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AMERICAN ORCHESTRAS:
PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE
 
For many years, most of the 1980s and 1990s, the concert repertoire of
America's orchestras was depressingly "Top 200": predictable, focused on
name-brand composers and soloists, and dull, dull, dull.  Despite grants for
commissions, Meet The Composer's subsidies for composers-in-residence, etc.,
most new music was either played once and dropped, short works buried between
sure-fire war horses, or ghettoized on under-promoted all-contemporary
programs.  The "code" was easy: if a composer just had a last name (Mozart,
Rachmaninoff, etc.) the music was reliably safe; if a composer had a first
name (John Adams, Richard Danielpour, Joan Tower) the warning was understood.
 
In 1985 the audience equation changed.  Until then, the orchestras could
reliably expect about 20% to 22% of the college-educated professional classes
to begin attending regularly (three or more times per year) once they hit the
ages of between 38 and 42 years-old.  This formula was reliable across the
nation, *in spite of* new arts centers, competition from other entertainments
and media, aggressive (and expensive) marketing, and increased governmental,
corporate and foundation funding.  Given population increases and massive
growth in the college-educated professional classes both in total and as a
percentage of the total population, times were good and -- despite some
well-publicized financial collapses (which started and established in the
public mind the myth that the live performing arts were failing) -- audiences
grew nationwide. Total live attendance at the forty professional orchestras
in U.S. markets of more than 900,000 metropolitan population (out of more
than 1,500 orchestras nationwide) grew to more than 23 million people a year
-- far exceeding the NFL's annual attendance of 16 million for all games, as
well as the combined attendance for professional basketball and hockey
combined.
 
What happened in 1985?  It was then that the unprecendentedly large Baby Boom
generation began to enter the 38-42 year-old age that had once signified the
entry to arts participation.  For whatever reason -- this generation's
commitment to its own music, their unwillingness to kow tow to the accepted
wisdom of their parents, greater participation of women in the workforce,
whatever -- they attend orchestra concerts at roughly half the rate of their
predecessors.  The great size of this generational cohort has masked the
severe drop-off, so total attendance nationwide has remained relatively
static.  But those who recognize that "demography is destiny" realize that a
great blow-off is coming in the middle of the second decade of the new
Century.  This is when the Boomer's children will reach the magic 38-42
year-old age bracket.  Unless there is some radical change in participation
percentages, the numbers look bleak.  I predict that, outside of major metro
"arts tourism" centers like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, etc., most
orchestras without massive $50 million+ endowments (Pittsburgh, Minneapolis,
Dallas, Cincinnati and Indianapolis are among the well endowed) will rapidly
disappear.  Orchestras in Detroit, Milwaukee, Portland (OR), Denver, Phoenix,
Houston, all of Florida, Salt Lake City, San Diego, Columbus, New Jersey,
Louisville, Nashville, St. Louis, Kansas City, San Antonio, N. Carolina,
Charlotte, Memphis, New Orleans, Hawaii, Brooklyn, St. Paul and most
secondary markets like Grand Rapids, Richmond and Rhode Island, are already
-- 15 years out -- in deep trouble.
 
Something has happened, however, which might -- just maybe -- change this
Malthusian equation.  Starting with a controversial mid-90s report by the
American Symphony Orchestra League (ASOL) entitled "Americanizing the
Orchestra," these institutions have been enthusiastically realigning
themselves with their communities.  Educational activities have grown
exponentially, as have free concerts, collaborations with schools and
non-arts groups, public lobbying, and promotion directed at non-traditional
audiences, all designed to pulverize perceived barriers and create new
connections.  The ability of musicians and conductors to speak and teach
engagingly became as important as their performing skills.  The most
refreshing change has been in repertoire.  The old
"overture-concerto-symphony" programs are rapidly disappearing.  Themed
programs and programmatic festivals abound.  And, surprise surprise, new
music is selling big-time.  Here, Esa-Pekka Salonen's LA Philharmonic,
Michael Tilson-Thomas' San Francisco Symphony and Gerard Schwarz's Seattle
Symphony have shown the way.  Across the country orchestras are trying to
emulate their success with innovative programs filled with music that is new,
fresh and exciting.  Sure, some of this misfires (SF Symphony with
Metallica), but a lot of it is getting big press and big audiences, including
a lot of new faces.
 
This may just be the oft-seen last flowering before death, as seen in the
Romantic music of the first quarter of the 20th Century, and the stubborn
refusal of the analog LP medium to die on schedule, but it is too soon to
tell.  The support base of committed conductors and orchestra administrators
is in place, along with a good number of talented composers.  In the final
measure, it will be the ability of these and as-yet undiscovered composers to
make compelling, attractive music, which will finally determine if the
American orchestra thrives or fades to museum status.
 
- Rob Gold
 

Rob Gold is a performing arts administrator who has worked for 24 years in
marketing and concert production for major orchestras, including New Jersey,
Indianapolis and Detroit, as well as performing arts presenters and theaters.
He has consulted for over two dozen orchestras, arts centers and theaters on
marketing, customer service and ticketing systems implementation. He now
serves as Director of Marketing for Detroit's Meadow Brook Theatre,
Michigan's largest professional theater company (www.mbtheatre.com). Mr.
Gold's post to Phonogram, an on-line forum for vinyl record collectors, is
reprinted here with permission.
 
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