Friday, February 29th, 2008

The Orchestral Conundrum

The recent travails of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra leads me to repost this essay I wrote a couple years ago. This is the first in an occasional series on the arts, which I consider to be integral to the urban fabric.

Much of the hand-wringing on the decline of classical music is centered on the symphony orchestra. And with good reason. In most towns, the symphony is the flagship performing arts institution. It is typically supported by a Who’s Who of the town and is seen to embody the core of what classical music is all about. It is also the most endangered species of organization.

Firstly, let’s shatter the myth that the orchestra == classical music. I’d argue that’s far from true. In fact, the orchestra represents only the small slice of the vast classical repertoire, a slice consisting primarily consisting of symphonies and concertos. What’s left out? What’s not left out is the easier question to answer. It excludes opera. It misses out on chamber music entirely. Prior to the classical era, only a small amount of music is suitable to the modern large-format symphony orchestra, thus the vast bulk of the music of the renaissance and the baroque eras are not commonly programmed. The 20th century, except for a few tried and true names, is largely ignored.

And of all the areas to specialize in, the symphony and concerto have got to be the worst. The downsides of these genres are legion:

1. They require a large (and therefore expensive to maintain) complement of musicians.
2. They lend themselves to conducting and performance stars who command high fees. (Opera suffers from this as well)
3. They are the genres that I would argue benefit least from live performance versus a recording. I can pay $80+ to see a major symphony perform Beethoven’s 5th, or I can stay home and listen to Carlos Kleiber’s legendary recording (price $12) on my high quality home sound system for free anytime I want.
4. They have the most fossilized repertoire. This creates an amazing challenge. Newbies probably want to hear Beethoven’s 5th for the first time. Oldtimers may get turned off by hearing it the 50th. And it to repeat my last point, it almost goes without saying that all of the core repertoire is available in numerous high quality CD editions at reasonable prices far below symphony tickets.

These are structural problems quite apart from execution and it is difficult to see how they can be addressed.

Consider the differences in comparison with other art forms.

The chamber ensemble is small, a lean, mean machine. It doesn’t have a $30 million/year mouth to feed. There is something magical about seeing a chamber performance. There’s a certain intimacy with the music and connection with the performers (often literally – as you can frequently chat with them after the show) you don’t get with the symphony.

An opera is the original multi-media art form. While you can listen to an opera CD, there’s nothing quite like seeing the theater on stage and every performance you see of an opera can be radically different in its production.

The vocal works of the renaissance and baroque likewise lend themselves to more intimate performances in churches and the like, where the ambiance and resonance of the venue are difficult to duplicate in a home sound system. I also find that the uniqueness of the human voice across performers and performances is vastly greater than that of the various instrumental interpretations of the symphony repertoire.

Arguably, orchestras have the most indefensible musical niche in the modern era. Given that the repertoire is not expanding, it is reasonable for a classical music fan to simply acquire a nearly complete CD collection at a fraction of the cost of what it would take to see them by an orchestra live. And in most cases available CD’s contain some of the greatest performance of all time by the greatest orchestras and conductors of all time. So you have a good chance of getting a better product to boot.

The implications here are not good. If I were a community concerned about the arts, I’d be looking to diversify myself away from the orchestra as the flagship institution.

Topics: Arts and Culture

3 Responses to “The Orchestral Conundrum”

  1. Anonymous says:


  2. SpeedBlue47 says:

    It’s glad to see some people have a lot of taste.

    But ignoring thoughtless commentators, I would like to say thank you for bringing the plight of classical music to the forefront. That having been said, I think the problems are much greater, and of a much different nature than what you key on here.

    The points you make are surely all valid and well, but you could say that about just about any form of music. The number 1 overriding problem can be seen by the anonymous commentator above, lack of interest. Few people today enjoy any form of classical music, much less an orchestra piece. If someone isn’t playing guitar with their shirt off or doing some kind of drug on stage, they’d rather not pay attention. Plus, most younger Americans think that complex melodies, challenging consonances, and unique musical phrases are boring. They are more entrance with rhythm, dissonances, and contrast of harmony.

    Though I have my opinion (favoring classical music), classical music is bound for failure as long as this is the musical tastes of Americans.

    For now, classical music in all of its forms and genres is a niche, and must start treating itself as such as it can do what all the formerly niche musical genres (rock, hip/hop, jazz, blues, etc.) did: Changed opinions and influenced mainstream tastes. When cities stop sponsoring orchestras and instead let them act as traveling companies, booking shows at the most profitable venues, will sufficient talent be attracted to allow a truly memorable concert hall experience to flourish. History shows that the best arts and the most successful in changing a culture, are the ones that support themselves.

  3. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments, speed. I appreciate the thoughts. Obviously no one has cracked on the code on this, but clearly some rethinking has to be done.

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