Does the orchestra have a 21st century future?

Does the orchestra have a 21st century future?


norman lebrecht

October 27, 2010

This post comes to you live from Madrid, where the association of Sapinish orchestras is holding its first concerence. There are 27 professional orchestras in Spain and, despite economic vicissitudes, there is no immediate threat to their existence from what we have heard here.

Yet, brightly as the sun might shine in autumnal Spain (and it does, it does), the clouds of cutbacks in Holland and Britain keep intruding on everyone’s thoughts and presentations. An awareness is dawning that an orchestra is something that needs to be justified – to politicians, to bureaucrats, to the public at large. It must appear to be socially useful and economically sound. It must innovate to survive.

Not all of these intrusions are negative. The better an orchestra confronts reality, the more likely it is to attract public interest and attendance. I sense no air here of defeatism and despondency. Several speakers, from Berlin, Porto and London, are sharing experiences of  extending their reach.

One of the most interesting revelations, from a London research project which I will discuss at length in a future post, is that the largest part of the audience comes to hear a particular work or composer, regardless of who might be performing it. Loyalty to an orchestra and fandom for an artist are negligible considerations at the point of purchase.

If that is the case, what is the point of paying a supposedly famous maestro as much as an entire orchestra. Might this be a turning point for orchestras in the 21st century?


  • John McLaughlin Williams says:

    That certainly describes my concert-going habits, and I’ve often wondered if that is true of rank-and-file concertgoers as well. While living in Ohio I would always go to hear the Cleveland Orchestra when they played Franz Schmidt, Albert Roussel, Alexander Zemlinsky, even Gustav Mahler or Joseph Jongen, but the usual diet of Beethoven and such were reasons to stay home with the cd player. It mattered not who was conducting or who was the soloist. Perhaps this as an echo of listening habits, as we know that when at home people listen to very different things than what they are constantly presented with at the performance venue. This may explain the direction of some sectors of the classical recording industry.

  • Pete Parker says:

    Could this be the time to embrace Ernest Fleischmann’s “Community of Musicians”?
    Just found this interesting article

  • The word “innovation” annoys me often. While innovation in marketing and to an extent presentation is an understandable necessity or advantage, innovation in some areas is a catch-phrase for mindless change.
    I’m the last one to say orchestras should just play what they always have played; but surely it’s unnecessary to throw out things that are good or that work while moving to both follow and lead new realities.
    “. . . the largest part of the audience comes to hear a particular work or composer” — I wonder if that’s true in North America, or whether it’s true only of certain sizes or kinds of orchestra covered in the survey. Without notable details, universality of the above statement is risky to accept. What about subscribers, especially in places where they form a large part of the audience? Maybe you have those details.

  • Research of buyer loyalty across various consumer product markets at the University of South Australia has found that loyalty is generally slightly higher towards larger, better-known brands with higher market shares, than towards smaller, less well-known brands with smaller market shares.
    If these findings hold true with orchestras, larger orchestras with higher market share will always need to hire big-name conductors and soloists to promote their brand, differentiate their product from others and maintain their competitive advantage.

  • I’m on both sides for this one. Who knows, the orchestra might try to blend in.

  • Paul H. Muller says:

    Interesting that people come to an orchestra performance to hear a certain piece played.
    Yet it does not work that way at all with movies…

  • Joan says:

    Perhaps at one similar level of playing, people who know their repertoire and what emotional worlds each offers, will come to hear the work rather than the group or the conductor. But if offered a cross-section of orchestral playing levels, and a cross-section of conducting “gifts”, at least in my country it appears people will choose the stars over the repertoire. But here in Canada people don’t live inside a culture. We buy it, for the most part, and many go to classical concerts out of a sort of social duty. In my city, we hear a top orchestra once every five or so years -if that. Both of our two halls are too small to accommodate a full-size modern symphony group. But personally, if I lived in a very large city and had a menu of orchestral concerts to choose from in a year that were all exciting, professional, and had good interpreters as conductors, yes, I’d go for the repertoire too. But if Valery Gergiev is conducting, or Helmuth Rilling,I personally turn into a star! Whatever the program. I think it’s very important not to compare cities that have entirely different musical options, or draw universal conclusions from audience behaviour in any nation’s largest two or three cities. Musical culture takes place elsewhere too, but it behaves very differently.

  • It is fascinating to think about the changing role of Music Director. If the MD doesn’t live in the community and swoops in for concerts (the case with most part-time orchestras), how is the organization to inspire public interest and attendance? By focusing on the music (which is decidedly a – if not the – major factor in purchasing decisions) and the players, who hopefully are invested in the success of the organization and its particular community. If the need is for artistic vision and curation, could that be accomplished by rotation a la the Adelaide Festival? Or by committee a la Orpheus? This feels a little bit heretical but it raises a good and important question about resource allocation.

  • Gerard Gibbs says:

    the largest part of the audience comes to hear a particular work or composer, regardless of who might be performing it.

    I don’t believe this statement would stand up to scrutiny as being universally applicable. It may be possible in a city such as London that where one would have a number of ‘institutional’ orchestras playing Panufnik Symphony No. 9. But go to the Midwestern United States and consider the choice of hearing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing Brahms fourth symphony or the orchestra of neighboring Valparaiso, Indiana. Does a visitor to New York decide not to go to the Metropolitan Museum if there is no Van Gogh exhibit?
    But on the other hand it’s true that with most people, making a decision to attend even a CSO concert involves the matter of repertoire. I may not go to hear the CSO if they are playing Panufnik Symphony No. 9 the same way they would play Mahler or Brahms.

  • Carlos says:

    “…what is the point of paying a supposedly famous maestro as much as an entire orchestra. Might this not be a turning point for orchestras in the 21st century?”
    Excellent question! In the opera audience, most people don’t attend a performance because of the conductor and don’t really care who the conductor is. The important factors are the opera being performed and the musicians (singers, chorus, orchestra).

  • Harrison Boyle says:

    It is certainly true for me that composer is the FIRST choice, then the performer. If the repertoire is not of interest to me, it can’t possibly matter who is playing it.
    This, by the way, is a mistake that ballet companies ALWAYS make – you can search their materials high and low and almost never will you find who the composer is. It must be an ego problem that choreographer comes first, but not to list the composer at all, and to expect you may guess who it is from a cryptic title given the ballet, is a mistake which has doubtless contributed to the decline of ballet. Put another way – I wouldn’t care if Nijinsky had risen from the grave – if he was only going to gyrate about to some nattering Vivaldi left-overs, I’d stay home.

  • Maria Etzel says:

    I´m always interested in knowing who is conducting. I don´t chose concerts based on programme alone. Who is conducting for me is very important as well as who is playing. When chosing a concert first comes the conductor, then the ensemble and lastly the music.
    If I had to chose between a modern music conducted by a favourite conductor as opposed to a war horse by an unknown one, I´d choose the former.
    When at my home town, I go to concerts every week given by the local orchestra, irrespective of what they are playing or who is conducting. The orchestra is very good, so I´m lucky in this respect and there is no other option. But I always know who is the conductor and if unknown, there is the internet to look at his profile. But, I agree, people go for the music and I consider myself an exception.