Symphonies learn the score

Click here for the original article in The Australian

WHEN the Philadelphia Orchestra filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April it sent a shiver through classical music groups worldwide.

The Pennsylvania-based orchestra is considered one of the five best in the US but faced with what its chairman described as a “fantastic imbalance” of costs versus income, the board sought drastic action.

Orchestra management projected a $US14.5 million structural deficit through declining earnings from ticket sales, a drop in donations and an increase in both operational costs and pension obligations.

A fortnight earlier, in Britain, public funding for the arts was slashed by 15 per cent as part of new austerity measures, leading orchestras there to scramble for their lives.

Back in the US, the Louisville Symphony is bankrupt and the Syracuse Symphony and New Mexico Symphony have shut down.

Orchestras worldwide are having a white-knuckle ride due to shifts in the global economy and their Australian counterparts are looking on with trepidation.

A spokesman for the orchestra’s union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, Howard Manley, says: “The circumstances of the Australian economy are substantially [better] than most other Western economies.”

Yet he says there’s no question “things are incredibly tight”.

Last year Adelaide Symphony Orchestra members campaigned loudly against the erosion of their playing entitlements, Orchestra Victoria is in serious financial difficulty and NSW’s Opera and Ballet Orchestra annually contributes a $1m loss to Opera Australia.

Australia’s funding system is aligned historically with that of Britain. For the state-based symphony orchestras, box-office and commercial earnings account for a significant proportion of income, but underpinning this is a mix of federal and state funds. However, in the face of those public funds remaining largely static the boards of Australian orchestras increasingly have sought to mimic the US philanthropic model to accommodate increased costs.

In common with American orchestras, audiences in Australia are declining too as they age. Increased pops programming is viewed as one way to expose new audiences to orchestral music, but the jury is out on whether pops audiences necessarily go on to take an interest in the core classical repertoire.

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Sydney Symphony in particular have embraced the pop business, with recent concerts of computer-game scores, concerts by Burt Bacharach and the Beach Boys, Disney movie scores, and the tunes of ABBA. Musical comic Tim Minchin undertook a national tour supported by the bigger orchestras.

The MSO last month posted a slight surplus of $31,420 for the past calendar year, while Sydney Symphony recorded its third successive deficit, albeit a smaller one than the year before, of $236,769. For the MSO, box-office revenue is considerably down, but so is expenditure.

The MSO’s managing director, Matthew VanBesien, says it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions about his orchestra’s future from its present programming and the 2010 financial results, given the closure of its home auditorium, Hamer Hall, for renovations that began halfway through last year. He says classical programming has not been eroded in favour of pops programming: “The commercial things we do don’t replace core activities.”

But The Australian’s music critic Eamonn Kelly has called on the orchestra to speed up the process of appointing a new chief conductor, a role left vacant since the acrimonious departure 18 months ago of Oleg Caetani.

“Urgently locating an outstanding new leader is the most important artistic and administrative issue the MSO board and management face,” Kelly says.

Sydney Symphony managing director Rory Jeffes declined to discuss the challenges facing his group, which has not managed to parlay the popularity of its chief conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy into either a surplus or increased audiences, which have shown no growth for five years.

Greg Sandow, an American lecturer and author of Rebirth: The Future of Classical Music, says the crisis affecting classical music in the northern hemisphere could spread to Australia.

He says careful examination of financial reports is necessary to see if occasional small surpluses are in fact concealing actual structural decline, which is what he suspects is under way.

The last great shudder of nervousness about the decline of classical music audiences was in the 1960s, after which the industry made a strong recovery.

Sandow says since the 90s, audiences have been declining in the US for both cyclical and non-cyclical reasons. “Now that orchestras in America are starting to haemorrhage and die, they are starting to come out with numbers,” he says.

Philadelphia has had a 40 per cent decline in 20 years that has accelerated in the past five years, he says. The number of subscribers, the ticket buyers who underpin orchestra programming and funding, is declining.

“The core of the audience is people who got into it when they were young and they’re not being replaced,” Sandow says.

And he says the same people who go to the concerts are those who donate money, “so the donor pool is drying up the way the audience is drying up”.

Sandow has also observed donor fatigue, where philanthropists grow cranky about mismanagement or an orchestra’s poor performance and remove their support.

Among the orchestras that have shut their doors and dismissed players there are some groups that have survived due to radical restructuring, which is where Sandow sees the future of the industry. Columbus Orchestra, by way of example, staved off closure in 2008 and retained 53 full-time players by reducing salaries by 27 per cent. Detroit Symphony Orchestra is engaged in similar talks with players.

Sandow argues that players in America’s top orchestras have traditionally been well paid, with salaries above $100,000, and the cuts are having an invigorating effect. “It’s interesting to talk to young musicians about this; they don’t see it as a problem, they’d consider themselves lucky to get any of these positions,” he says.

Historically, however, because of the status and the good pay, few of them could secure such jobs.

Sandow says that if the Philadelphia Orchestra were to suddenly discharge all its musicians and replace them with young players on contract, what might be lost in polish could easily be made up for in pizazz.

“I wonder if that wouldn’t be more exciting to hear,” he says. “It might really surprise people.”


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