musings of a professional bassoonist

Monday, December 27, 2010

Orchestral relevance

My friend, colleague and fellow blogger David Thomas recently posted his well-informed thoughts about the changing role of the performing musician.  David lists the irrefutable trends which have contributed to the financial crises for orchestras nationwide:
  • the slow decline in classical concert attendance since the 1960s
  • the aging of the audiences
  • the explosion of vivid competition for entertainment dollars
The third point, competition for entertainment dollars, is huge, and it largely explains the first 2 points (declining and aging audiences).  The internet provides amazing options for listening to and watching world class performances anytime, anywhere.  The most striking example of this is the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall.  There are also countless performances of orchestras and chamber groups offered on YouTube free of charge.

Of course, the internet options are a double-edged sword for us musicians.  An important part of our ongoing development involves listening to music, and now our options are infinite.  These days there's no excuse for musical ignorance - we are able to easily find internet performances of any piece of music we are preparing.   We can access world class performances of any orchestral or chamber work right now, often without spending any money.  That's miraculous!

The infinite internet options (including musical performances as well as video and TV streaming and social media) potentially provide competition for live, in person orchestra performances.  Internet options are an essential aspect of the social trend known as cocooning.  Cocooning, quite simply, is the tendency of people to spend their leisure time at home, using computers, TVs and game consoles for entertainment. 

For those who choose to buck the cocooning trend, and instead, venture out into the city of Columbus for an evening of entertainment, there are now many more entertainment options in real life as well (not just on the internet).  During its peak in the 1980s and 1990s, the Columbus Symphony was one of the only acts in town, although competition had begun to materialize, as exemplified by the founding of ProMusica Chamber Orchestra in 1980.  Now, the performing arts options are so numerous (including theater troupes, dance companies, opera, choral, chamber groups including chamber orchestras, jazz ensembles, and folk, world, and renaissance music groups) that local arts groups compete with one another.  In addition to competing for audiences, each arts organization seeks donations from the same local businesses, foundations, and individuals.

In Columbus, I believe that there is another factor or trend which has affected the symphony:
  • the decline of downtown
Twenty years ago, downtown Columbus experienced incredible growth.  A stunning shopping mall called Columbus City Center was built right in the heart of downtown.  It was connected to the Ohio Theatre where the Columbus Symphony performs.
Columbus City Center attracted shoppers from all over the Midwest.  Symphony patrons typically enhanced their concert-going experiences with shopping, dinner and drinks at Columbus City Center before and after the performances, for a true night out on the town.

This year Columbus City Center was demolished, following a dramatic decline in which most of its stores went out of business.  (New malls built in the suburbs created competition which could not be overcome.)

Columbus City Center became a ghost mall as store after store shut down.

What's the solution?? What can be done to minimize the effects of these trends?

During the 1980s and 90s, the symphony was important in Columbus, since a large number of people wanted to hear live classical music, and there was no oversupply of options available for  socializing and entertainment.  At that time, venturing downtown was exciting, as Columbus City Center  was constructed and opened.   The symphony's relevance during the 80s and 90s must somehow be recaptured, perhaps by dissolving the barriers between audience and orchestra and by showing the public how the orchestra can enhance their lives in myriad ways and help define the community.

One solution is already being taken care of.  The non-profit Capitol South Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation (Capitol South) has built a brand new park, Columbus Commons, on the former City Center site.  I like the new (not yet finished) park, which unofficially opened this month.  Despite the cold  and blustery weather conditions, I've enjoyed walking through it on my way to Nutcracker performances.
Upon completion, Columbus Commons will include cafe, a fountain, a carousel, and a large concert amphitheater!  Certainly there is link between the revitalization of the downtown core and the thriving of the symphony, at least here in Columbus.  (Is it mere coincidence that the symphony peaked when the Columbus City Center Mall thrived, and that the mall and the symphony declined simultaneously?)  I'd like to think that the grass being planted in the ground at Columbus Commons symbolizes new growth for the symphony as well as for the city.

The brand new venue for outdoor concerts in Columbus Commons could be a real shot in the arm for the Columbus Symphony.  We already have a successful outdoor summer series, Picnic With the Pops, taking place at Chemical Abstracts near the Ohio State University, but our summer schedule includes a lot of free time during which we could be performing elsewhere.  The more we perform, in as many different locations as possible, the more relevant we become to the community, as Columbus citizens begin to associate the ever-present symphony with various events, festivals and venues.

Community spirit is part of the reason why  local orchestras still exist in spite of the internet.  So many cities are proud of their symphony orchestras!  Musicians of full time orchestras live in the community and provide services such as teaching and coaching for students.  They perform in chamber groups as well as in the orchestra, and ideally, they are highly visible, performing all over town for many different events.  Here in Columbus many orchestra musicians have performed for fundraisers for various charities (including the symphony itself).  When we perform in smaller settings, we have the opportunity to really connect with the audience with conversation in addition to music.  Such interaction works wonders in establishing the musicians as relevant community members.

The Columbus Symphony, along with several other U.S. orchestras, has already embraced the internet's ability to offer music anytime, anyplace.  Our recordings of recent concerts are streaming on InstantEncore
free of charge.  Has that caused a decline in our ticket sales?  On the contrary!  Ticket sales remain solid, and corporate donations are increasing, perhaps due in part to the evidence that we are technologically up-to-date and therefore relevant as evidence that Columbus is on the cutting edge.

The restructuring of the administration to include the symphony under the umbrella of the successful and highly regarded Columbus Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA) was a bold move undertaken last season when the symphony faced continuing financial instability.  Such innovative restructuring was an important part of the solution here in Columbus, since it reduced administrative costs and reassured civic and corporate leaders that the symphony is now well-managed.  In addition, the symphony hired a new leader, our dynamic music director, Jean-Marie Zeitouni whose fine international reputation is sure to help re-establish the orchestra's relevance in the classical music world.  

Collaboration with other local arts organizations is another solution which is already being implemented here.  The Columbus Symphony regularly performs with BalletMet Columbus and OperaColumbus.  We perform side-by-side rehearsals and concerts with the CSO Youth Orchestra, and have collaborated several times with the Columbus Gospel Choir.  Hopefully more such collaborations will be part of our future, further increasing our community visibility as well as our relevance to other arts organizations.

The very obvious solution to the trend of aging audiences is to grab the attention of the children, our future audience members.  It's not enough to just present concerts, any old concerts, to young audiences - we must find a way to connect, and therefore become relevant to the young concertgoers, to the point where classical music is considered an essential part of life!  Conductor Leonard Bernstein created a large segment of today's audiences through his nationally televised Young People's Concerts during the 1950s and 1960s.  Bernstein figured out how to make classical music fascinating, enticing and relevant.  It is now the job of symphony orchestras to follow Bernstein's example and show our future audiences why our music is relevant - why 300 years ago, William Congreve wrote the poem which includes the famous quote: 
Music has charms to soothe the savage breast,
To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.



Tina said...

You are really an excellent writer. All of your points are right on the money.

I still can't believe City Center is gone. It was so easy it was to duck in and out of the underground parking during bad weather. I spent many lunch (and other) hours there.

There are so many orchestras around here - not even including the big one across the Hudson - but it is still so much more special to me to listen to the CSO online. It's like the difference between - bear with me - hearing a school choir sing, and hearing that same choir with YOUR kid in it. (And without the subway ride, bonus)

Recently, I came across my old concert ticket stub collection. I had to laugh - I have seriously been to hundreds of CSO concerts, starting in college (the year after the strike, natch). Not only was that a VITAL part of my development as a musician, but it planted the seed of a feeling of investment in the CSO. Not monetarily (unfortunately for the CSO), but it was a powerful thing for me to learn by example from this particular group of musicians. I was hearing pieces for the first time; it really was thrilling! (I think I got blown onto the statehouse lawn the first time I heard Carmina!)

When we were in town last January, it was so meaningful to take our kids backstage, to visit you and other musicians, some who I know from my opera days, and to show them the Pavilion, where their parents were married :). It was harder to explain the feeling of comfort in the familiarity of hearing the same core group of musicians I've heard since my college days. It's very special to me, and I hope they'll understand someday.

B.S. said...

Wow, what a powerful comment, Tina. You have described from first hand experience the connection which is so needed. Based upon this comment, I'd say that it would behoove the CSO to somehow find a way to reach the college students (especially music majors). I love the way you described your preference for listening to "your" orchestra.

Thank you.


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