Podcast Report: American Orchestra Forum – Chapter 1

The American Orchestra Forum was an initiative by the San Francisco Symphony during its 2011-2012 centennial season and consisted of probing conversations with representatives from seven of America’s leading orchestras: Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony. During these meetings, a series of podcasts were recorded and released to iTunes. The next few blog posts on this website will be reports and summaries of those discussions, annotated with my thoughts and other background information.

Chapter One: Historic Context of the American Orchestra features content from October 23, 2011 with moderator Steven Winn and speakers Neil Harris and Jesse Rosen. Steven Winn is an award-winning journalist and author at the San Francisco Chronicle. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and has conducted 20 onstage interviews with San Francisco’s City Arts & Lecture Series. After receiving his doctorate and serving as an assistant professor at Harvard, Neil Harris moved to the University of Chicago to become a professor of history and art history. He received a National Foundation for the Humanities fellowship and much of his writing focuses on art’s role as a social force in history. The League of American Orchestras was founded in 1942 and chartered by Congress in 1962. Led by president and CEO Jesse Rosen, the League of American Orchestras links a national network of thousands of instrumentalists, conductors, managers, administrators, board members, volunteers, and business partners. It is the only national organization dedicated solely to the orchestral experience, bringing together knowledge, innovation, advocacy, and leadership advancement.

Steven Winn opened the conversation:

“Launched with a 19th century need to assert their growing cities’ status with the established markers of European culture, major orchestras face a rising tide of social change…No ensemble that hopes to survive — and survive meaningfully — in a diverse and inclusive 21st century America can afford to float along on the methods and practices of the past.”

What is meaningful survival for an orchestra? On the surface, this survival may be a version of uninterrupted service: regular concerts with full ensembles and maintenance of the performance venues that their audiences have come to recognize and expect. Survival may also mean limiting or even eliminating community and educational outreach programs in order to provide for the more basic performance needs of the orchestra. Unfortunately, this type of step would most likely cause the American orchestra to appear even more elitist and unapproachable than it already does to the general public, and so survival in this way – if any – would be brief.

When orchestral personnel consider the survival of their ensemble, they consider the artistic means necessary to present quality performances. To be surviving meaningfully, an orchestra should be maintaining musicians of high caliber compared to that orchestra’s history, proper instrumentation for each composition, and appropriate compensation for performing artists so they can thoroughly prepare, practice, and rehearse for the orchestra concerts. Musicians, when considering the impact of an orchestra on a community, gladly assume that their audiences want the best that they have to offer and are happy to take responsibility – as highly educated and talented members of their field – for creating diverse and meaningful programs.

Musicians are often very interested in their audiences, not only for the financial role they play in health and well-being of an orchestra, but because audiences are an integral part of the performance medium. Audiences energize concerts and validate performances. Because of this, musicians are acutely aware of the need to attract new audiences and maintain the interests of younger generations. Musicians breathe life into an orchestra’s community and educational outreach programs, and they show great interest in the cultural needs of their society.

There are many orchestras who survive today through the most basic parts of survival: concerts and venues. However, many orchestras are looking for a “quick fix” approach to survival and losing sight of the values of music that attracted them to the profession. Reduced concert offerings, entire programs of popular music, and gimmicks that overshadow the need for a deep understanding of classical music’s historical role in our society are not the answer in this quest for meaningful survival. Instead, orchestras need to find a way to bridge old values with new ideas.

Neil Harris:

“A lot of our history is local history…it is what communities make of themselves and it’s interesting to note…that many American orchestras were founded in a 20 or 30 year period —  just really the decades preceding 1911 and just afterward — and I think the role of the community there is, in effect, to credential it by the founders of the orchestra. What does a real city need to have in order to make claims that it is a “real” city? One of the things at the turn of the century was an orchestra.”

What makes a “real” city today? How many of them are left in our country? Are orchestras still important markers of culture, innovation, tradition, and prosperity in a city the way they were 100 years ago? Although a symphony orchestra performance may not top the tourist guidebook lists, an orchestra is still a very important entity in a metropolitan area because the health of an orchestra reflects the political, social, economic, and cultural health of a city.

Neil Harris went on to describe the establishment of two important orchestras – The San Francisco Symphony and the Chicago Symphony – as markers of “Phoenix cities,” cities that experienced a compelling desire for rebirth. Both Chicago (following the 1871 Chicago Fire) and San Francisco (following the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake) needed ways to demonstrate that their cities were getting back on their feet, and the formation of these orchestras did just that. Even recently, the Louisiana Philharmonic symbolized renewal of New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 with the reopening of its concert hall.

Jesse Rosen spoke on the transformational change that orchestra musicians experienced during the 20th century:

“The 1930s were a tremendous period for orchestras under the Works Progress Administration– 11 orchestras were either founded or restarted in the WPA program. After the second world war and moving into the 1950s and 60s, what we began to see happening was a movement to institutionalize the performing arts and to raise professional standards and elevate the performing artist as a legitimate citizen who was entitled to a living wage and a season of music making. This was the galvanizing idea about American orchestras for a very long time.”

This idea of high professional standards and performing artists as legitimate working citizens is still being questioned today as we see orchestras being locked out by management, seasons being cancelled, and local governments retracting financial support. Unfortunately, musicians are once again being seen as inferior to those in executive and political offices mainly because the average person is not invested enough in the well-being of their community’s orchestra to find and analyze all information in a given circumstance.

Steven Winn adds:

“Spurred by the post-WW2 boom in American education and the rise of the affluent and aspiring middle class, music flourished and spread. Big cities were no longer the exclusive private reserves for orchestras…people heard Bach, Copland, and Stravinsky on the radio and watched concerts on TV. Wherever they lived…they longed for music in their own communities.”

“Bolstered by the visionary and generous grants of the Ford Foundation in the 1960s, the number of orchestras and orchestral concerts increased dramatically. Today, there are some 1,800 orchestras in the United States attended by 25 million people annually. About 90% of those ensembles — according to the League of American Orchestras — have relatively modest budgets, under $5 million.”

Jesse Rosen continued on this topic:

“There’s something about the smaller scale of these 100s and 100s of orchestras that make them somehow easily woven into the fabrics of their communities. Our larger orchestras — which play on an international stage –are in some ways more challenged to maintain both international artistic standards, touring schedules, a lot of resource into core subscription activity, while at the same time developing meaningful work in their community.”

“It is important to set the record straight and recognize the enormous strides orchestras have made to become more far reaching cultural citizens…Thirteen American orchestras are combining instrumental instruction with social justice in disadvantaged neighborhoods… Meanwhile, the world was changing, and our country was changing in terms of who lived in it, who lived in the neighborhoods our concert halls were in, who was populating our country, and what our sensibilities were about what it meant to be a non-profit organization in contemporary America.”

Indeed, almost every orchestra today has some sort of community or educational outreach plan ranging from discounted senior or student tickets to youth symphonies with professional coaches to free performances in the community to music education programs. Though the settlement house movement is no longer being practiced and no longer being able to offer orchestras as a way to integrate people and generations, one remnant of the settlement house movement is the Settlement Music School, founded in 1908 when members of the Philadelphia Orchestra offered to provide lessons for College Settlement children. Expanding to include all interested applicants, the Settlement Music School provided instruction for thousands of Delaware Valley Children. In 2013, there were branches in Philadelphia, Willow Grove, and Camden, NJ. Similarly, El Sistema programs (Play on Philly!, OrchKids, YOLA, Harmony Projects, etc) bring high level musicians into high needs communities to teach instrumental music and ensemble skills to children who would otherwise not have access to such instruction.

New York Philharmonic Conductor Alan Gilbert comments on the role that he hopes that the NYP can fill in one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world:

“Even for people who don’t go to concerts, my ambition is for them to feel a sense of civic pride that the New York Philharmonic is an internationally-recognized cultural focal point, and it is particularly hard in New York because there is so much going on. In any given week you can choose between 3, 4, or 5 different orchestras…We are very actively trying to be not “an orchestra in New York,” but “New York’s orchestra.’”

During this forum discussion, a question came in on Twitter from an audience member:

“Do orchestras still credential their cities?”

Neil Harris believes that they very much do:

“One very good example of that is in Pittsburgh: periodically there are trips made to Europe and Asia to introduce the city of Pittsburgh as a hospitable place to set up a business, and these trips usually conclude with musicians from the Pittsburgh Symphony and their staff who go along and speak to the fact that this is a city that has a symphony and so it is a symbol of pride and a symbol of richness.”

That the Pittsburgh Symphony is also a phenomenal ensemble with impressive concert offerings and a stable operating budget makes this example of an orchestra credentialing their city even more impressive.

Jesse Rosen concluded this chapter with a statement about the multiple layers of responses from music lovers and the experiences that people have when attending concerts:

“One [of the responses] had to do with intellectual stimulation, another had to do with a sense of group identity, another had a spirituality, another a sense of community, a generally social sense of being part of something with other people…We need people in our society to be stimulated and to experience beauty, to also have experiences that they — and this is unique to our art form — can’t put into words.”


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