Can the symphony orchestra survive?

The editor of Standpoint, Daniel Johnson, asked me to write a long essay on the present state of the symphony orchestra, more than half expecting that I would tend towards a process of neo-liberal rationalisation – fewer but better.

To my mind, though, there is no general solution. The art has to be seen within specific geographic traditions. What’s happening in America today is an American orchestral problem, Europe will have its own route to follow and as for China…. well, read on.

Here’s a pull-quote.

In a lifestyle of wall-to-wall wi-fi and instant tweets, the concert hall is one of the few places where we become reachable, where we can switch off our lifelines and surrender to a form that will not let us go for an hour or more. The symphony orchestra is our relief from the communicative addiction. It forces us, willy-nilly, to resist the responsive urge. It is a cold-turkey cure for our reactive insanity, our self-destroying restlessness.The more concerts I attend, the more I see how they restore balance to over-busy lives. It may well be that we, as a society, need the symphony orchestra now more than ever before. How we pay for it will have to be reconfigured over the next two or three difficult years

And here‘s the full 2,500-word article.

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  • MusikAnT says:

    Brilliant article; one of your best, Mr. Lebrecht. A very even handed and fair appraisal.

    May I also add that one of the reasons that the orchestra is losing ground is simply the prohibitively expensive ticket prices? To think that once upon a time there were “workers'” symphony orchestras dedicated to exposing blue collar folk to great music at very cheap prices. (Think of the Klemperer’s Kroll Opera.)

    I also wonder why symphony orchestras haven’t more aggressively pursued younger audiences by including video game soundtrack suites in concert. The demand from young people for orchestral music is still there. When they hear symphonic renditions of their favorite video game score, such as the ‘Video Games Live’ event that has been touring for the past few years, the reaction is overwhelmingly positive. Right there is a gateway the symphony orchestra and record labels can use to tempt young listeners into the world of serious music. Indeed, my own road to Shostakovich, Webern, and Bruckner was paved by the likes of Kondo, Sugiyama, and Uematsu. (Some of their music, incidentally, seems influenced at least to some extent by the lighter works of Takemitsu.)

    Composers, too, should also seriously consider composing scores for games as well. Today’s advanced technology allows not only a composition of limitless complexity and richness to be heard, but it can also reproduce it with the sound of an actual orchestra. Wouldn’t it be grand to hear someone like Ades, Muhly, Adams, etc. lead the way and explore this field?

    Bernard Herrmann once said that he enjoyed composing for films because gave him access to the “largest audience in the world.” Might it not behoove the classical music establishment to look upon video games in the same light?

  • Yeh says:

    I would like to point out that China is not and will not become a hot market for symphony music. Havn’t you heard that the government is eliminating state funding for all orchestras, except 11 groups? With tens millions kids studying music instruments, all major Chinese orchestras can only attract enough audiences for one performance for each program they present. (exception in Hong Kong and Singapore, even though per performance attendance is normally poor).

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