Why size matters in symphony orchestras

Why size matters in symphony orchestras


norman lebrecht

September 15, 2014

Two symphony orchestras are presently facing reduction. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has locked out its players with a view to getting their agreement to shrink the ensemble to Mozart dimensions, 45-55. The numbers have not been specified but these are the intentions that are reaching us from the company’s upper echelons. If they can’t force through a full reduction now, they aim to squeeze it in two years’ time.


The other orchestra under pressure is the Ulster Orchestra in Belfast, Northern Ireland. There, recent management has been calamitous, with chief executives changing every other year. A consultant has recommended reducing the orchestra to 45. The board have rejected his report and hired a second consultant with a brief to maintain the orch at its present size.

Here are five reasons why downsizing orchestras will not work, either in Belfast or in Atlanta.

1 A shrunken orchestra never grows again. The decommissioned players leave town, going where the work is.

2 When it needs to play Brahms, the nearest trumpet will be a medium-haul flight away. The extra players will arrive late due to airport delays, with or without instruments and luggage. The rehearsals will be clouded by haste and resentment.

3 The extra strings required for a Mahler symphony will not be up to the standard of regular players. The concert will feel like a pro-am contest.

4 Any element of prestige, let alone ‘world-class’ designation, can be forgotten.

5 A downsized orchestra is one that is heading for the skids. In a few years, it will be abolished altogether.

Atlanta and Belfast have to face up to tough choices. Either they want an orchestra or they don’t. There is no middle way.




  • Jeffrey Levenson says:

    6. Not really an orchestra.

  • Carlos says:

    Dear Norman,

    I completely agree, but do you think they care?????

  • Neil McGowan says:

    There used to be an old soviet-era joke….

    … “What’s the Moscow String Quintet?”… “It’s the orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre after a tour of the United States” (“ha-ha!”).

    Yet now countries which value culture, and the values of a civilised society, are in a minority… whilst the USA’s cultural institutions are in terminal decline.

  • Mat says:

    What a load of rubbish. Each of those points are grossly exaggerated and inaccurate. You can still be a world class orchestra and of a smaller size, it’s degrading to say the strings will no longer be capable of playing Mahler, decommissioned players will come in droves if positions arise, such is the orchestral market and oversupply of highly capable and qualified musicians.

    Norman this sort of article demonstrates everything that is wrong and backwards about classical music.

    • Anne says:

      So, in your opinion, what is the optimum size?

      • Mat says:

        “So, in your opinion, what is the optimum size?”
        I think that question completely misses the point. There is no optimum size. The size of an orchestra should be dependent on each and every community/city. Considerations will include funding, philanthropy, community engagement, demand for particular repertoire, location, history, etc.

    • ML says:

      “[D]ecommissioned players will come in droves if positions arise, such is the orchestral market and oversupply of highly capable and qualified musicians.”

      According to this logic, the best way is to fire everybody and the market will be inundated with highly capable and qualified musicians. By the same token, we should first fire the board and the management to make the market full of highly capable and qualified board members and managers. Apparently, Atlanta SO is not well-managed and does indeed need this drastic measure in search of good managers.

      • Mat says:

        That was not my logic at all. I was responding to the comment where Norman alluded to decommissioned players leaving town and there not being any capable musicians if required. There is an oversupply of qualified, competent musicians. Using world class guest musicians can be invigorating and inspiring for orchestras. Moving to fewer permanent positions where musicians have to fly in, fly out more is a reality and doesn’t have to be seen in a negative light.

        Secondly, it’s ridiculous to compare that to a board. A world class trumpeter can fly in to play with the orchestra for a week. A world class manager cannot just fly in for a week, they need to oversee operations on a long term basis. Musicians need to stop blaming boards and management like this and face reality. This is a situation seen worldwide and perhaps we need to be considering the needs of the community more and giving more musicians opportunities rather than trying to preserve permanent jobs which are unaffordable.

  • Charles says:

    45-55 is not a mozart-size orchestra…more like 35.
    66442 2222 2200 timp. Maybe 38 with trombones…

  • The players representatives should go into the next negotiating meet-up and say “We’ll accept all of your demands on one condition. The orchestra needs to be renamed ‘The Atlanta Not As Big As It Needs To Be Because The Symphony Board Has Failed To Properly Manage The Organization’s Finances Symphony Orchestra’. That name in full has to be on all programs, advertisements, letter heads, memos… everything.”

  • Adrian says:

    Please don’t take Mozart’s name in vain – he certainly wouldn’t be supporting the modern practice of ‘Mozart-sized’ orchestras to play his music. There’s a letter about a Tonkünstler concert in April 1781 where he raves about the great number of musicians on stage for the performance of his symphony.

  • NYMike says:

    World-class: Berlin, Amsterdam, Chicago, NY, Philadelphia, Cleveland, etc. – all with more than 100 full-time musicians. Mahler, Stravinsky et al REQUIRE full-time orchestra members, not journeymen rushing in to take a week’s work.

  • Russell Platt says:

    True, you can be a world-class orchestra with 50 players. But that orchestra will most likely deliver world-class performances of Mozart and Brahms (as the Chamber Orchestra of Europe has proved), not Strauss, Mahler, or Stravinsky. Doing large-orchestra versions of those composers’ works at a world-class, let’s-go-tour-Europe standard requires a community of players who are constantly performing together, week after week.

  • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

    I wonder why performing arts organizations have such oversized boards. It makes sense to get a group of up to, say, 12 individuals together, with great professional integrity and an open and curious mind and attitude about how the organization can not only remain relevant, but play a leading role in strengthening the fabric of society and community. Maybe boards need a downsizing, and not orchestras?

    • MWnyc says:

      At U.S. orchestras, it’s the board members who make the biggest contributions and round up friends to donate more. Fewer board members means less money to pay fewer musicians.

      • SVM says:

        But that begs the question, are the best fundraisers/biggest donors also the people best qualified to run an orchestra, artistically and logistically? Recent evidence suggests otherwise! Surely it makes better sense to have a smaller board that includes a couple of fundraisers/networkers, some musicians, and some experienced orchestra managers (both in the logistical and in the executive sense). Then, have a separate fundraising committee/friends scheme, and give it a prestigious and aggrandising title such as the “Conductor’s circle”. It is still possible to involve major donors in a meaningful way, without letting them have a stranglehold on the orchestra.

  • Michael Manley says:

    Disclaimer: I work for the American Federation of Musicians, and have also worked for The League of American Orchestras.

    The Atlanta situation seems part of a larger trend in US orchestra governance, in which artistic excellence is downgraded as an asset, in favor of a sort of humanitarian mission to “serve” or “be relevant” to their community (these are not bad goals, but should not supplant artistic excellence).

    I believe The League has participated in this shift of emphasis. They are not, after all, the League of “professional” Orchestras; they advocate and serve community and youth orchestras as well. And while community relevance is not unimportant, it clouds a more vital question to my mind–do those who dedicate themselves to the mastery of a classical instrument have a right to be paid? Do they have a right to a career?

    It doesn’t require health insurance, a pension, or even a very good violinist to “serve the community,” whatever that means. And if your main value is community service, is it any wonder that board members and executive directors don’t see artistry as a value for “sustainable” “new models?”

    • Nick says:

      Your description about the League of American Orchestras is right on. I just wish it was led by a creative person like Michael Kaiser, instead of someone who has had zero experience leading a major performing arts organization.

  • Mary says:

    It is true that the extra strings won’t be up to Mahler standard, and for very good reason. Anyone staying on in Atlanta after being decommissioned is going to have to find some way to eat–teaching, gigging, perhaps a complete career change–all of which interfere with the kind of practicing required to play a top-notch Mahler on four rehearsals. It is not true that decommissioned players will come back in droves should positions arise–if you are talking about a week’s worth of work (such as hiring extras for a Mahler), those decommissioned players will have already found another way to pay their bills and perhaps have had to relocate. If you are talking about restoring a position, then yes, many people will come to an audition but not as many and not as high a level as if the orchestra in question had never downsized. Word gets around, and nobody wants to invest the effort and expense in an audition for a job that could dry up in the next year.

    Orchestra players are not fungible, as the Louisville Orchestra learned to their detriment and as Detroit and Minnesota are learning too (especially Detroit). You cannot replace an ensemble of players who have twenty or more years together with a collection of recent graduates, no matter how talented, and expect to have the same level of playing. Experience matters, much more than many orchestra managements seem to be able to understand.

    I am a member of an orchestra that was downsized although not as drastically as is being proposed for Atlanta, and I also sit on all the string audition committees. I can attest to these facts: (1) violin sections of 14-12 do not sound like violin sections of 16-14, and they especially don’t sound like that if the back stands are extras who don’t play with the ensemble fulltime. (2) Just because an opening attracts fifty, or one hundred, or two hundred, applicants does not mean that every one of those applicants is qualified. Usually if a half dozen or dozen out of those applicants are even close to what you are looking for, it is a successful audition. (3) Chamber orchestras, by and large, do not sell as well as the large symphonies. Of course there are the exceptions, such as St. Paul, but ask the average concertgoer in a city like Atlanta which they’d rather hear, a Haydn cycle or a Tchaikovsky cycle, and they will pick Tchaikovsky every time.

  • William Safford says:

    They donate lots of money.

    They solicit big donations.

    They do work-in-kind.

    If they do none of the above, then I agree with you.

    • William Safford says:

      My previous message was supposed to be in reply to Edgar Brenninkmeyer.

    • Sarah says:

      This does not mean that they should be – and are capable of – managing an orchestra. Give them some other duties. But the professionals should be running the orchestra, not the money people and the shills.