Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Facing the music, finding the money

Michael Kaiser, president of Washington's Kennedy Center, writes for The Huffington Post that the cost structures of American symphony orchestras – dominated by musicians' and conductors' salaries and guest artists' fees – chronically outweigh the orchestras' ability to generate revenue through ticket sales and fund-raising.

"[R]adical restructuring can be avoided if musicians and administrators embark on a reasonable, long-term planning process that addresses marketing strategies, fundraising approaches, and artistic initiatives. In other words, plans for activities that build revenue. But this rarely happens. . . . Without a more enlightened discussion, orchestras are going to continue to fail or to reduce their levels of art and education," Kaiser writes:


The Washington Post's Anne Midgette likens the woes of classical-music institutions to those of daily newspapers. "The main problem is that both fields seem to be incapable of coming up with an actual new business model, in part because both fields are so deeply invested in their own traditions that they tend to confuse those traditions with their function," Midgette writes:


I’ve long thought that orchestras, especially those outside major cities and cultural centers, should adopt a model not unlike that of the old Kapelle, the musical establishments of royal courts and municipalities in pre-modern Central Europe. Musicians employed by these institutions gave orchestral and chamber concerts, played for opera, ballet and church services, and were the principal music teachers of their towns. This multi-platform employment scheme still exists in Europe, and less formally in many American cities, including Richmond and Norfolk, where symphony players also teach and work as theater and church musicians.

A promising twist in this country would be to add jazz to the performance-instructional mix. Symphony orchestras have all the instruments of jazz orchestras (a.k.a. big bands) except saxophones; and many symphony brass, percussion and keyboard musicians, as well as some string and reed players, are well-schooled in jazz. Add saxes to the roster, and the orchestra is as capable of playing Ellington as it is of playing Beethoven.

Building a jazz orchestra within a symphonic ensemble also addresses two issues that orchestras have been grappling with, not very successfully, for decades: Reinventing the dated and artistically feeble format of the pops concert (Arthur Fiedler died 30 years ago; the audience for his kind of programming is now dying off pretty rapidly); and making the orchestra relevant and welcoming to African-American musicians and listeners.

Another likely alteration to the symphony business model is making orchestras now classified as "regional" (based on their budgets, typically in the mid-seven figures) truly regional, performing in and drawing support from several cities or a whole state.

For decades, the business model of business has been one of consolidation into larger entities with longer reach – regional, national, global. Most members of symphony, opera, ballet and theater boards have experienced such consolidation in their own businesses and professions. That experience should temper hometown pride and other factors that have made arts groups averse to mergers.

The more slowly the U.S. economy recovers from the 2007-08 crash – and quick recovery, especially in employment numbers and property values, looks highly unlikely – the more financial stress will be felt by cultural institutions, and by educational institutions that indirectly support the arts by employing artists. Kaiser is correct in anticipating that many professional troupes in smaller cities will go under because their local base of support is too small to sustain them.

Virginia has two regional-class orchestras, the Richmond Symphony and Hampton Roads’ Virginia Symphony; smaller professional orchestras in Williamsburg, Virginia Beach, Roanoke and Fairfax; and more than a dozen community and university-based orchestras. The state’s population is 7 million, the fraction of which that attends classical-music events and contributes to classical-music organizations is large enough to support a major orchestra – comparable, say, to those of Baltimore, Atlanta or Dallas.

I doubt that a truly statewide orchestra will materialize. The Northern Virginia ensembles are part of the Washington cultural scene, and the performing-arts groups of the Roanoke-Blacksburg area have built a kind of mountain redoubt in Western Virginia (though not an impregnable one – Roanoke’s Mill Mountain Theatre is the biggest arts organization in the state, to date, to have shut down in this recession).

Still, in the arc of communities from Fredericksburg through Central Virginia to Hampton Roads, there is a sufficient base of audience and money to support a major orchestra, or at least a well-endowed regional. And ample financial incentive to consolidate into one, sooner rather than later.

The Richmond and Virginia symphonies should be talking merger – they should have started talking years ago; and the younger orchestras of Williamsburg and Virginia Beach should join the discussion.