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Orchestra as Metaphor

The crisis experienced in recent months by the Syracuse Symphony is unfortunately reflected in other places – Detroit, where the orchestra took a 23% pay cut after a six-month strike; Honolulu, which just inked an agreement with the musicians for a $30,000 salary (hardly a living wage in Honolulu); Louisville, where the board is pressuring musicians to acquiesce to a drastically diminished ensemble despite the orchestra’s illustrious history; Philadelphia, where on April 16  the board voted for Chapter 11 bankruptcy; and most recently the New Mexico Symphony, which voted for Chapter 7 on April 20.

What is going on? The factors repeatedly cited include declining ticket sales and donations since the 2008 financial meltdown; and subsequent changes in requirements for the funding of pension plans has been raised as a primary issue in both Syracuse and Philly.  Orchestras having serious financial crises is by now a well established trailing indicator of every major recession in the last 25 years; this is predictable.  Clearly orchestras need to plan and put away the proverbial seed corn for when lean times inevitably come.  However, the last 10 years have provided little in the way of flush times in which to build up endowments or cash reserves.

This time, however, there seems to be a new dynamic at work.  Every new bankruptcy decision seems to make it easier – less taboo, more acceptable – for other orchestras to do the same.  The driving factor is the balance sheet, the bottom line.  One also has to consider the effect of anti-union rhetoric this spring as an indirect part of the story, since one of the main motives for bankruptcy is to void the union contract.  When bankruptcy loses its stigma among the ranks of symphony boards, both musicians and music suffer, as well as the community as a whole.  This is not just collateral damage – after all, the orchestra is the musicians, and it exists in order to make music.

The balance sheet, however, does not account for intangibles that have not been assigned a monetary value.  In other fields, like the environment and biodiversity, traditional economic models do not value the intrinsic benefits of an unspoiled ecosystem or a healthy population of an indigenous species.  Likewise, we do not have an adequate way to value the cultural vitality of a city or region other than referring to studies of the economic impact of the arts – which just goes back to more number crunching.  As in the other areas I mentioned, reducing everything to what can be assigned a financial value misses a huge part of the picture.

This brings us back to the tenuous financial position of the arts in the United States.  We say we value creativity and expression, yet don’t adequately support the cultural infrastructure that is necessary to feeding our souls and imaginations.  We often encounter the attitude that the arts are a frill compared to other social needs.  But our society craves inspiration, imagination, vision.  Where do these things come from?  To suggest that the arts are less urgent a human need, and therefore less deserving of philanthropic support, is to create a false choice which will never favor the arts.  What is at stake in the health of our arts institutions is nothing less than our culture and our spirit.  If art is fundamental to what makes us human, why do we as a society shortchange it?

My previous post posited that a professional orchestra is vital cultural infrastructure for a community or region.  For those who are invested in the survival and flourishing of orchestras, though, it’s not just about the orchestra itself and the benefits it provides to the community – it’s about everything the orchestra represents. Neal Zaslaw’s book Birth of the Orchestra describes the trajectory from the beginning of the 1700’s, when a person needed to explain what an orchestra was (since the concept of an orchestra was not widely understood) to the end of the 18th century, when one could use the metaphor of an orchestra to describe other things (because the concept had taken root in people’s imaginations).  For those who are committed to the idea of the orchestra and the ideals it personifies, an orchestra represents culture, civilization, the finer and more subtle aesthetic experiences, diverse forces working together to create harmony, and the themes of spiritual struggle and uplift.  It also represents a public interest and investment in a creative enterprise that brings people together in time in a shared cultural and spiritual experience, and in a much needed sound-space for contemplation and reflection.  Finally, the musicians individually and collectively model excellence in one’s craft and demonstrate what is possible when people collaborate at the highest levels.

As a “silver lining” effect, the financial crises of our mid-size and major orchestras provide an opportunity to start a conversation with our students, friends, colleagues, and fellow citizens about why orchestras matter.  This is the first time in my teaching career that I have had occasion to raise with my students the timely issue of how the arts are financed in our society, and to engage them on how they can be involved in keeping our cultural assets intact.  It is very useful at times to have something timely on which to focus our energies.  Our orchestras have become the underdog – we love to root for the underdog! – and are as worthy a place as any on which to focus our efforts.  For the upcoming benefit concert with the SSO musicians at Hamilton on May 8, my students will be baking cookies for the reception – it’s a start.  It’s up to all of us to speak up more about why orchestras matter.

UPDATE: We will be repeating this concert on Monday night, May 9, 7:30 p.m., at the Civic Center in Syracuse!

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