2014: A Great Year for Orchestras (or haven’t you heard?)

by Bruce Ridge, Chairman: International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM)

In almost every article about orchestras, no matter how positive the news being reported might be, there seems to be some obligation to include a sentence that says something along the lines of “this good news is in contrast to the dire situations facing orchestras across the country.” Unfortunately, this only serves to emphasize a stereotype that fits into the interminably repeated rhetoric of the “death of classical music.” 

Bruce Ridge

Bruce Ridge

A recent article in the Detroit News reported that the Detroit Symphony just announced its second consecutive year of balanced budgets, and finished this fiscal year with a surplus. The article also reported increased attendance, increased ticket revenue, and an increase in the number of individual donors.

Still, it included the obligatory disclaimer: “Given the miserable environment for orchestras nationwide, this (news) is particularly encouraging.”

I would suggest that this miserable environment, so often referenced and unchallenged, is highly exaggerated if it exists at all. 

They say that orchestras are dying, but the San Antonio Symphony celebrated its 75th anniversary and moved into its new concert hall, the Tobin Center. 

They say that attendance is declining, but the Florida Orchestra saw a 30% increase in attendance, and the Buffalo Philharmonic set a record for subscription sales.

They say that contributions to orchestras are diminishing, but the Los Angeles Philharmonic received a $20 million gift, and the Chicago Symphony received the two largest gifts in its history, totaling over $32 million.

And, they say that audiences are aging, but The Cleveland Orchestra saw paid attendance by college age students rise 50 percent, while twice as many attendees were under the age of 18 as in the previous season.

We understand that it is the nature of the press to report negative stories. In fact, reporting on the “death” of institutions across the American landscape is a bit of a pastime. Google “the death of TV”, or “the death of film”, or even “the death of the NFL” and you’ll find rhetoric similar to that used to describe the assumed faltering future of orchestras.

But why does this matter? It is because the greatest threat to a thriving future for the arts in America is the persistent and seemingly unchallenged negative rhetoric about the future of the arts in America. 

Despite the tired clichés about the impending demise of classical music, 2014 proved a great year for orchestras.

In view of these facts, it is hard to understand how anyone would feel obliged to call this “a miserable environment.” Such negative coverage, though inevitable owing to the nature of the press that perpetually leads with negatives, undermines our future. But, it is really nothing new. The rhetoric that insists that the sky is falling for orchestras has been around for decades. It has become its own tradition in a field filled with traditions.

An article from United Press International, titled 25 Orchestras Doomed to Die, forecast the demise of multiple symphony orchestras throughout America. This is quite alarming, except this article was published in 1970, and the predictions have been proven wrong for over forty years.

It went on to say (remember, in 1970) that "orchestras have one alternative to going out of business." They must "reshape - either by reducing the size of orchestras…or by shortening seasons."

Does any of this sound familiar?

We have a document written by the president of the board of the Chicago Symphony, who said:

"The (Chicago Symphony) now must solve a problem which has arisen from economic conditions beyond its control. A deficit has been incurred, and undoubtedly there will be annual deficits for some years to come. This affects the future of the orchestra…Our problem does not differ in kind from the financial problem that faces each of the major orchestras in the United States."

This is especially troubling isn't it?... that an orchestra as great as the Chicago Symphony could face this predicament. I would be more concerned had this not been written in April, 1940.

There is one great sentence in this 1940 document though. In a message that everyone in our field should heed, especially today, the board chair stated:

"We cannot reduce our expenses below our present level without seriously endangering our standard of symphony music, which would soon result in endangering our principal source of income."

None of this is meant to dismiss that there have been difficulties for the field. Just as many businesses suffered from the effects of the 2008 recession, so have orchestras. But the true story to be told is how resilient our orchestras have been in recovering and emerging from the economic downturn. Even some orchestras that sadly had to suspend operations are being revitalized as they reorganize in a more positive environment.

Other businesses suffer similar difficulties. After all, it is said that 90% of restaurants fail in their first year of business, but no one uses that statistic to claim that Americans no longer like to eat.

Some of the successes we are seeing have been made possible by the sacrifices of musicians during difficult times. Now that we are seeing improved finances for many orchestras, sustained growth can only be achieved by reinvesting in the musicians who have demonstrated such dedication to their communities.

The difficulties we have seen speak to the need for a greater investment in our orchestras and the musicians who keep them vital. Our orchestras are among the most prominent artistic institutions in our nation, and the non-profit arts and culture industry in America is a $135 billion dollar business that supports over 4.13 million American jobs. The role of music in education and health is undisputed, and the musicians of our orchestras selflessly serve our communities by enhancing the benefits derived by the presence of a world-class performing arts institution.

Classical performers are everywhere. This year saw Renee Fleming sing before a world-wide audience at the Super Bowl, bringing positive attention to the world of opera. And in October, Joyce DiDonato and the Kansas City Symphony performed before Game 6 of the World Series, demonstrating the indispensible value that orchestra has to its city. People sometimes like to bemoan that there aren’t many classical artists on TV, and they point to the fact that Johnny Carson used to occasionally host opera singers and instrumentalists. But how great was it to see Jessye Norman on David Letterman’s show on November 21? And his announced successor, Stephen Colbert, has welcomed classical artists on his program over the years including Placido Domingo, Yo Yo Ma, Philip Glass, Itzhak Perlman, Lorin Maazel and even classical music critic Alex Ross!

In 2014, reports included that the endowment for the St. Louis Symphony rose by $14 million. The Cincinnati Symphony saw a growth in its endowment of 43%, along with a 94% increase in the number of gifts since 2009 and a double digit increase in attendance. And, the Philadelphia Orchestra reported increased attendance and ticket revenue.

Our orchestras do not exist in a “miserable environment.” They exist, and thrive, in an environment of pure inspiration. Surely, some orchestras will encounter difficulties as we move forward, but there will be far more successes, and far more evenings of music that will uplift our audiences, serve the business environment of our nation, and educate the next generation. These are the truths to be told, and these are the truths musicians will continue to tell…both through our music and through our dedication to our communities.