Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Debating the future

What does the future hold in store for orchestras and classical music in the United States?  Will they find new relevance or fade away, a relic of a dying (or perhaps dead) art form?

I'd like to think that with the right leadership, appropriate vision, and an understanding of how the public interfaces with art and music, orchestras will be able to find their niche. 

Thinking back, it was the Quad City Symphony which opened my ears to classical music and frankly, music generally.  As a kid I was mesmerized by the sound universe that the orchestra created.  When I became a young adult, I immediately remembered my time with the QCSO and actively sought to experience that universe all over again. 

No one helped me in this pursuit.  No one really cared that I was actively seeking out the Quad City Symphony's concerts.  For a period of time I went to everything. 

For a number of years orchestra ticket sales are generally in decline.  The audience is shrinking.  And administrators and lovers of the orchestra are wondering what to do. 

Nonetheless, I think the challenges facing the QCSO are not unique and the recent American Symphony Orchestra League Conference affirmed this observation by presenting a talk on how the old orchestra revenue model doesn't work, but that a new model does.  In essence, the League argues that orchestras have focused their energy on producing a product (concert performances of classical music) while simultaneously neglecting a path to orchestra sustainability (cultivating patrons). 

I think this is an appropriate critique of orchestras generally, though not applicable in all cases.  I wonder how many people are out there who are waiting to be brought into the classical music fold, who are potential long-term supporters of any orchestra, but don't know how to interface or haven't been effectively incented to interface with their local orchestra.

Baltimore's experimentation with programming (connecting pop culture and other media with classical music Beethoven CSI) and broad subscription subsidies might offer a partial model to lifting orchestras up.  Capitalizing on new media and the portability of music also has room for growth. 

Here again, a recent performance of the Rite of Spring was offered on iTunes and it quickly became a best seller.  Impossible to measure, that one recording may have pushed people toward the Baltimore Symphony than any direct mail or phone calling. 

Falling into the iTunes demographic, I am more inclined to check out a piece or an orchestra if I hear a recording first than if someone calls me on the phone to sell me tickets.  This season, I intend to check out the Seattle Symphony's performance of a piece of music called the Genesis Suite because of a recording I downloaded and nothing else.

Anyhow, orchestras must continue to produce great music, but the paradigm for how that music is delivered to a community and audiences needs to be examined.

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