Symphonies Struggle for Survival


"I really don't see this traditional model of the classical orchestra that grew up in the 1880's and is now about 130 years old," Rubin told "I do not see it surviving for long in most cities, and I see that it has the best chance in the cities we've discussed [New York, Boston, Chicago, etc.]. But even then I don't see it's going to last forever because this is simply not a music form that Americans are studying anymore in school, and Americans are not playing piano and violins anymore."

Judith Kurnick, vice president for strategic communications for the League of American Orchestras, cites one reason for the change in public taste: the cutting of arts programs in schools.

"For the last 30 years they have been consistently cut and we have seen a corresponding drop in the audience participation rate for those art forms, and that was a recent finding from the National Endowment for the Arts research and it's very disturbing," she said.

Robert Birman, the CEO of the Louisville Orchestra, said that Louisville's orchestra plays in a concert hall that is too big for the number of people they attract and that playing to a lot of empty seats makes it difficult to manage perceptions.

And while ticket sales are just one funding source for orchestras -- about 30 percent, according to Kurnick -- "the second is philanthropic support, so that's corporate, individual and government support. And the third is endowments."

Added Birman, "When corporate America is laying off workers, it is very hard to justify making discretionary grants to arts organizations."

Community Involvement

Kurnick is quick to point out that not all orchestras are struggling to fill their auditoriums. In fact, in some cities like San Francisco and Milwaukee, paid attendance is up.

"Orchestras are learning that it's not just about going out and selling tickets," she said. "It's about creating a sense of relationship, and I think orchestras are doing a lot more in that direction. And when that happens, I think the ticket sales and the audience kind of follow because they feel there's an understanding of what it is that you get, that the music making is a way of bringing people closer together and that there's an investment that the patron has in the experience."

Compensation Disputes

Citing the musicians' recent contract with the Syracuse Symphony in an interview with earlier this year, Jon Garland, chair of the musician's orchestra committee, said, "Our union contract, or our agreement, as I think I'd prefer to refer to it by, has been recognized all over the country as being a model for growth and success. We're one of the first orchestras to have an ensemble program. We have small groups that go out and play in schools, and we play a diverse set of concerts. We play things ranging from big band to swing music to classics to educational concerts to school concerts. You name it, we do it."

In cities like Detroit there have been major disputes between management and the musicians. Detroit's musicians have been involved in a strike to receive better compensation, forcing the cancellation of many concerts.

But in Syracuse just weeks before announcing plans for the organization to file for bankruptcy, Brooks had nothing but good things to say about the relationship between the two groups.

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