The Symphony's Misconception

The unspoken truth behind why major American symphony orchestras have chronic funding shortfalls is that they have ceased giving concerts that interest and engage the modern audience. Some of those running the institutions know that change is needed, but often they run into resistance from more traditional-minded people. These traditionalists see the presentation of classical music as being the same thing as classical music itself. They feel that no real change can be made to the symphony’s concerts because they are trapped by this misunderstanding, which has become the dominant paradigm in American classical music. To them, the music should not only be played in a very specific way, but also presented in a very specific way. In this paradigm, when you change one, you change the other. This belief has led to a culture that is loath to change because they see the symphony orchestra’s artistic integrity wrapped up in how they present the music. The result is a kind of lecture-demonstration wrapped up in a concert experience from a century ago.

The League of American Orchestras released a recent study showing that for more than twenty-five years attendance rates have been dropping in all demographics. Symphony orchestras have been searching for reasons why. After all, in the minds of the orchestras, they are playing some of the best music in the world. If the audience isn’t coming, or returning, then it must be because the audience does not understand this Great Music. This attitude gives us educational “outreach” programs, and the still-prevalent practice of blaming the absent audience for various sins, from not having the right kind of schooling, to having a too-short attention span. Currently most orchestras encourage their prospective attendees to study the program notes before coming to the hall. Lecture-demonstration, indeed.

In the classical music industry, all change must begin at the biggest orchestras or it is not taken seriously anywhere. The similarities among most orchestras in the United States is no accident of history, but rather a result of the same traditionalist idea. They all play the same music, the same way, with the same soloists, all in the same outfits. Each of them frozen in time. All clinging to a concert protocol that alienates the audience and creates a social scene that makes neophytes flee. They are sadly unable to address any of this for fear of compromising the Art! It’s no wonder they all sound the same, and no wonder they have trouble attracting new donors.

Still, those running the symphony can’t help but notice that people still go to certain kinds of symphonic concerts: pops concerts, symphonic broadway concerts, film score concerts, even video game music concerts. These concerts generally feature the same musicians, the same venues, the same formal wear. Yet these are very well attended, are often sold out, and serve as a large source of income for many classical symphonic organizations. Needing a way to explain this discrepancy in attendance and popularity from the classical concerts (and at the same time saving face), this world-view has developed a tenet: concerts can’t be both serious and popular at the same time.

The symphony is rightfully proud of its musical heritage and the truly great music that it performs. Thinking in this paradigm however, the unfortunate idea of “serious” music presupposes that other music is necessarily somehow not serious. This has a limiting effect on what the symphony feels it can present without damaging its artistic standards. Popularity is the reason why film music and Broadway have no place in the symphony in this country. This music, because it is popular, is thought of as less than serious. And yet, this is some of the most American of all symphonic music. Entire generations know reams of symphonic film music, and would (and do) pay to hear it played live. It is great music, it is our music; but it is forbidden because of the limiting traditionalist paradigm.

There is much more to letting go of this world-view than simply stemming the tide of decay. This is an opportunity to make symphony orchestras into viable artistic institutions with something relevant to offer. It is a chance to make concert-going fun and interesting. While no single change will address the carnage of the traditionalists, a few simple ideas can help to begin the healing. The formalities of bowing and applause can be updated. Lighting can be used to better present the orchestra and dictate updated concert protocol, like applause. The orchestra can wear modern clothing, such as a suit and tie. Even the simple choice to allow the symphony to play music from across a larger spectrum of the musical world has a much larger effect than providing more of an audience. A broader world view could set free the symphony from its strictures of presentation and protocol, allowing for new choices, galvanizing the audience, elevating even the things that don’t change. Perhaps even the Beethoven would sound better, as fresh air finally enters the dusty museum that is the classical symphony orchestra.

The traditionalist patrons of the symphony orchestra are welcome to their walled gardens, so long as they can afford the upkeep. But when one sees the bottomless decline in attendance and donations, and the nearly complete cultural irrelevance of the symphony orchestra, perhaps it’s time that the traditionalists understand that change is not the enemy of Art.