Just like Rip Van Winkle, American orchestras have been asleep for twenty years. Season after season of the same repertoire, played again and again for generations until the idea of an orchestra participating in modern musical life seems outrageous. Last week, the League of American Orchestras focused their annual conference around the idea of “Imagining Orchestras in 2023.” You see, orchestras have at last begun waking up — and they do not know where their audience went. Yet in an industry where many orchestras are already planning their 2018 season, 2023 is not so far away.
If American orchestras continue to deem change as something that happens at a pace that can be measured in decades they will lose even more market share, and they will suffer further diminished artistic relevancy. After all, even when an orchestra actually does something new it is perceived as a single event, rather than a new approach to presenting art. Worse, by waiting to change the dogma surrounding their repertoire and presentation they soon will lose an important generation of potential audience members, the Millennials.
That’s a pity, because there is no reason to suspect that the appeal and popularity of orchestras, and large form symphonic music, cannot be increased to considerably larger demographics. After all, we are speaking about an industry where one-thousand unit sales constitutes a major classical record. One-thousand people. And it’s worth noticing that while the share of classical records in the market is perhaps 3%, maybe less, in 1997 the Titanic soundtrack (an orchestral film score) was released as a classical album and that single record amounted to 12% of the total business in the classical sector for that particular year. American orchestras should have rushed to play that music on their regular subscription concerts — perhaps with other music from 1910, or a sea-themed concert, or even simply a James Horner evening with a little Shostakovich. However, predictably all most orchestras learned from the massive popularity of that album of orchestral music was that they must be sure never to program that sort of music, people might come to the concert.
If this were politics, then from a programming perspective American symphony orchestras are run by the Tea Party — the most conservative of musical minds. Yet, the market tells us that orchestras need to program more diverse music, now, and do it from a place of artistic cohesion. After all, people don’t know what they want until you give it to them. Just ask Apple. It has been said that orchestras are like giant ships that can only change direction slowly. That may be, but much of the change needed is simply pragmatically changing the presentation of current repertoire. Orchestras already play a range of genres, but too often they are segregated into various concert series, such as Classical and Pops, that divide and diminish both the development of the art form and the development of new audiences. Orchestras must begin programming all genres of symphonic music together, and in so doing make themselves a much larger part of American culture.
To that end, management cannot be solely responsible for the future of orchestras. A growing part of the solution requires orchestra musicians to expand their minds as artists. Knowing Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Berio is not enough anymore. Ignorance of popular culture is no longer acceptable for 21st century musicians, especially in regard to new orchestral music. It is already crazy that one has to explain Twitter to the proud luddites that populate many orchestras. Despite the existing orchestral culture that celebrates ignorance of technology as a point of honor, that ignorance is in fact a handicap. Everyone in the classical industry, especially orchestras, should embrace new technology just the same as they should embrace all of the new orchestral genres, like video game music. One can’t dream of the future if one only sees the past.
Happily there are examples of some orchestras who are stepping towards the light. The Pacific Symphony has shown itself to be really creative, such as in this Thriller/Rite mashup. The Detroit Symphony continues to blaze a trail for others with online streaming of concerts, including interesting commentary and interviews. The Brooklyn Philharmonic’s latest concert, with Erykah Badu, was so popular that an additional performance had to be added.
Still, most American orchestras lag far behind even these first steps. Had they been more inclusive, and interested in the culture they inhabit, this transition would seem less abrupt. However, the many great orchestras of the U.S. have been asleep for a long time, and the modern audience has higher expectations than ever before. And importantly, orchestras need a larger audience than ever before. So let us not look to 2023 to imagine what orchestras will be like, let’s look at right now. This season. There is no time to wait. In fact, there’s no time at all.