Tough times ahead for US orchestras

By Vincent Dowd
BBC World Service, Rochester, New York State

image captionThe Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra employs 104 full-time musicians

The US has no shortage of orchestras and classical concerts are often well-attended. So why do the doom-mongers insist the long-term outlook is bleak?

On a warm summer evening at Ontario Beach, a few minutes before concert time, the crowds might seem to offer reassurance for those running the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.

Deck chairs around the bandstand are filled with RPO fans waiting to hear a group of musicians who have been a big part of city life since 1922.

Tonight, in honour of the Olympics, it's a mainly British programme, featuring Walton and Elgar.

Out on Lake Ontario, boats bob under a clear blue sky. The boardwalk bustles. People line up at hand-carts to buy a "frozen custard", the local ice-cream. Here and there children laze in the grass.

Rochester is only a few hours drive north of Manhattan but it seems a different world.

Yet the Philharmonic's CEO, Charlie Owens, knows that behind the apparent idyll problems loom. In the audience are plenty of grey-haired couples in their 70s - but few people under 45.

"The Rochester Philharmonic struggles with the same structural issues which orchestras many times our size also face," he says.

"This is an inherently inefficient art-form: At least half our budget goes on personnel. As tastes change in America - and perhaps not just in America - the struggle gets harder.

"Classical music has become more marginalised."


The RPO is, however, surviving. It is Owens' achievement that he has avoided financial losses for the last two years, though that meant painful cuts to salaries and appearance fees.

Last year, the neighbouring Syracuse Symphony Orchestra closed completely, unable to fund pension and other commitments.

The Honolulu Symphony and New Mexico Symphony had already gone under, and other respected mid-level orchestras face difficult times.

image captionThe Philadelphia Orchestra is expected to emerge from bankruptcy protection later this month

Yet, in a way, more serious was the news last year that the mighty Philadelphia had become the first major US orchestra to file for protective Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Founded in 1900, the Philadelphia is one of America's so-called "Big Five", offering standards to match ensembles anywhere in the world. Its chief conductors have included big stars such as Leopold Stokowski and Riccardo Muti.

But almost all US orchestras rely heavily on business donations, endowments and the stock market: The "fabulous Philadephians" are only the best-known of those finding that, in tough times, the sums may no longer add up.

Financially, the Rochester Philharmonic isn't in the same league - a fact for which Charlie Owens may be grateful. Its origins lie in the vast wealth of George Eastman, the founder of Kodak. Until recently, Kodak dominated Rochester but it's now a shadow of its former self.

Today the RPO's income is roughly 40% from ticket-sales, 40% from membership and donations, 10% from its endowment fund and about 4% from government grants (federal, state and city combined).

Many other US orchestras are in much the same position. They're far more reliant on individual and business philanthropy than most European equivalents.

In a strong economy, the system works well, but a business slump can threaten disaster: Sponsorship shrivels and investments produce a poorer return.

Charlie Owens believes orchestras will ride out the worst of the business cycle. What worries him more is that, to the grandchildren of lifelong RPO patrons, classical music seems unimportant.

The orchestra has recently appointed the Norwegian conductor Arild Remmereit as music director. Part of his job will be to encourage a new generation of concert-goers.

"It's the same basic story everywhere," says Mr Owens. "Younger people lead their lives differently now. To be online is everything. But it will be a tragedy if they lose contact with classical music.

"We care so deeply here in Rochester about the ability of music to be not just a form of entertainment but incredibly moving - to reach people at a spiritual level even in hard times. Maybe especially in hard times."

'Huge challenges'

In New York. Jesse Rosen runs the League of American Orchestras, keeping an eye on the big picture.

"Ultimately, America still has around 350 professional orchestras," he notes. "It's a lot." (his tally includes orchestras whose music director and staff may be paid but not all the players.)

"And that's not counting youth and amateur orchestras: There are up to 1,700 of them."

But Mr Rosen agrees there are huge challenges.

"It's exactly the same for movies or sport. Live classical music is a product delivered at a fixed time and place which you have to show up at… And which you had no part in creating.

"There's now a whole generation which is used to curating its own content - and to getting everything on demand on a laptop or iPad. Old-style classical concerts don't fit that model.

image captionModern venues like Miami's New World Center might point the way forward

"If you look at new sports stadiums here in New York, they're competing to supply the best gourmet foods. They've accepted that the nature of the physical live experience is now much more than just the sport. The concert world can learn from that.

"New audiences aren't so attracted by traditional venues like Carnegie Hall - they have perfect acoustics but don't offer much social space.

"But take the New World Center which opened last year in Miami [designed by Frank Gehry]. It's partly transparent and it uses huge 'wallcasts' to show what's going on inside."

Jesse Rosen thinks the future of America's orchestras has little to do with repertoire as such.

"Research shows that what's actually played is seldom a negative factor in the audience experience. New audiences don't necessarily want to hear different music but they may want to experience it differently.

"I remember going to The Tristan Project here in New York at the Lincoln Center. It was a collaboration between the LA Philharmonic and the video artist Bill Viola, which split Wagner's opera over three nights.

"There were video projections behind the orchestra throughout. And it was a sell-out because young people loved it.

"I think the visual is an increasingly important element of what people enjoy in their cultural experiences. And to survive as the years go by we're going to need more of that kind of innovation."

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