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The Symphony Orchestra:
What is to be Done?


Leon Botstein

Why is there is so much angst and gloom about the fate and future of classical music, particularly of the symphony orchestra? Consider, after all, the "dire" circumstances that now face classical music with regard to the orchestra:

  • The actual and potential audience is larger than ever before.
  • We live in an age replete with user-friendly technology for music, including audio and video transmission, streaming, and downloading, that enhance the allure of live performance.
  • Musicians who play classical music instruments are being produced in record numbers and their skills are incomparably higher than those that prevailed in the past.
  • There are now more composers working all over the world, in all manner of styles.

So why are we subjected to endless jeremiads at the hands of critics and pundits? The most obvious reason is the inclination of older generations to lament, citing cultural decline and degeneration as a means of self-justification—a negative intellectual habit since before Matthew Arnold. But the real reason for the conventional wisdom of pessimism is the fact that classical music is caught in the grip of obsolete structures and practices.

The logic behind the traditional business model for classical music—an orchestra of full-time musicians that had a resident hall, toured to comparable halls in major cities, and was an object of broad-based philanthropy—is no longer cogent. The city as cultural center has been undermined by the growth of suburbia and exurbia, and by the availability of competing attractions once dependent on and confined to the metropolis. Today's patterns of the use of leisure time and the workplace are discontinuous with those of the audiences envisioned by the builders of Carnegie Hall and Symphony Hall Boston.

Yet an archaic business model is still in place for concert life, when the driving social realities have radically changed. Managements are still following an old formula to survive, narrowing the content of concerts to repetitions of works that seem popular, seeking box-office stars, avoiding risk, and trying to calculate the cost of labor and production against the price of tickets as the appeal of their institutions dwindles, particularly vis-à-vis philanthropy. If ticket prices were low, and the programs unusual and exciting, the halls would be full.

The typical concertgoer can look forward to hearing repeatedly the same 100 or so works on instrumental concert programs year in and year out. How many Mahler, Beethoven, or Tchaikovsky symphonies are being played on any given night across the world? Consider the recent incident of a cellphone alarm going off during a New York Philharmonic performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony. It was a shocking experience for the audience and orchestra, but what can we learn from it? Compare it to a similar event of a recital by a young violist in Slovakia where, after a movement of a Bach solo suite, a Nokia ring went off. With a smile, he began to improvise on it in baroque style, to well-deserved applause.

Outrageous as the event at the New York Philharmonic was, is there really a compelling reason for the New York Philharmonic to play Mahler symphonies as often as they do? Gustav Mahler never intended the hearing of his symphonies to be a regular and frequent event or even a yearly event. In his lifetime he conducted his second symphony a total of 10 times, and he heard it live perhaps only a few times more. The extraordinary talents of the orchestra and artistic leadership at the New York Philharmonic are being wasted on the routine recycling of repertoire, justified by the failed, outdated system of concert presentation. The beloved masterpieces were no more meant as daily fare than a great painting is there to be used as a window shade. No work of music can survive the banal, mindless repetition to which we subject it.

The period in history when musical life in the concert tradition seemed more vibrant was indeed the late 19th and early 20th century, when 80 percent of the repertoire played at concerts was new. A cursory look at the repertoire of the Société Nationale in Paris before 1939 can give a sense of the variety that intrigued and delighted audiences in a single concert season. What we are now doing to the great works in our musical tradition is nearly criminal. Not only is there new music to be done. An endless supply of fabulous material from the history of music exists—symphonies, concerti, operas, choral music—the performance of which would enchant audiences and spark their latent curiosity. Let us dare to play in different configurations, in different venues, and at different times, mixing genres and ensemble size in a single concert. Let us bring music into a living connection with politics, literature, painting, architecture, film, and history.

Let us integrate performance and the making of music as professionals into the life of our universities and schools, not as show-and-tell visitors but through sustained teaching of performance, improvisation, and composition, connecting our musical heritage to life and the English, history, mathematics, and science curricula. Let us reconnect our musical tradition to one of its primary sources of inspiration, the religious and spiritual life of our citizens.

Classical music offers a mode of life that provides a viable, varied, and powerful alternative to the standardization and trivialities of commercial entertainment, enjoyable as they may be. The sooner our symphony orchestras grasp this essential fact, the quicker they will see the vast opportunities that face them. We must do more than continue to be pale reproductions of an artificially selective fragment from our heritage, imitating and aping with a limited repertoire the great performers of the past.

Leon Botstein, music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, is the president of Bard College.