can improve a community other than by offering our best – which is performing orchestral music.

      I think orchestras are only good at performing orchestral music. And not much else. Individuals in the orchestra may be talented artisans, doctors, whatever. But as a single entity, it’s really all we really do well.

      Additionallly, my orchestra actually had full houses in attendance when we did Beethoven, and Mahler, and Dvorak, and Resphigi, etc. etc. And, I really haven’t seen that many Beethoven symphonies played where no one is there to hear it. So I’m not sure where that statement comes from other than its good, urgent rhetoric.

      Again, Rachel, I really appreciate your thoughtful response to the post.

      • Rachel Ciprotti permalink
        July 6, 2010 1:58 pm

        Thanks for your reply.

        I’m glad to hear that your orchestra is filling the house. This is not the case for everyone. Again, I reiterate my point that the issue is not whether Classical Music is worthy, or whether the concept of the Orchestra is worthy….the point is to ask tough questions about Your Specific Orchestra. (I don’t mean Your as in your own, I mean it as each person asking about their own organization.)

        Perhaps your Orchestra is doing well, is engaged in its local community, and is therefore enriching lives and on the right track.

        This is most certainly not the case with some other orchestras in this country, as I’m sure you must be aware.

        As musicians, conductors, administrators,volunteers, board members, patrons, etc…there is SO MUCH more we can offer than just playing the music. An orchestra is, in fact, more than just the music.

        Imagine the New York Philharmonic playing a free outdoor concert on an August afternoon. Imagine that the orchestra plays the most superb music you’ve ever heard in your life. Now imagine that there was no advertising of this concert whatsoever, that the venue had no restrooms, no food, and no water; there was no shade, and the most uncomfortable seats are scattered about with no ushers. There were no programs to tell you what music you were hearing. Only a few dozen people were there, sweating miserably in the heat, most unable or unwilling to stay more than 15 or 20 minutes.

        But the music was great, so what more can they do?

        Sometimes, orchestras can be complacent, and not realize what important things they are leaving out of the experience for their audience. I think an orchestra has the capability to improve a community in many ways: educating the audience, expanding their horizons, giving their children role models and the opportunity to learn about or play classical music, supporting other arts organizations in the community…the list goes on and on.

        Arts for art’s sake is not a possibility for an art form that requires the time and energy of so many dozens of people.

      • July 6, 2010 3:56 pm


        I absolutely agree with you. The concert experience as a whole is of utmost importance. Everyone involved with an orchestra can do more to make it better. The concert you described sounds awful, and they deserve whatever kind of karma punishment they have coming.

        As far as my orchestra, we do work to engage our community. We have an unbelievable staff and some of the most committed, big hearted musicians around. And I think that comes through everytime we play. As in the original post, I think my orchestra plays with guts and with ambition. I’m pretty proud of that. We’re not perfect, but that’s not our goal.

        But back to your reply, I feel like we are debating different ideas here. I agree with you on a lot of what you said – the whole experience is vital to the success of an orchestra. Orchestra’s that ignore this idea do so at their financial and artistic peril.

        But I don’t think Art for Art’s sake means punishing the audience in the way you described. I think it means making sure that it is presented in the best way possible whatever that means for a community. In fact, the concert you described sounds more like the kind of half-baked, “new concert experience” orchestras tend to attempt a couple times and then throw their hands up. You and I both know that the concert you described did not take the art seriously, if they did, they would have made sure that the audience had a real opportunity to listen to it.

        And you are right again, orchestras are absolutely more than the music. But nothing you described showed the need for existential questions. It showed bad management decisions, poor planning, a lack of concern for the music goer. Almost certainly, no one in that concert in the park was happy.

        But, ultimately, my big question to you Rachel is: If you aren’t doing it for the art’s sake, then why are you doing it?

      • July 7, 2010 4:22 pm

        Rachel: I’m curious about an item in your comment. You mentioned what I think are very apt observations in your outdoor concert example. I agree that the non-artistic dynamic components of the concert experience are not mutually exclusive from the music making when considered from the listener’s perspective.

        However, are you using those items to illustrate what you’re referring to vis-à-vis the concept of relevance?

      • Rachel Ciprotti permalink
        July 8, 2010 8:18 am

        Jacob: I’m doing it to SHARE the art with others. I believe passionately in the beauty and utility of symphonic music, and listening to a recording of Mozart in my room is not nearly as fulfilling as watching his music touch the lives of hundreds or thousands of people at a great concert.

        Drew: I’m not sure I understand your question. I hadn’t really mentioned relevance in my posts. I believe that all great music has relevance to society, though.

        My point was that it’s never solely about the music, and that there’s nothing wrong with that. We don’t need to be ashamed of it.

        If you’re an Emily-Dickinson-style recluse and want to write or paint all alone and the world-be-damned, you can do that. But orchestral music can’t be like that. It needs an audience in order to exist and to grow.

        The concert experience does involve more than the music, and the pre-concert necessities of marketing, fundraising, publications, operations, etc are also necessary and need to be functioning at a high level for a group to make a real impact on its community.

      • July 8, 2010 10:43 am

        Thanks for the additional insight Rachel. I doubt anyone in the business would fail to realize that the non-artistic issues related to the concert experience are necessary elements of success. What I see evolving in the relevancy discussion (by that I mean, what Jacob was referencing in Ben Cameron’s keynote address) is a blurring of lines between artistic and non-artistic items when making strategic and/or mission related decisions.

        Having managers/board members become overly involved in the artistic decision making process is as treacherous as allowing artists to make executive decisions on marketing plans. A good example of how this works in a way that demonstrates the value in Jacob’s point (there’s no need for substantial overhaul) is the Grant Park Music Festival.

        This organization presents the typical full orchestra/chorus concerts format and programs a wide variety of works from the traditional rep to very challenging new music. concerts take place in a single location and the average attendance is in excess of 10,000 per concert (that’s not a typo). I’ve written about this organization a great deal and you can find the topic archive at:

        Another good example is the Nashville Symphony, they use a very traditional format and have had enormous success:

  3. July 6, 2010 10:42 am

    Jacob, great comment as usual. Like all of us, it is a constant source of frustration for me that the intrinsic value of music-making isn’t more widely recognized in American culture. I think, though, that Cameron’s question is more salient if you consider if from the perspective of, well, any American except for us concert musicians. How would you answer if the questions were framed this way:

    –In what ways does the orchestra participate in American cultural life?
    –In what ways does American culture value the orchestra?
    –How has the orchestra, since the later 1800s, been made a truly American musical ensemble, rather than imitating its manifestation as an expression of aristocratic European culture?
    –What music do orchestras play that engages contemporary culture/listeners on their terms?

    And etc. My point is that, in my estimation, the orchestra as a musical medium has never been integrated into American culture in any real way, it’s just sort of been floating up on top doing its own thing since the medium was introduced here a little over a century ago. There was an initial window from about 1890-1925 where American orchestras were developing their own identities, but then that whole generation of European conductors emigrated, assumed leadership of our best ensembles, and built them squarely in the European modes of existence, repertoire included (with one notable exception being Koussevitsky). I think what Cameron is really saying is that orchestras have been pretty tremendously solipsistic, and can no longer evaluate their successes by how well they do what they think they ought to be doing. The truth is that the culture at large does not see the intrinsic value that we see in what we do, and don’t really value Grammy awards and such as markers of musical success (such awards certainly don’t drive listeners our way).

    I also think it’s a mistake to say, as Chris did in his comment, something like:

    “What [the U.S.] lacks is an audience with the sense of urgency and necessity for art on a large scale. In Europe, art in all forms is an absolutely integral part of the culture.”

    I think that the United States does have an audience with a desire for art on a large scale, and art in all forms does permeate our culture–Jonathan Ive, for instance, is a brilliant designer who has had more than a tiny impact on American culture in the past decade. It’s just that American culture does not desire and embrace the versions of culture that classical musicians think that they ought to. Orchestral music permeates culture in, e.g., Germany and Austria because that’s where that music is from. Just like jazz and hip hop and rock permeate streets in America, because that’s where that music is from.

    I think that if orchestras and music-making in the medium of concert music is to survive and thrive in the United States, we must recognize that the music we value really may not connect with or speak to native American listeners very well. We need to seek and experiment with ways to draw them in, meeting them at least halfway, and developing some authenticity as an American ensemble. There are any number of ways to do this without compromising what we love and value, and the music we want to share; but right now it really seems like it’s just a one-way street, and of course listeners are not attracted to something with which they do not identify.

    To be clear, I absolutely agree with what you said here:

    “Maybe I’m naive, but I truly believe that when orchestras perform with guts and ambition, and provide that singular experience unavailable anywhere else, the Big Question of “Why do we exist,” fades away, and audiences, performers, communities start asking, how could we go on with out this?”

    However, unless orchestras can build bridges outward (with the music they play), walk across them to other side (maybe with new kinds of presentations), AND engage the rest of the culture with respect and without a sense of entitlement (that one will be very hard), I do not see a bright future for the medium in the United States unfortunately. Cameron’s question, then, is more practically urgent than rhetorical: if orchestras cannot demonstrate cultural value in a non-solipsistic way, their future support will continue to diminish. The question “why must orchestras exist today?”, it seems to me, must be answered from listeners’ perspectives, not our own.

    Thanks for a very thought-provoking post!

    Also, this thought is probably relevant.

  4. July 20, 2010 11:44 am

    Jacob, thanks for the shout out! Sorry I’m late to the party.

    I really enjoyed the post and the subsequent comments. Now, I just read the wonderful book The Network Nonprofit by Allison Fine and Beth Kanter. In the book, they call for nonprofits to become simpler. I think perhaps that is a thought provoking concept for orchestras.

    The authors write that the “growth of individual organizations made them bigger, more expensive, and harder to manage and sustain. It didn’t, by definition, make them more effective.” The reason organizations grew complex, according to the authors, stems from the desire to control internal and external environments.

    Simplicity for the authors means an orchestra would think of itself more as a catalyst within their ecosystem, their network, rather than a producer or programs and events. And isn’t that how orchestras came to be in the first place? A catalyst for musicians to come together and make music for the community.

    And when I talk structure, I don’t mean a complex bureaucracy. As the authors write: “It’s all the time spent discussing who is responsible for doing what rather than just doing it. It is all the energy spent trying to control messages, people, and brands.”

    What I’m looking for is a structure that facilitates a purpose defined by those who use it (musicians, music directors, staff, the community, patrons, donors). So yes, as Stuart writes above, the relevance and purpose questions must be answered from a listener’s perspective. But then again, and importantly, art shouldn’t be market-driven or admin-driven.

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