Critical Questions

by Jesse Rosen

For orchestras, artistic excellence is vital, but we also need to look beyond it.

click pdf here for a pdf of this article as it appears in the print edition.

“The best thing about the good old days is that they are gone.” When Peter Sellars quoted Stan Kenton in his keynote address at the League’s 2006 National Conference, he wasn’t advocating that we forget the past. Rather, Sellars was urging us to honor the legacy of our predecessors by “loving our children,” thus committing ourselves to renewal and to the future.

As the child of an orchestra manager, I’ve oftenthought about how Sellars’s observation applies to orchestras’ “good old days.” I grew up during the period of the rise of the American orchestra movement that saw the establishment of the modern orchestra as we know it today. In 1962, when my father was starting his career as executive director of the Westchester Orchestral Society, 93 orchestras nationwide reported their statistics to the League; of them, less than a handful played full-year seasons. By 1977, there were 203 orchestras reporting. Sixteen were offering full-year employment.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, American orchestras experienced extraordinary growth. More orchestras produced more concerts, served more people, and employed more musicians than ever before. As artistic standards, acclaim, and international demand rose, we also increased pops programming and developed new sophistication in our educational activity. We built an infrastructure to support this enormous growth while
cementing a body of practice and organizational design and culture.

The vast majority of today’s orchestras still rely on these systems and beliefs. Yet it surely is time to pay close attention to what is different about today, and to ask ourselves, “Which assumptions and practices from the past should we hold on to, which ones no longer fit our current circumstances, and what new frameworks and models must we forge?”

In this new series of Symphony articles called “Critical Questions,” I will periodically invite colleagues, scholars, and other thinkers to join me in presenting diverse perspectives on these and other questions. There are no single right answers to these challenges. Yet they are critically important to explore as we chart a course for our orchestras in today’s world.

As the League puts its strategic plan into action, we intend this series of articles to complement our work that is focusing on orchestras’ emerging civic role, new business and operating models, and organizational culture. I welcome your reactions, and invite you to respond at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Jesse Rosen
President and CEO
League of American Orchestras

Creating the “Good New Days”

by Jesse Rosen

When I interned in the National Endowment for the Arts music program in 1976, Congress had just authorized
another multi-million-dollar increase in NEA funding. There was a special panel whose sole purpose was to consider how to grow the federal role in the arts and spend more of the agency’s money. That panel had just determined that it was time to begin supporting chamber music. I was assigned to draft guidelines for this new support and ultimately witnessed the launching of Chamber Music America.

In those days there were no road maps for national arts funding. For that matter, there were no road maps or practices in place for leading the extraordinary growth of the American orchestra. Our “elders” took a kind of “make it up as you go” approach, and it usually worked. There seemed to be no limits to how far the spirit of optimism, invention, and creativity could carry us.

Back then America was still playing cultural catch-up with the rest of the world. Our cultural advancement was a
national priority, as evidenced not only by the growing government role, but also by enormous private-sector investments. During the late ’60s the Ford Foundation invested $80.2 million ($427.4 million in today’s dollars) to grow orchestras. All the performing arts figured regularly on network television. With the eventual rise of public television, America’s largest corporations jumped on the arts bandwagon with major broadcast sponsorships.

Now fast-forward to today, when America’s cultural priorities, methods of communication, demographic makeup,
and position in the world are all in flux. While millions of people still listen to orchestras at concerts, on the radio, and on the Internet, the orchestral growth spurt has slowed drastically. Few orchestras are lengthening seasons or adding concerts at rates like those of the past. Concert attendance is flattening as cultural options multiply and tastes change.

Those who heard management guru and Good to Great author Jim Collins speak at a small luncheon at the National Performing Arts Convention in Denver last spring will recall three questions Collins believes organizations must ask in dealing with change and turbulence. They are: What is changing in the world; what
few changes are fundamentally upsetting your ability to carry out your mission; and what do those changes mean for how you will adapt?

Two big developments remind orchestras that our world has changed dramatically from the good old days.
First, we can no longer assume that our society will automatically generate sufficient numbers of people to support and attend concerts at the levels necessary to sustain the current volume of activity. In fact, it is probably wise to assume the opposite. Interested readers may want to read Princeton sociologist Paul DiMaggio’s research that showed correlations between a generation’s concert attendance while in college and
its attendance habits later in life. The research suggests that baby boomers are less likely to attend concerts than earlier cohorts of that age group. (“Arts participation as cultural capital in the United States, 1982-2002: signs of decline?” by Paul DiMaggio and Toqir Mukhtar in Poetics, April 2004.)

The second dramatic development is that we no longer occupy the seat of honor at America’s vast multicultural
table. In fact, many of us have to fight to get a seat at all. This is not because orchestras have lost their meaning and ability to inspire and delight—just look at the hundreds of thousands of young people playing in youth orchestras every year—but rather the result of multiple changes across our cultural and media spectrum, including a dizzying array of new choices that compete for our leisure time.

So what should we do differently?
We can learn something about this challenge from our colleagues in the museum world. In an article entitled
“From Being about Something to Being for Somebody” in the summer 1999 issue of Daedalus, the late museum scholar Stephen Weil describes how his field confronted a similar challenge after the tremendous growth spurt of the 1960s and ’70s. A number of things came together at once: a drop in government support; a need to assure corporate sponsors and other funders that programs would attract a wide audience; and a new
mentality among nonprofits and funders calling for results-based accountability. At first these changes led organizations to embrace more professional management and greater fiscal responsibility. Then, when influential philanthropies like the United Way began to evaluate grantees based on their “ability to make a positive difference in the quality of individual or communal lives,” museums began to follow suit. The upshot of it all, writes Weil, was that during the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, museums “moved beyond their intense inward focus on their collections toward a broader institutional emphasis on public service and education.”

They moved from being merely about great art to being for nurturing people’s relationships to that art.

Orchestras today seem to be making a similar adaptation. They are shifting from a focus on the intrinsic, self-evident value of repertoire to a greater concern for the listener’s experience and for music’s potential to have an impact on community. For example, many orchestras are making powerful new statements about
their social as well as artistic contributions to civic life. The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director, Esa-Pekka
Salonen, says that “We aim to be at the center of the artistic life of Los Angeles.” The Memphis Symphony Orchestra’s mission statement captures the orchestra’s aspiration toward a dramatic new relationship with community: “The MSO is committed to creating meaningful experiences for the citizens of Memphis through music.” The language of these statements is crucial: It is outward-looking while providing important information
to the public about the identity of the orchestras, what they offer, and how they contribute to the public good.

We must rethink our assumptions about why we matter and what value we provide to the public, and we must
clearly communicate that value. In the good old days our much-touted vision of achieving “artistic excellence” was sufficient to capture the imagination of audiences, funders, and the media. Today, while no one argues with the desire to strive for excellence, the performance of great classical music may no longer suffice
as the sole raison d’être for institutions that draw so heavily on community resources—unless these institutions also can demonstrate convincingly to public and opinion leaders who may not choose to attend concerts why performing this music betters people’s lives.

“The emerging public-service oriented museum,” writes Weil, “must see itself not as a cause but as an instrument… Responsiveness to the community, consistent with the professional standards of its field, must be understood not as a surrender but as a fulfillment.”

How can this thinking help orchestras adapt to the changes in our culture? By taking into account the needs and values of today’s audiences.

For example, when Delta David Gier, music director of the South Dakota Symphony, included a Pulitzer Prizewinning work on each program in the orchestra’s 2005-06 season, he was doing more than making interesting programs. He was reflecting and fostering a value in his audience—the value of being aware of and knowledgeable about extraordinary individual achievement in the international arena.

When you place new orchestral repertoire squarely in that context, listeners can move beyond a mere “thumbs
up/thumbs down” reaction to a new work, or a reflexive comparison with the old war horses. They can ask questions about how today’s achievements in composition are similar or different from contemporary currents in theater, art, or even science. They can begin to view music as part of a larger stream of culture and ideas,
as it was in Mozart’s, Beethoven’s, and Schoenberg’s time.

Here’s another example. When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra hired stage director Gerard McBurney as
its artistic programming advisor, the orchestra acknowledged that the artistic work of the orchestra has now advanced into new terrain: going beyond concert programs that had intrinsic musical logic to explicating meaning and context for a public thirsting for a new and different connection. The multi-media “Beyond the Score” series developed by McBurney and the CSO’s vice president for artistic planning and audience development, Martha Gilmer, contextualizes major works while exemplifying the highest standards of artistry: The programs are virtuosic, well-proportioned and paced, highly informative, and emotionally riveting.

Interestingly, no conductor was involved in the design and creation of the CSO programs. Indeed, to be more responsive orchestras may also need new mindsets, skills, and personnel. Yet these projects were carried off with no diminution in commitment to the highest standards of performance. We do not have to “dumb down” our programs in order to entice new listeners or to deepen the experience of our current audiences.

As Weil noted, artistic programs can elicit a wide range of potential outcomes: “educational, experiential,
recreational, social—but often subtle, indirect, frequently cumulative over time, intertwined with the impact of
other sources of formal and informal educational experiences.” To demonstrate the effectiveness of our programs orchestras will need to acquire new skills for identifying and describing these impacts on audiences and on communities.

The League is helping orchestras to acquire these skills. We recently launched a new Civic Engagement Orchestra Assessment resource that furnishes orchestras with a disciplined framework for evaluating their community relationships. We developed this tool in close consultation with representatives from
more than 50 orchestras and with experts from related fields. The framework consists of a series of questions that provoke discussion of an orchestra’s artistic, civic, and educational profile and that prompt actions to build strength in the community.

So back to the good old days. What do we hold on to?

“Back then,” leaders were creative, imaginative, and closely in touch with current realities. They possessed a
spirit of optimism that was pragmatic without being dogmatic. Yet the musical possibilities of our time seem even greater. We seem to be in a moment of extraordinary musical richness and diversity, and the public’s changing tastes and preferences suggest countless new opportunities for engagement.

Each orchestra will make its own choices, but let none of us be constrained by routine practices and outmoded
questions. Let’s embrace our changing and expanding roles with the new skills, structures, and personnel we
need to fully capitalize on these new opportunities. We have to consider the possibility that the roles of conductors, music directors, and education directors as we traditionally have defined them no longer are adequate to meet the expanding demands on today’s orchestras. And let each orchestra ground its purpose in the identity of its unique artistic and community roots.

Finally, let us renew our spirit of creativity by asking whom we are for, not just what we are about. This is the
approach that we at the League believe will enable orchestras to create “good new days,” and to flourish as vital and essential elements of American cultural life for decades to come.