After City Opera, New York may lose an orchestra

After City Opera, New York may lose an orchestra


norman lebrecht

October 18, 2013

Our WQXR colleague Brian Wise fears the worst for the Brooklyn Philharmonic. They are not returning calls to potential bookers. The music director’s contract has expired. The website is ‘closed for maintenance’. And insiders speak of ‘severe financial difficulties’.

In the richest city on earth. Read Brian here. It’s a sad old song.




  • We see that even among the largest concentration of rich people on earth, funding the arts by gifts from the wealthy doesn’t work well. Think of the European cities with multiple state funded orchestras and opera houses . London, for example, has two full time opera houses and five full time orchestras. Berlin has three full time opera houses and seven full time orchestras. Similar stories for Vienna, Munich, Paris, and many others. It would appear that American denial is wearing thin.

    • Robert Levine says:

      Remind me just how many German orchestras have been shut down or merged out of existence in the past few years; 2,500 lost full-time jobs for orchestra musicians was the figure I heard. Someone’s denial is wearing thin, but I don’t think it’s ours.

      • Germany has 133 full time, year-round orchestras. The USA with four times the population has 16. Would you like to talk about that? It is true that Germany shut down about 30 orchestras after the wall came down. There were two good reasons. 1) Many were clear redundancies — orchestras only a few miles apart that had been separated by the wall. 2) East Germany, in an effort to show the superiority of the communist system, had the highest ratio of orchestras in the world. It was clearly excessive and most of the closures were easily justifiable. That is why there were no strikes. This process is now mostly completed and in recent years there have been few shut downs.

        It should also be noted that many of the orchestras cut were so close that they were merged. Even though orchestras lost “planned positions”, most musicians did not lose their jobs. Another reason there were no strikes.

        Even with these cuts, once divided Berlin kept its three opera houses and seven orchestras. It is amazing how a country could keep so many fulltime, year-round orchestras (133 vs. 16 ina the USA) even when it increased its population by one third and with people who had no economic infrastructure at all left. Americans, by contrast, drop orchestras like flies.

        Americans grasp at these largely justifiable cuts in Germany in an attempt to rationalize their own ridiculous problems. Sorry, no dice. Try again. If you are the Robert Levine I think you might be, you should know better.

        • Those are good points, but it seems to me that the more valid metric is not the number of orchestras, but the number of performances and the number of audience members attending.

          • Very true. Fortunately, the numbers for attendance and performances correspond fairly directly to the number of orchestras. All of these orchestras and Germany’s 83 opera houses are funded by local governments. If attendance numbers drop pressure is put on politicians who in turn pressure the organizations’ managers. This has been effective at maintaining proper balances, especially when combined with affordable tickets and the close proximity of the orchestras and houses to their publics.

            Generally speaking these organizations aim for about 85% attendance. The numbers could be higher, but 85% allows them to balance popular appeal with innovative programming. Many European countries have agencies whose purpose is to prepare statistical reports on state arts institutions. The Musik Information Zentrum in Germany provides thorough stats for just about every aspect of Germany’s musical life, including attendance numbers.

    • JJC says:

      It isn’t American denial, its American reality. This you must understand. The people don’t wish it and it isn’t going to happen. The symphony/opera thing is not felt to be indigenous to the culture here and, for better or likely worse, this may be true. If ever there were a large government arts grant program, who do you think will walk off with the loot? It won’t be the Minnesota Orchestra. Have you checked out who Obama parties with? Do you not believe that deconstructionism has wormed its way into the cultural fabric so firmly that people can’t discern the difference between anything anymore, and are excoriated if they do? I am well acquainted with the attitudes of average folks towards our profession and I can assure you that overcoming their implacable ignorance and hostility is not possible. I am also, through long experience, deeply distrustful of governments. It isn’t the answer to the problem. And as for me, I would be ashamed to be beholden to the government, no thanks.

      • In our wing nut political atmosphere it is true that Americans have been made distrustful of entities and people such as government, artists, and the arts. We can be fatalistic and say there is nothing to be done, or we can become socially engaged citizens and work to counter these harmful trends.

    • MacroV says:

      Recall the Brooklyn Philharmonic, in its heydey, was only performing about 7-8 programs a year; it was by no means a full-time orchestra, just one of many freelance ensembles that dot New York’s musical landscape.

      Comparisons to London and those other European capitals aren’t entirely appropriate. The NY Philharmonic is the only full-time orchestra, but it probably plays more concerts in the city than London’s five full-time orchestras combined (most of whose shows are one-offs, IIRC). And the MET probably does more more performances than Covent Garden and ENO combined. I doubt any of those cities have as many performances by visiting ensembles as New York (in both Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center).

      An unfortunate development, though.

      • Yes, the Brooklyn Phil and the Met represent a growing American model that has two basic tenants: 1) Eliminate local arts organizations and centralize the performing arts into large institutions that service multiple cities or even the entire country. The Met’s HD broadcasts and the so-called “Cleveland Orchestra Miami” are examples. 2) Reduce the regional arts institutions that remain into part-time orchestras and opera houses where the musicians have no contracts at all and are simply paid by the service. This model is culturally isomorphic with America’s unmitigated form of capitalism and its system of arts funding which concentrates the arts in a few financial centers where the wealthy live.

        • Janey says:

          I do not believe this is accurate. I would argue that the number of small ensembles is increasing, in response to national arts being under or de-funded. Classical music is becoming more grassroots not less. I would suggest a study of small ensembles nationwide based not on membership in national organizations but on performance listing in the country’s major cities. Only in this way can you determine the true state of US classical music.

          • The view that classical music is becoming smaller and more grass roots would be consistent with its increasing lack of funding and the voluntary or per service sorts of payment I describe.

      • Janey says:

        @MarcoV THANK YOU. Those commenting often have no understanding whatsoever of the actual American classical landscape.

  • PK Miller says:

    This is so sad espec. coming on the hells of City Opera’s meltdown. But if you have no strong hand on the tiller, administratively or artistically, can no longer define yourself. know who you are, what youre all about, you will founder. Brooklyn Philharmonic was a great orchestra. In this day & age, alas, you need someone out there hustling, beating the bushes for every dollar, putting the touch on people, every day. Above all, you have to know what youre about. If you lurch from one Music Director to another, have no established “game plan,” you will make like the Titanic. There’s nothing wrong with doing a concert with “rappers.” It’s as valid an artistic expression as a Beethoven symphony. But you have to have the standards, too. The Albany (NY) Symphony was almost ruined 35 years ago when the audiences were fed a diet of too much ultra-modern music to the neglect of the classics. Be daring but take your audiences with you & make sure you have the secure funding base to do it.

    RIP Brooklyn Philharmonic along with City Opera. When/where does the next show drop?

  • Mark Francis says:

    There was an article recently in the on AFM website (I think) about how well orchestras were actually doing. A few are; most aren’t. Much of this happy talk is administrators trying to save their jobs. Let me propose something: if it’s your job is to sell tickets or raise money and you can’t, you get fired. If your a board member and you are looking to be served instead of serving you can leave, too. If you’re a conductor who won’t go out into the community and promote yourself and the orchestra, you can leave, too. Oh, and musicians: shut up and stop complaining. It doesn’t help. It’s worse than denial going on out here – it’s delusion. Adapt or die – it seems most are choosing the later.

  • I suppose that enough rich people simply don’t care. Entropy ensues.

  • Dan P. says:

    I agree but I think one should also add that as has been noted elsewhere here, audiences in NYC have been shrinking tremendously. Although one could point to programming, marketing, pricing, and other things as a cause, the simple fact is that from my seat, at least, classical music audiences are getting more and more elderly and there is no one to replace them. People simply aren’t interested in an art that requires the time, concentration, and patience to follow it. The reasons why are probably multifaceted, but my first guess would be that fewer and fewer people are directly involved with music making growing up. It then becomes a foreign language that they can’t follow. This, of course, is not unrelated to the fact that very few support classical music on TV or the Radio and newspapers no longer have much to say on the subject. Those who are still interested go to the web, where the overhead is lower.

    .From my standpoint, I can’t but avoid the perception that serious music has as much chance of surviving as the polar ice caps – and for the same reason: hardly anyone cares about it

    • One response by the Met seems to be the ad campaign for Muhly’s “Two Boys” which is directed at the young using popular themes like the Internet. Peter Gelb brings his corporate background and mentality to the job. Opera should address relevant, contemporary themes, but unfortunately the results at the Met (and elsewhere) often have the same insipid quality as the mass media for which Gelb once worked. (I will avoid specific comment about “Two Boys.”)

      The fundamental task at hand should be education, not mass media campaigns for watered-down art. It is unfortunate when administrators like Gelb, who have very little musical accomplishment, take on the artistic direction of arts institutions. This happened, in part, due to the vacuum of power created by James Levine’s poor health, but it is another growing American trend that is harmful.

    • PR Deltoid says:

      “classical music audiences are getting more and more elderly” – yes, but – in my experience, if you want to attract younger people, you have to do two things:

      1. make the concert free (or dirt cheap), and/or

      2. play more modern or unusual music.

      It’s the audience for the same old stuff in the same old format that is shrinking rapidly.

      • Janey says:

        Yes. Playing a balanced mixture is also far more effective, as well as going into the community to meet the audience. The landscape is changing. Organizations that can change with it will survive or thrive.

  • PAM says:

    I must say that I reached my limit after reading Brian Wise’s piece. Maybe if we held the responsible parties FINANCIALLY liable for these kinds of failures, there would be fewer of them? I honestly don’t know what to say. The NYCO was bad enough (and there was plenty of blame to go around with that debacle); but, this is unbelievable. I agree with PK and Mark. Frankly, if we are going to save orchestras and opera companies there has to be some kind of accountability–beyond KICKSTARTER and “no comment’.

    • MWnyc says:

      If board of directors members – who serve without pay and typically donate plenty of their own money – are held individually liable when arts institutions go out of business, no one will join boards of directors. New organizations won’t get formed; existing organizations will begin to fall apart as directors leave and no one agrees to replace them.

  • It’s not just music. Just this week, New York lost Dance New Amsterdam, long an important part of the city’s modern dance scene.

  • Mark says:

    I stopped attending concerts by the Brooklyn Philharmonic years ago when they started performing “trendy” programs (as far as I’m concerned). I suspect that many other subscribers may have felt the same way. I know that my elderly aunt and her friends from south Brooklyn had Brooklyn Phil. subscriptions and used to travel there by subway; I would meet them there.

    After the tenure of Lukas Foss as conductor, I think things started going downhill, not just with the Brooklyn Phil, but with the Academy of Music itself. It’s become a destination more for viewing films and tango dancing … less so for serious classical music. No more chamber music series. I don’t think there’s been a piano recital there in about 25-30 years. This was the place where I heard both Lazar Berman and Emil Gilels perform and heard Foss conduct a truly wonderful Bolero. I also remember a week-long (?) series of performances of the Béjart Ballet, including a great Sacre de Printemps. I haven’t seen anything of that quality programmed there since.

    • MWnyc says:

      Nothing of that quality programmed there since?

      Do I take it you haven’t turned up for any of the dozens of performances given at BAM by Les Arts Florissants over the last 25 years or so?

  • V.Lind says:

    Where’s Bono when you need him?

  • A quick glance at the Brooklyn Phil’s tax returns for 2010, 2011, & 2012 shows solid fundraising gains — including a whopping $2.5 million operating surplus for fiscal year 2012, which appears to be entirely due to fundraising (as opposed to expense cuts). What happened in 2013? I lost track of who took over the reigns after the infamous Richard Dare left for Jersey.

    • jimmie says:

      Interesting. Their 2012 return shows they booked a “capital grant receivable” of almost $2,965,000 as an asset. . . not including that, their liabilities would exceed their assets for the year by about 300K. (No actual knowledge here, just speculation.)

  • What a pity – they used to do such interesting programming. I don’t know if it made it into his book, but Maurice Edwards told me of an appalling incident, where the manager’s girl friend was in the orchestra and acting as the librarian – she was throwing out scores, many of which were one of a kind, perhaps the only copies, of the many premieres they used to perform, one of which was surely Julius Eastman’s “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich.”

  • When -in general- rich people were cultured and poor people less so, that system could possibly have worked.

    Now that -often- rich people are ignorant and cultured people are poor, it obviously can’t.

    • As long as classical arts organizations — and their supporters — insist on being arrogant, exclusionary, and elitist, those organizations will continue to wither.

      Those which find a way to educate and bring in new audiences, without pandering to them, will thrive.

    • A concrete example are the tech moguls of Silicon Valley and elsewhere — high scientific but little cultural education. Some are quite philanthropic, but the arts do not concern them. These people are the direct result of educational policies begun in the 70s that stressed science and technology at the expense of the arts.

  • Michael says:

    …the rich people of New York…. maybe the banks of Wall Street and their charismatic leaders come to rescue….it would be the same funding then as in Europe , as they have been bailed out with public money anyway.

    • The financial industry bail out cost 900 billion. That would fund the current budget of the NEA (140M) for the next 6428 years.

      Around 7 billion is spent per year on the fine arts in the USA. The 900 billion bank bailout would fund the arts at that rate for the next 128 years.

      • Robert Levine says:

        There is not, and never has been, any conceivable alignment of political forces in the US that would result in the kind of funding for the arts William Osborne envisions. That’s unfortunate for orchestras, but it’s a fact nonetheless. Saying that orchestras in the US would be in great shape if we had German levels of arts funding is like saying that Germany wouldn’t have started WW2 if Hitler had been a pacifist – it may true, but it misses the point.

        Government funding is not a panacea. Despite WO’s sanguine take on the German orchestra situation, the German musicians themselves seem quite worked up about the possibility of additional downsizing (in addition to the 2,500 jobs they claim have already been lost). In fact, the number of orchestras lost in Germany, compared to the total, is quite a bit higher than in the US. Yes, the US only has around 40 orchestras that pay a living wage. But Germany doesn’t have a lot of baseball teams either.

        • Mr. Levine’s fatalistic attitude is unfortunate. The USA is capable of change when it is needed. Who would have thought, for example, that we would one day have a black President or a national health insurance system. Moving away from our clearly ineffective and isolated funding system will take a long time, but it is not impossible, and for the sake of our cultural lives it must be done.

          As for the cuts in Germany, note that the union never had a single strike over them. On the other hand, just last week, they had a one day strike for all orchestras nationwide because they had not been given raises for a while. This illustrates that they did not make a priority out of protesting the shut down of those orchestras. I explain the reasons in my post at the top of this thread. Nevertheless, some will grasp at straws to justify anti-government stances.

          • The first task is to get more than a few to care that the current system is ineffective. This is unlikely to happen soon, and certainly not without persuading people that the arts are not the exclusive province of the elitist few.

          • Gus says:

            I think both Mr. Levine and Mr. Osborne have good points to make.

            On the one hand, there is precedent for public funding of orchestras in the U.S.


            Beyond performers. even ethnomusicologists were put on the payroll. So, if it happened once, perhaps it could happen again.

            On the other hand, I share in Mr. Levine’s pessimism. This is a country, after all, where public school teachers may be called “union thugs” at the corner tap, and a majority of the customers will lift their brews and nod their heads in happy agreement.

            God knows what they would say about ethnomusicologists.

            Sad times….

          • Roosevelt’s WPA oriented projects accomplished an extraordinary amount for the furtherance and preservation of American culture. After the war, Europe continued that philosophy of arts support in their social democracies. America, by contrast, moved more and more toward an anti-Rooseveltian stance which culminated in the embrace of Milton Friedman’s neo-liberalism (the policies free trade and privatization as formulated by Friedrich Hayek, a fanatic anti-Rooseveltian.)

            As Dick Cheney put it, government was to be “reduced to something so small it could be drowned in a bathtub.” The rich became richer and the income of the middle class reduced. Our society became more plutocratic, but this did not result in the predicted increase in arts philanthropy by the wealthy.

            Before we can develop an effective public arts funding system, America’s neo-liberal economic philosophy will have to be over-come. This will be a slow process, and even more so now that the media has become even more corporatized. We cannot expect quick results. It will be a long struggle.

  • tomeg says:

    I’m not sure how much it has to do with rich people not caring, but certainly another vital thing for all orchestras is building a new generation of music lovers through educational initiatives. Innovate in how you do fundraising to help make more rich people stakeholders in the life and health of classical music. For many reasons, a failure of providing and promoting/selling high quality music education undermines present and future generations of donors. It’s a hypothesis that needs ongoing research. Exploring novel ways of enrolling younger people and older people in such research projects as are and will be needed.

  • William Schneider says:

    What ever the reason it is a sad commentary on modern life in the USA.I am fortunate that my children and grand children like opera and the philharmonic.We started exposing them to this music at age five and continue to so today.I believe that this early exposure is key to all orchestras surviving into a future dominated by hollywood trash and the music industries concentration of pablum for the mind. Another problem is the disrepair at major venues,especially Avery Fischer hall.The concert going experience should be as special as going to the Met.The seats at Avery Fischer are beyond bad as are the very badly maintained building interior. {thank God for Carnegie hall} If you can not get the Youth to the hall you can still introduce them to this music via Hi Fi and mp3 systems.It is up to adults to pass this art form on or it will die.Remember,the vernier of civilization is thin.Protect it.

  • The acoustics of Avery Fischer are so bad that it seriously harms the work of the NY Phil. They tried to move to Carnegie and were stopped by legal threats from Lincoln Center. Efforts to improve the hall have not been very successful. Plans to tear down the hall and replace it have been stopped by legal threats from the Fischer family who wish to see the hall remain as a monument (or mausoleum?) Donors for a new hall cannot be found because the new hall would still need to be named after Fischer. This is another an example of how cultural plutocracy can limit our cultural lives. Europeans have also built halls with poor acoustics, like the Gasteig in Munich, but aside from extreme expense, they have more flexibility in finding solutions because they are not bound by the naming rights of donors.

  • MWnyc says:

    The Brooklyn Philharmonic was surrounded by a lot of excitement back in the era (about 20 years ago now) when Joseph Horowitz and Robert Spano were there. Often fascinating programs, well-played. It frequently seemed as if the New York Times critics liked the Brooklyn Phil better than they did the New York Philharmonic. (If memory serves, they came close to openly campaigning for Spano to be named music director after Kurt Masur left; Lorin Maazel got the job.)

    The Brooklyn Phil never really recovered after Horowitz and Spano left. The calibre of musiciship declines (I know of one composer who nearly withdrew permission to perform a premiere because the musicians were playing the piece so badly in rehearsal), and I remember that the orchestra nearly collapsed for lack of money about a decade ago.

    This situation has been a long time coming, alas.

  • BobG says:

    In addition to all the reasons listed earlier for why classical music is falling out of favor, one could mention the dearth of successful new composers. I attribute this to the stranglehold that the 12-tone school had on composition all through the 20th century. But the fact remains that there is no newsworthy excitement about contemporary classical music. Even a composer as popular as Philip Glass generates little public awareness outside the music world. People show every day that they love music in many forms but to get their attention the classical music world needs to give them a reason to pay attention. Exciting new accessible music might do the trick. I don’t really believe that that will happen (partly because it is the kiss of death to call contemporary music “accessible”; the mandarins are horrified that someone might enjoy their work!) Our classical music is clearly going to become the equivalent of Kabuki in Japan–respected and ignored.

    • PR Deltoid says:

      “stranglehold that the 12-tone school had on composition all through the 20th century” – somehow that stranglehold did not impede the work of Ravel, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Sibelius, Nielsen, Vaughan Williams, Britten, Barber, Hindemith, R. Strauss, Walton, and many others.

      • BobG says:

        I think perhaps you make my point for me. Most of the composers you list except for Barber and Britten were born in the middle of the 19th century (Sibelius and Nielsen, for example, were born in 1865). Of course I don’t deny that there were great composers all through the first half of the twentieth century.

        But the influence of the atonal/12-tone school on mid-century American composers (e.g., Roger Sessions, Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt) is undeniable. And those people did not bring in the older classical music audience. Their students then went on to appeal to an ever-diminishing sect within the classical music audience. It is the disappearance of that large audience that this string was partly about. My point was just that without an exciting stream of accessible new American music, the audience turned away. However great Strauss et al. were (and you’ll get no argument from me about it), they represented the past, not the contemporary sensibility, and certainly not the future.

        • PR Deltoid says:

          Bob, there is plenty of accessible new music. Take one example – John Adams, whose work does a pretty good job filling halls in my experience. Another – Osvaldo Golijov, whose Passion was a big hit a few years back. There are a bunch of contemporary composers writing in an “accessible” (problematic word but I’ll use it) style. Almost nobody writes in an atonal/12-tone style anymore. Whatever problems orchestras have nowadays have almost nothing to do with atonality.

        • Richard Lee says:

          For what its worth, I vividly remember a sold-out BPO performance from the good-old days (Lukas/Maurice) – the NY premiere of Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence & Experience…