Show Me the Money

It is worth noticing that the desire for ideas to address the symphony’s problems comes almost exclusively from its shortage of funding. Traditionalists in the symphony would ideally like to solve the money problem, while maintaining the status quo. When the budget is balanced, few of them notice the artistic stagnation. The symphony needs to think bigger. The goal of change needs to be more than producing short-term economic sustainability. The goal must be achieving cultural relevance. Relevance leads to funding. Without it, finding funding will always be limited to muddling through the latest financial crisis.

It has been so long since the symphony has had anything to do with the larger American culture that it is easy to accuse those asking for relevance of selling out. Attempts to widen the symphony’s scope are viewed by traditionalists as diminishing the Art. To them, concerts cannot be both serious and popular at the same time. The idea of changing how the symphony presents its concerts is offensive to them, because it concedes that the fault for irrelevancy rests on the symphony rather than on the audience.

There are many models for how not-for-profit arts groups can fund their activities. In the United States, however, it is pie-in-the-sky thinking to hope for substantial government funding. Government’s support fluctuates from year to year, but will never fully fund a symphony in America; nor can ticket sales, even at full capacity. The pragmatic truth is that the bulk of funding must come from private donors and foundations.

Because it has modeled itself as a mausoleum rather than a performing arts institution, there are fewer private donors who are inclined to help maintain the symphony. The symphony’s funding problems existed long before the most recent financial crisis, and without change, these problems will continue into the future. It is therefore in the symphony’s own self-interest to become relevant to a larger audience in order to build a larger donor base.

Relevance also gives something for the rest of the organization to work with. The marketing department will have content to sell. The board will have something tangible to point to in its search for funding. The organization itself will be more attractive to other new sources of collaboration. With the goal in mind of being artistically relevant, which is not completely unlike being popular, the orchestra needs to change how it presents Art. This would give the institution a stable base of support, and at the same time makes it matter to the audience, and thus the community.

It is absurd to expect any sort of meaningful change in the public’s relationship with the symphony without actually changing something about the concerts. The concert experience itself, the thing that happens at eight o’clock on a Saturday night, is what needs to be examined. There are two aspects of the symphony’s concerts which should be addressed immediately: the concert hall traditions, and the repertoire.

The symphony must make the experience of sitting and listening to long-form music as enjoyable and fulfilling as possible. Concerts need to take place in the present, not as an imitation of the past. For too long, concerts have been museums of expired traditions. The ritualistic bowing, the coat-tails, the awkward silences, the bad lighting: all these bad apples are barriers to the modern audience’s enjoyment of the music. The protocol of bowing, tuning, and applause should be updated and refined. Lighting should be used to better present the orchestra throughout the concert and to dictate updated protocol, like applause. The orchestra should wear modern clothing (such as suit and tie) and let go of the nineteenth-century evening wear.

The symphonic music that is relevant to Americans is the very music that most symphonies refuse to present seriously: Film and Broadway music. This music is not only distinctly American music, it is also the symphonic music that speaks to the absent audience. And frankly, it is where the vast majority of living compositional talent lay. Composers are professionals, and the best go to places where they are well paid. Traditionalists may disapprove of the direction the symphonic art has gone (or, of collaborative art in general), but art does not need the establishment’s approval to grow and change. It continues as part of peoples’ lives whether the symphony plays it or not. Art does not wait for traditionalists to catch up, and neither will the audience. This is not to say that simply programming film music will address the myriad problems the symphony faces. However, creatively allowing this music to mingle with classical music, with Broadway music, modern music (art music), and video game music creates possibilities for programs that have both relevance and beauty. This, in combination with revising concert hall traditions, is how to start making symphonic concerts relevant in the twenty-first century.

The audience no longer trusts the symphony’s artistic judgment. They must be won back and shown that the symphony can present Art that speaks to them without condescension. The social structures built around the symphony are only traditions. Saying that “we’ve always done it this way” is not an argument, it is an admission of fear. The symphony should be brave!

Classical music is a top-down industry and a valid worry among smaller symphonies is that if they embrace meaningful change they will lose their artistic credibility among their peers, critics, and donors. Leadership needs to come from the major orchestras in order to lend credibility to a new direction. If a mid-level symphony starts wearing business suits, hires a lighting designer, reformats the concert, and offers more varied and popular repertoire, it is selling out. If the New York Philharmonic does it, it is the new direction of the art. We must learn to think with a larger world-view, and expect the artistic staff at the major orchestras to lead the way. Their stubborn inaction suffocates the entire industry.