Ivan Fischer: ‘Symphony orchestras have only a few decades left’

Ivan Fischer: ‘Symphony orchestras have only a few decades left’


norman lebrecht

August 13, 2014

He tells Richard Morrison in The Times:

Symphony orchestras in their present form have only a few more decades left, at most. Their financing is already a vulnerability. Will American-style civic pride or the goodwill of European politicians really be enough to feed these large beasts that are basically the same now as they were a century ago? And is that rigid formation really appropriate for today or are we simply stuck with it? I think we are stuck with it. I would welcome a more flexible musical family that could adapt its size and resources to what different composers and audiences required. In Budapest we have a pool of musicians doing a variety of activities. Those orchestras that are flexible will survive; the rigid ones won’t. The same thing happened to dinosaurs, I think.’

Full article here (behind paywall).


ivan fischer


  • Neil McGowan says:

    You could say the same thing about museums and galleries – they don’t ‘make a profit’. Does that mean we should close them down? I suppose that kind of thinking would appeal to The Times.

    Not all countries assess “success” in nickels and dimes. I’ve just come back from Oslo, where the beautiful National Opera & Ballet Theatre is the centrepiece of the regeneration of the city’s waterfront region. It’s not only a centre for the arts – but a public space where people go to walk (you can walk right over the building), to swim (it dips into the water too), to enjoy free jazz and world music on the patio.

    Does it “make money”? No, and no-one ever expected it would. It’s there because it provides a centre of excellence and cultural inspiration for people. It lays out Norway’s credentials and values, and enriches the lives of people who work hard – to give them a rationale for that work that results in fuller, richer lives. You can’t put a ‘price’ on that kind of riches.

    Norway has been ruled (since 2005) by a centre-right coaltion government.

    • GEll says:

      And what a wasted opportunity to not have named it the KIRSTEN FLAGSTAD Opera & Ballet Theatre. Perhaps someday. There is time.

    • sdReader says:

      Good post.

      And Ivan Fischer should bear in mind that dinosaurs remain a top attraction.

    • sdReader says:

      … and did you get the nearby gem of a recital hall, Gamle Logen, where Grieg played, now a home to the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra?

    • John Borstlap says:

      AMEN to that. It is just a matter of understanding where the value and priorities lie. ‘A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’ (Oscar Wilde).

  • Eric says:

    These aren’t new comments, really. He made similar comments in a massive feature in The New Yorker in the late spring. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/06/02/notes-of-dissent

    • sdReader says:

      Yes, he did. I wonder what he’s trying to achieve.

      • Philip Arlington says:

        Possibly to break people such as those commenting here out of their complacency?

        Just because the level of support hasn’t fallen below the critical level yet, it doesn’t follow that it never will. I used to have a Norwegian girlfriend, and the level of interest in classical music among young upper middle class Norwegians is far lower than it is among their parents. It is delusional to assume that people like my ex-girlfriend’s friends, who will be running Norway one day, will automatically be as generous to classical music as their parents, when they don’t have the same level of interest in it.

        I don’t believe there is a single country in Europe where young people are not losing interest in classical music. When I was a teenager in the 1980s there was still a sense of obligation to take an interest in classical music among the cultural aware minority of youth. This sense has almost died from my observation in various countries. Classical music has to renew itself or it will continue to decline.

        • John Borstlap says:

          ‘…. has to renew itself’: but in which respect? The repertoire (i.e. more Xenakis and Boulez and cross-over & film music)? The way it is performed, i.e. interpretation (i.e. drum beat under Beethoven symphonies)? Presentation (i.e. with or without theatricals, mimes, undressed ladies, or acrobatics)? Different venues (i.e. factory halls (Rattle + BPhO), open air, railway stations)? Adapting to butterfly attention spans (i.e. chopping-up movements into short sound bites)?

          What about education – from primary school upwards? Culture is an identity-forming factor in the development of young people towards mature adults and inheritants of an important culture. The lack of interest among younger generations is fully and entirely due to lack of education and information…. and the exaggerations and distortions of contemporary media culture.

      • Eric says:

        By this, I only mean that it isn’t some new revelation. These comments have been uttered by Ivan Fischer for some time now.

  • “… these large beasts that are basically the same now as they were a century ago…”

    Are they really?

    The repertoire is different. The venues are different. The funding is different. The labor is different.

  • Something to bear in mind. The average age of classical music concert goers has been increasing gradually for some time. Once this group enters into their twilight years, will there be young people to replace them? Peter Gelb has said the same thing recently (perhaps in earnest and not just for contractual reasons).

  • Nick says:

    Ivan Fischer is far from the first to make this prediction about the future of the symphony orchestra. Some 20 or so years ago at the annual Conference of the American Symphony Orchestra League (now renamed the American Orchestra League – presumably to avoid that nasty acronym!), a keynote speaker, as I recall, predicted that there had to be major changes or 75% of the orchestras then in existence in North America would have collapsed within the following 25 years. Well, we haven’t quite reached that 25-year threshold and the decline is not as significant as predicted – yet. But certainly in North America, where there has been a big decline in the dominance of subscription selling a the key method to raise ticket revenues coupled with donor fatigue, the future for most orchestras does not look bright.

    But, at least in the New Yorker article, Fischer is not stating unequivocally that orchestras will die. The essence of his argument is that the rigid way in which the business of running orchestras has to change, or they will die (as Philip Arlington implies in his post above). He advocates much greater flexibility on the part of managers and musicians to meet the needs of societies which themselves are vastly different today than they were up to a century ago.

    There’s a perceptive 2013 article by Phillip Kennicott, the Art and Architecture critic of the Washington Post. He summarises the crisis engulfing orchestras in the US and likens it to the Vatican Church in the wake of the reforms of Vatican II. He takes particular aim at the managers.

    “The League of American Orchestras has always been a bit of an embarrassment. It offers its members invaluable information, including details about wages and union contracts that let managers drive hard bargains. But when it comes to art, the League thinks at the level of an airline magazine. This year’s meeting felt like a Rotarian convention, and it ended with a group-therapy session. Look into the eyes of the person next to you, commanded the moderator, and repeat after me: ‘I have a dream for America’s orchestras. I am the future of America’s orchestras.'”

    How many more orchestras will die before most of their leaders, Boards and managers, grasp the nettle and start to lead effectively?

    • John Borstlap says:

      The Dallas Symphony Orchestra has achieved an impressive connection with ‘the community’, having appointed a master conductor (Jaap van Zweden) who is a maestro ‘new style’ communicating with the audience also verbally, having board members and famous Dallas sportsmen on the stage with short talks, clever marketing in the city which bridges any imagined distance between an ‘elitist art form’ and an ‘egalitarian society’. And all this does not in the slightest impair a programming policy which includes ‘difficult’ works by Shostakovich, and modern, unfamiliar pieces (Stucky), etc. etc. So indeed, the package can be changed without changing the art form. Also the recent Chicago festival of the CSO this summer with heavvy programming – complex and unfamiliar Russian music, unfamiliar Britten violin concerto, etc. – was sold-out long in advance and a spectacular audience success (again, under the baton of Van Zweden). If you have a good, very professional & understanding team and brilliant conductor and players, all let loose upon expressive repertoire, audience problems are solved.

  • Alexander Hall says:

    There are plenty of doom-mongers and Armageddon-merchants who luxuriate in their moments of media attention. The older generation will remember with me how Pierre Boulez announced the end of the opera house a half-century ago. A decade he was conducting in that most hallowed of all operatic temples, Bayreuth.

  • Alexander Hall says:

    A decade later (that should read).

  • Doug says:

    Although he articulates what’s already on many musician’s minds, I find Fischer a hypocrite. He he took to heart what he claims to believe he would:

    1. move his family back to Hungary to raise his children as Hungarians just as he was raised.
    2. forgo the “mania of guest soloists and conductors” shun the jet-setting life stay at home and focus on building Hungary as a centre of classical music as it once was.

    Otherwise, he should shut up about Hungarian politics and become an ex-pat and begin speaking French or American.

  • Paul says:

    and how longs does conductor Ivan Fischer have left? Is this really the type of leadership we need? Maybe he should join forces with Peter Gelb and they can both lead a titanic organization down the road to destruction with their pessimism.
    Don’t just say “there is a problem, and we are all doomed”, a conductor should be the one inspiring everyone to see the beauty and necessity of orchestras. And if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem, so get out of the way and give others the chance to show how they can make a positive difference!

    • Nick says:

      But he IS advocating a solution! Greater flexibility, a radically different approach to how orchestras are run and how instrumentalists regard their careers, about how auditions are conducted, etc.. In the New Yorker article he advocates that the “artistic fulfillment of the musicians” should take centre stage in future. He already has made some changes with his magnificent Budapest Festival Orchestra, but recognises there have to be seismic shifts in the profession as a whole.

      Fischer brings vast experience to his comments on the future. Gelb, whom you also mention and who should never be coupled in the same breath as Fischer, does not.

  • Name (required) says:

    Nick says:”How many more orchestras will die before most of their leaders, Boards and managers, grasp the nettle and start to lead effectively? ”

    Again, can you translate that? Better business practices, efficiency etc. all well and good-but how does that create news audiences from the younger generations who just have no interest in this music or tradtion? Yes, yes, outreach/education, but what does that really mean? How does that compete with I phones, and a massive shift in cultural values?

    • norman lebrecht says:

      You are using a second pseudonym. Pls stick to the first.

      • Marshall says:

        You are using a second pseudonym. Pls stick to the first. –

        If that is addressed to me, that is not the case. I think last night it may have repeated the same post, but it was the wonderful world of computers and ISP’s at work.

        We all do not have access to the same high speed, but beyond that it needs to be pointed out that even people with the best systems available are frequently bitching about problems. So may more people using this, and all the time-will it just collapse of its own weight?

  • Nick says:

    The simple answer is that if they don’t, then Fischer’s predictions may well come true! We know that finding new audiences in the age of iPhones, the internet, CDs, DVDs and the vast array of other leisure choices open to young people today is no easy task. The fact is we’ve seen it coming for several decades. Yet, what have those interested in the continued development of symphony orchestras – and I include management, musicians, Boards and Unions – been doing to ensure that the art form which they hold dear and which both pays their bills and provides them with positions in their communities continues to play a role in those societies?

    We know most orchestras have changed little in the last 30 – 50 years. Most managements still present orchestras in dedicated concert halls in specific format concerts. Most musicians happily play their rehearsals and concerts under different conductors and can make additional income through teaching and other activities. The audiences which enjoys this routine is ageing. Public musical education of young people is being cut back. And what do those with the biggest stake in the art form do about it? Tinker with often ill-conceived educational concerts, make their subscription brochures more trendy, offer a few innovations – and then throw their hands up in the air when these don’t work!

    Just as in the world of business, orchestras need to continually change and adapt to meet the needs and wants of the societies in which they operate. That doesn’t mean dumbing down the concert experience. It means making it more attractive to those who presently consider – usually without any evidence – that a concert will be boring, incomprehensible and therefore not for them. It means breaking down perceived barriers. It means creating a link between the snippets of classical music that most people hear and enjoy in movies, on tv on radio – even on ring tones, and then, like a fisherman gradually pulling in that fish at the end of the line, developing that interest to the extent that some will think, “well, maybe I should try a concert.”

    That’s only one thought. Far easier said than done, I agree. But those with most to gain from “the orchestra” remaining a viable and vibrant part of their communities also have the most to lose. Fischer’s argument, I believe, is that if they don’t start thinking about how they go about their business and being more creative, they will lose more than just audiences. They will be out of jobs.

    • Nick says:

      I could have added an additional point. By the late 1980s, the recording industry was dominated by a small number of major labels and a relatively small number of highly paid conductors, soloists and orchestras. All were rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of future profits as far as the eye could see. The advent of the CD earlier in the decade meant the existing record-buying market was replacing its old LP collections. There was no need to find new markets. So CD prices remained very high and the profits rolled in.

      One small company based in Hong Kong run by a music-loving businessman, Naxos, realised there was a far larger classical market which the majors were not tapping. These were largely people for whom big names meant little. What was far more important was the music – produced in first class digital recordings with fine orchestras, conductors and soloists. As important were accessibility and much lower prices. The majors could have re-released some of their vast libraries of out-of-catalogue recordings on lower priced labels. They didn’t. That, they decided, would just dilute their huge profits from full-price CDs.

      Naxos’ new recordings were initially sold in supermarkets, Woolworths, book stores – non-traditional outlets, at about one third the price. Naxos did not compromise on either quality or repertoire. The result? Nothing less than a revolution in the recording industry. Within a few years, the majors had died, were merging or were desperately entering the cross-over market. Naxos became and remains the world’s largest single classical recording company vastly outproducing and outselling almost all the others combined. It created a new market. And it is no coincidence that its releases have been garnering not only great reviews in the classical recording magazines; they have gained many Grammies and Grammy nominations.

      Naxos had the foresight to analyse the industry and start thinking out of the box. Orchestras need to do the same to ensure their future.

  • Marshall says:

    Some good points there Nick. But at the heart of it is-“far easier said than done.” I am beginning to think that someone financing musical missionaries who devote themselves to exposing young minds to great art, and giving them the bug at an early age- as I’m sure most of us were-is worth a try. The forces arrayed against us are immense, and it may be a cultural shift of such magnitude that it is jousting against windmills. I’ve seen young people with some real potential, but now as soon as they hit the teen years, it’s the damnable machines that are the obsessions of their lives. Where I live teens get together, and sit at a table and text each other, instead of having a conversation.

    More of the anecdotal, but I was over at Glimmerglass earlier today, and beyond the young artists in the audience, and their buddies, I was simply stunned, stunned by the old age of the audience. Talking to a friend about the Met situation, we looked at each other and figured all this will be gone in 20 yrs. and so will we.

    Zambello, who runs it now, has gone with a format of American musicals,mixed with Puccini, to try to survive. I wish her luck, but is that going to do the trick? Those -what did you call it-old school people-like me, have no love of musicals, have seen enough Puccini that only legendary names from the past would entice attending another performance of you know what-and as a result I have very little interest in it. Now is it my responsibility to support it at all costs, or at this point in my life, listen to the music that means the most to me?

    • Nick says:

      I’m not sure that any of us has any responsibility to support any of the arts unless we enjoy what we experience. It’s the responsibility of those who make their living from them and enable them to exist to ensure their viability – if they wish to survive.

      We are obviously wrong to limit the discussion to young people. New audiences mean bottoms on seats from whichever age grouping they come. My guess is that the Naxos market does not include too many of the youth generation but accept I may be totally wide of the mark. There’s no doubt, though, that Naxos continue to do an incredible job by engaging modern technology to market and deliver music in many different ways. Perhaps it should set up a consulting arm to help orchestras reach out to those new markets it has captured around the world.

      • Marshall says:

        “I’m not sure that any of us has any responsibility to support any of the arts unless we enjoy what we experience – ”

        Well, I’m not sure either, but my point has been that the society/culture as a whole used to define itself by these activities-it would have been unthinkable not to support them in the past. Especially the rich in America-in Europe it was the aristocracy-, the great captains of industry form the Gilded Age on who built most of the cultural institutions in the US.

    • M2N2K says:

      “…as soon as they hit the teen years…” Are you kidding? Apparently you haven’t been around toddlers lately! That video-gadget obsession is starting as soon as their eyes can see and their hands can hold.

      • Marshall says:

        No, I haven’t been around toddlers lately-that bad? Some argue that the machines themselves alter values and perceptions. (remember some of the earlier talk of writing on a word processor affects the style etc.) There may be something to it on some level, but we all know the device can also express the interests of the user.

        But I am amazed-and have called on them for help-how the “young” seem to absorb through osmosis their facitility to operate all this.

        • Nick says:

          It’s certainly not just toddlers and the young. I am rather appalled that good friends in their 60s and 70s will happily now send an sms or an email rather than bothering to phone. Even my next-door neighbours send emails instead of popping round or phoning. As I do not own a smartphone, I am probably being left far behind!

          • M2N2K says:

            Which is why we can safely say that the dreadful obsession not only starts as soon as eyes can see and hands can hold, but unfortunately does not end until eyes can no longer see and hands can no longer hold.

  • Michael says:

    I always enjoy reading these passionate comments, and I wanted to add a few things to this thread that I don’t think were mentioned yet. When it comes to selling classical music (i.e., the orchestra, opera, chamber music, etc.), I don’t think the main issue is getting more people to go to concerts. That is only part of Fischer’s argument. The whole apparatus surrounding the performance of classical music, particularly the standard repertoire, will need to be rethought and, frankly, will need to evolve if it is to survive. His point in this piece is that the orchestra stopped evolving with Mahler and Strauss, and everyone since then has been basically composing for the same ensemble. Well as we all know, there’s been an unending source of miraculous creativity in the 20th century for the standard orchestra. So that in itself isn’t the main problem. But the very act of going to a traditional two-hour symphony concert is seeming more and more like an anachronism every year. No matter how much you educate young people to “appreciate” classical music, they aren’t going to give up two to three hours of an evening to go sit quietly in a concert hall.

    This is a universal problem everywhere that is affecting way more than just orchestras. Young people do not want to be away from their devices for that long. Also, the pace of their lives and the constant interactivity our modern world has foisted upon them make it nearly impossible to focus without distraction for even one continuous symphonic movement, let alone a whole concert. As all readers here know, classical music cannot really be understood (or loved) in bits and fragments. It requires a certain amount of commitment, both time and concentration. A golf-playing friend tells me that hardly any young people are interested in golf anymore because they can’t afford that much extended time in a sustained activity. Well, what are they doing? A gazillion things at once, that’s what they’re doing, most of it staying connected with electronic devices. Can “classical music” be woven into that connectivity. I’m doubtful. At least not without a re-circuiting of brain synapses.

    Another issue with the modern world – and no longer just “young people,” but now “most” people – is that their lives are increasingly becoming a communicative gloss on popular culture. The entertainment world screams for their attention, seduces them practically from the time they’re infants and keeps many people in a state of perpetual attention to the “new,” the “cool,” the “what’s hot.” The act of sharing the stories and images associated with them perhaps gives one a feeling of participating in this coolness, but in the end, it only serves to support and entrench certain types of popular culture more than ever. Some of it is exciting and wonderfully creative, don’t get me wrong. But the greater percentage of it is dreck. The internet and iPhones has only intensified this and turned it into a global phenomenon. There is little time anymore for anything that isn’t constantly fed by this stream. So you get a handful of young people interested in the arts. You teach them to play instruments, to sing, to play in bands and orchestras. Fine. But the second the rehearsal is over–or even during several bars of rest!–they immediately return to that “world” again, and this world has no place for classical music. There is simply no reinforcement for it. The reinforcement was there even as recently as 60 years ago, when learning and listening to classical music was a marker of education and refined taste. But no more. That’s long gone. Even the most educated in law, the sciences, and similar fields now find personal satisfaction in engaging in the continuous chatter that I call the endless gloss on popular culture, when these are the same folks that once would have supported the symphony orchestras, the opera and ballet theatres, the chamber music concerts.

    It’s a massive issue for those of us who adore classical music, and Ivan Fischer is right to keep bringing it up. I must admit I’m one of those people who don’t go to concerts much anymore, so I guess I’m part of the problem. But I constantly listen to classical music on YouTube and other platforms. I just discovered the pleasure of a new William Schuman symphony the other day, something I would probably never have happened upon in a concert hall anyway.

    • John Borstlap says:

      All this is all too true. But if it is assumed that ‘the orchestra’, i.e. ‘classical music concert formats’, should adapt to a process of degeneration of ‘modern man’, this degeneration is merely helped and supported. Education is the only possible solution here. If / when Western societies are no longer capable of understanding their own cultural identity and cultural heritage. they are in for a lot of trouble, and not merely culturally.

  • Warrior says:

    What do most young people listen to? They listen to popular music that involves simple harmonic progressions. Why those leading the classical music world are seeking to attract young audiences by programming complicated contemporary repertoire (that most musicians don’t even want to play) is a mystery to me.
    Just play Beethoven 7, Mozart 40, Schubert 9, Mahler 5, etc, and audiences will come to hear it. Contemporary music can be mixed in. People will come, they always do.
    When you sell pretentious contemporary BS and make people feel badly for not liking it, that is a huge waste. The problem is with the programming, not with young people. They want to hear I IV V I and I ii V I.

  • John Borstlap says:

    It is a modernist myth that ‘the orchestra’ is merely a relict from the past and as such no longer ‘relevant’ to modernity. Monuments from ages ago (Chartres,Versailles,Hofburg etc.) are restored with the greatest care and with lots of money, museums of ‘old visual art’ (Louvre, National Gallery, etc.) have become iconic venues of reverence, and of course the practice of orchestral performance culture and opera is here to stay. The achievements of the past tell us who we are,and the notorious butterfly attention span of younger generations will shrink audience sizes, but normal people who still want to be adults, will go on to respect and keep alive culture that offers valuable experience.