What future is there for American orchestras?

What future is there for American orchestras?


norman lebrecht

June 25, 2015

In the summer issue of Standpoint magazine, I report on the declining fortunes of US orchestras, as experienced at their national convention last month.

Sample text:

The crash of 2008 drove several orchestras out of business and prompted others to resort to the raw capitalist remedy of locking out musicians without wages or health insurance until they accepted lower compensation. In the worst collision, the Minnesota Orchestra starved its musicians for 16 months until local worthies and a loyal conductor, Osmo Vänskä, forced a board retreat and the sacrifice of a meek English president, Michael Henson (the meeker the manager the more presidential his title).

So when the League of American Orchestras (LAO) went into its annual convention in Cleveland this spring it was in subdued and introspective mood, concerned not to rock a listing boat, exercising a flummery of euphemisms by which every problem is a challenge, every steep decline a temporary setback.

As a guest speaker, I was struck by the forced smiles of wilful denial — and even more struck by the absence of musicians. Not one conductor, not one principal player, was invited (or agreed) to address the heads of their industry. Like Britain in the 1970s American orchestras exist in a collective mindset of them and us.


severance hall


Read the full essay here.



  • Gianmaria says:

    No musicians were there because the heads of the industry are still trying to make this into a business. I’m sorry, but orchestras are not there to make money. They’re there to keep the legacy with the great treasures of the past and to pursue the new treasures of the present.

    Art is there to grow people into better human beings. The lack of exposure to it, does nothing but turn them into practical businessmen, who, at then end of the day, are interested only into balancing the book.

    The best leaders are the ones who surround themselves with people who excel where they don’t. Having a discussion on orchestras without the key players – conductors, composers, players etc. – is a recipe for failure.

    Gianmaria Griglio

    • Alvaro Mendizabal says:

      Hi Mr. Griglio,

      Yours is the opinion of a big segment of the artistic caucus, which is why I wanted to address it.

      Where to start? First, I agree with your idealistic view of art as a way of human enlightenment. However, it has a major caveat that neither you nor the people who think like you realize: we are not in the 16th century anymore.

      The world, like it or not, works with the tacit rules of the market, of capital. One can either know its intricacies and flourish, or try to fight them and struggle. The term ‘non-profit’ is the most detrimental word choice for an industry that needs precisely that: PROFITS!! not to pay out in dividends or speculate in Wall Street but to reinvest in the mission.

      Musicians protest if they get reduced pay, or if they slash their numbers, but with diminishing donations, a public that cares less about their art and a hoard of musicians graduating from schools around the world. WHERE IS THE MONEY GOING TO COME FROM? WHO PICKS UP THE CHECK?

      Because if I tell you right now: go an play music to the world every day, you will want to get paid. Who picks up the tab? the government? If so, where would you put Music education in the line of priorities, before poverty reduction? before social security? Last time I checked, in the real world, there are limited resources – and one must prioritize. So, what are your priorities?

      All these questions are at play. Its never so simple as to say “pff,, the government should pay. *drops the mic*”. But, do musicians think about this? I ponder NO.

  • Herrera says:


    If you are going to compare two orchestras, side by side, and attempt to draw lessons from them for the future, you’ve got to compare them in similar situations, not in wildly different contexts:

    1) You heard the Cleveland playing under their music director, playing his core repertoire of Strauss, in front of the League of American Orchestra executives and international journalists. Of course they are going to put everything on the line as though their lives depended on it, because their reputation *was* on the line! One bad word from the international press would have been embarrassing

    2) Then you went to hear Chicago playing under a guest conductor (whom you just disparaged), doing a world premiere of a piece even local critics were lukewarm about, for a regular subscription concert. But where were you when Chicago hosted the League of American Orchestras a few years back and played Mahler under Muti?

    If you want to make some grand pronouncement about the future of American orchestras by comparing them, listen to them in similar venues in similar contexts.

    It would have been very unfair, for instance, if you had heard the Cleveland in their Miami residence, under a guest conductor, playing the Carmen overture to a geriatric crowd of sleepy retirees, and Chicago during their residence at the Musikverein under Muti playing Verdi, then made grand pronouncements about the future direction of American orchestras.

    • MarkB says:

      The Cleveland vs. Chicago comparison was just a snap-shot one, and nothing more. In the broader picture, I read it more about the unexpected from a smaller urban area like Cleveland to the expected from a metropolis like Chicago. The comparison was a bit unfair because the musicians are not responsible for the buildings they play in, but that said the CSO brass section can still overwhelm the entire orchestra and not in a good way. The comparison was also a bit unfair because the CSO is in the midst of appointing several new principal plays in the crucial wind sections. One can tell the difference.

      Aside from a few composers such as Verdi, Muti is not such a compelling interpreter to my ears and I would say the same for Welser-Most. However, I disagree with you that the concerts found Welser-Most only in his comfort zones. The composers represented were broader than just Strauss. Similarly, Muti’s recent conducting of a new work by Bates was outstanding, but I in the more standard repertoire I rarely find him compelling given his reputation and all (I often look back to the Muti/Philadelphia era as his prime). Yet overall he is a very serious conductor that is usually very respectful of the composer.

      Muti is clearly the bigger name, famed conductor, but his programming in Chicago overall seams narrow and conservative. Welser-Most/Cleveland is more innovative and creative. The overall point of the article is the future of the orchestra. Cleveland and Chicago clearly represent different paths. They are probably the two best U.S. orchestras overall, but they are also very different orchestras.

  • Herrera says:

    Now a more substantive critique of your piece: If you are going to compare the economic and artistic models of different American orchestras, how well they play on any given night is but one metric, and not even the most important metric.

    To my knowledge, not a single critic ever said the Philadelphia Orchestra sounded bad while they filed for bankruptcy. If one were to judge their economic model purely on their glowing golden sound, Philadelphia should’ve been worth a billion dollars. But try taking that to the bank.

  • Robert Quince says:

    “A collective mindset of them and us” That is one of the many serious issues that American orchestras face, but only one of very many. The entire U.S. orchestra business model is seriously flawed and their days are numbered. While change is possible, it is extremely unlikely in the American system, as they are not nimble in thought nor action. This is exacerbated by a system whereby US orchestras budgets are funded, by around 50%, by the donations of the rich and elite of their communities, more often than not, non musical people, with no knowledge, understanding nor even curiosity in music, arts management, or modern arts management trends. By and large, they are an extremely conservative lot, more interested in preservation than innovation and more motivated by civic networking than by building viable institutions ready to face the future and compete on a global level. These same donors, because of their financial power, become members of the boards of these orchestras and outweigh any competent musician members or others proficient in managing an arts institution. It is a club of community elites making decisions without any competence in the profession of managing an orchestra. That explains so many recent fiascos throughout the U.S. orchestra world, from beloved music director dismissals, to putting the wrong ones in position, to hiring incompetent managers and building flawed concert halls. The musicians are treated as details in all of this and the ‘us versus them’ mentality prevails all along the way. In general U.S. orchestra management and their boards of elite and wealthy community donors, in general, sadly hold the musicians in contempt and that explains the endless strikes, collective bargaining sessions and threats from one side against the other. In brief, the current U.S. orchestra model is doomed to collapse in the current world and is a case study in how not to manage an organization.

  • John Borstlap says:

    The best solution for the problem of orchestral existence seems to be: the state garantees the orchestra’s existence (i.e. payment of salaries etc.) and a sponsor programme supports the programming (fees of soloists, expenses special projects, etc.).

    • Ellingtonia says:

      What is it about the classical music fraternity that they believe that “the state should pay them?” I can think of no other musical genre where this principle applies other than opera. No one subsidised The Stones, Led Zeppelin or indeed The Beatles, the latter many would argue have contributed more to 20th century musical culture than anyone else.
      Jazz musicans (who are often technically superior to classically trained musicians) have to get out on the road and take their music to the audience to earn a living, and their financial rewards are often minimal.
      Classical music should get from up its own backside and find more effective ways of communication with its audience………..but it may have to accept that it is a dying art form. Something which I personally would regret as some of my greatest musical experiences have been in European concert halls listening to top rank orchestras. Equally thrilling was listening to the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Dudu Pukwana and his band at the Leadmill in Sheffield, hot and sweaty, yes, but visceral in terms of musical excitement.
      I am afraid po-faced people dressed up like penguins, never smiling and people who applaud between movements being looked at as though they are lepers does not help!

      • suzanne says:

        The Grateful Dead provided financial support to composers and musicians performing less popular music because they recognised the inherent danger of limiting the cultural events available to those that pay for themselves! They were great supporters of Elliott Carter’s compositions, for example. The state certainly should be providing and paying for access to unspoilt nature, safe infrastructure, education and culture! What kind of “great civilization” are we if we choose not to afford these things?

      • Anne says:

        “No one subsidised The Stones, Led Zeppelin or indeed The Beatles”

        Surely it’s obvious that three guitars and a drum kit giving an amplified performance in a very large venue don’t need a subsidy. They have economies of scale that an orchestra in a 2000 seat venue doesn’t have.

        “Jazz musicans (who are often technically superior to classically trained musicians”

        According to what criteria, exactly?

        • Ellingtonia says:

          I don’t see what the number of instruments are played in the production of the music has got to do with it. Either the music is good or not, if the latter then audiences vote with their feet. The Beatles grafted for several years in the clubs of Hamburg to hone their musical skills and develop their song writing abilities. No one subsidised them, no one gave them grants, they simply went out and created a “new world” of music. If you produce music of value “they will come.”
          As regards the subjective comment about jazz musicians, I base it on 40 years of listening to both classical and jazz concerts. At the former the musicians have a score and play what is in front of them (accepting to a very high standard) whereas the jazz musician gets up and has to create for each performance. I have come away from concerts by Oscar Peterson, Stephane Grappelli and Ornette Coleman and been staggered at the improvisatory techniques of these giants of the jazz scene.
          So I accept that my comment was both subjective and provocative but I stick by it.
          But I will admit that I have come out of concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic, The Vienna Philharmonic and the Halle exhilarated at what I had just heard (particularly the works of Lutoslawski, Mahler and Takemitsu) and would go to see them again……….so what is the problem with classical music and its failure to attract sufficient audience numbers…………as I said previously, perhaps the demise of the large orchestra is inevitable, a bit like the lumbering dinosaurs of yesteryear!

          • John Borstlap says:

            What a silly abberation this line is. To begin with, there is a distinction between entertainment and high art (YES, there exists something like high art and it is not a snobbish observation… Because it has been supported and protected, you could go to a classical orchestral concert). Then, this says it all: “……….so what is the problem with classical music and its failure to attract sufficient audience numbers…………” Because of lack of basic education, the egalitarian media culture and the increasing deafness of the general population, there are more and more people who scream that classical music should come down to their own level – even if they themselves are, willy-nilly, impressed by it.

            It is normal if high-quality monuments which tell us about our own civilization, like so many in Europe, are well-kept and when necessary, restored, because icons of our civilization should be kept in good shape. That is reason enough. And people who think that the Rolling Stones are something like Bach and Beethoven, only with guitars and amplifyers, should refrain from exposing their embarrassing ignorance in public.

          • MacroV says:

            Number of instruments has EVERYTHING to do with it. It’s economics. An orchestra of 100 musicians playing for 2,000 people is a far different matter than a 4-person rock band playing amplified music in a stadium for 50,000. Or even in the same hall for 2,000.

            Orchestral economics are difficult because of the ratio of listeners to performers. There is no model in which live orchestral performances can make money – unless they go play arenas, too, but the amplification would kind of spoil it.

          • Ellingtonia says:

            I quote “To begin with, there is a distinction between entertainment and high art (YES, there exists something like high art and it is not a snobbish observation” and there ladies and gentlemen is what is wrong with the classical music world. Arrogance, snobbishness and elitism………a miserable concoction. And as an afterthought, what qualifies you to define what is “high art?”

          • Maria Brewin says:

            ‘At the former the musicians have a score and play what is in front of them (accepting to a very high standard) whereas the jazz musician gets up and has to create for each performance.’

            Branford Marsalis put it rather well IMO:

            ‘In a lot of ways classical music is in a similar situation to where jazz is, except at least the level of excellence in classical music is more based on the music than it is based on the illusion of reinventing a movement. Everything you read about jazz is: “Is it new? Is it innovative?” I mean, man, there’s 12 ****ing notes. What’s going to be new? You honestly think you’re going to play something that hasn’t been played already?

            So, you know, my whole thing is, is it good? I don’t care if it’s new. There’s so little of it that’s actually good, that when it’s good, it shocks me.

            So much of jazz, it doesn’t even have an audience other than the music students or the jazz musicians themselves, and they’re completely in love with virtuosic aspects of the music, so everything is about how fast a guy plays. It’s not about the musical content and whether the music is emotionally moving or has passion.’

            So far as your predictable, sneering comment on snobbery is concerned, Mr B is entitled to his opinion, just as you are entitled to your opinion on the merits of the Fab Four etc, some of whom, it could be argued, seem to be clinging on like the ‘dinosaurs of yesteryear’. Your phrase, not mine.

          • Ellingtonia says:

            I understand the rationale of the Branford Marsalis comment but I would venture to suggest that if you hear him play the same tune on consecutive nights there will always be new ideas explored, perhaps building on older ones, and no it doesn’t have to be “a new wave in jazz” but merely the soloist developing ideas (some which may not work) and consistently exploring themes and melodies or even just sounds e.g. Albert Ayler.
            As regards your comment about dinosaurs “clinging on” (paraphrasing my own comments), it is interesting that Paul McCartney, The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, David Byrne
            and various other “dinosaurs” are still able to fill stadiums and large venues because of the longevity of the music they have created.
            As I and many of my friends back in the 1960s sought out the R&B legends of the 40s and 50s (because of the quality of their music) so youngsters of today are still discovering artists of the 1960s and 70s and buying their music.
            If the music is good, it will be remembered and played, whether that be “Spem in Allium” or “Fool on the Hill “

      • Gianmaria says:

        It has nothing to do with fraternity. Music is alive if someone plays it. Classical music has 300 years old treasures that are not supposed to get lost because of the lack of private sponsors. They are there to help us make a better society. If we as a society, hence the State, do not support it, what kind of future are we building? Would you close the louvre and throw away the Monna Lisa because it needs a lot of money to be preserved?

        Gianmaria Griglio

    • Hank says:

      I’d love for that to happen, John. But the fact is, major funding by the government won’t fly in the United States. As it is, the funding the Cleveland Orchestra receives from Cuyahoga County’s tax on cigarettes and alcohol is controversial.

      • John Borstlap says:

        That is why the American system does not seem to be really working. But an orchestral culture entirely upheld by the state makes it dependent upon politicians, and we have seen in Holland what happens when totally ignorant politicians seek items on their budget to be cut because of shrinking means: they simply close down orchestras, ballet companies, force others to merge against their will. (The Dutch government even decided to completely close down the national radio music centre, which consisted of 3 orchestras, a large music library with numerous recordings of decennia, recording studios etc. etc. – fortunately the folllowing public outrage prevented that from happening, only 2 orchestras were closed and the library but they kept the national Radio Orchestra.) So, some balance between the two different types of funding seems to be the best possible compromise, as long as the protection of cultural assets is not inscribed into the national constitution.

        When the USA government, or the governments of the different states, do not feel any obligation to protect / support national cultural assets, they demonstrate their
        conviction that they are not a cultural nation. Very embarrassing.

        • Hank says:

          I agree, it’s totally embarrasing.

          It’s also worth pointing out that the majority of those who attend Cleveland Orchestra concerts do not live in Cleveland proper – the population of which is just over 390,000 (may go over 400,000 if East Cleveland is merged with Cleveland.) Most come from suburban Cuyahoga County, which has over 1 million residents.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Truly amazing….

          • Kathleen McCarthy says:

            Agreed. Most concertgoers, including myself, come from the Cleveland suburbs. Interestingly, today I received a donation appeal from the orchestra. Some salient bulleted points:
            • “Audiences brimming with more young people than ever before – concert goers age 25 and younger now make up 20% of orchestra audiences, up from 8% in 2010”.
            • “26 sold out concerts (during the 2014-2105 season). Two opera performances, and he Nutcracker ballet.”.
            I am not rich but I will donate what I can. I grew up with this orchestra. As a 10 year old my violin teacher was an “orchestra man”. My parents took me to CO concerts at Severance where I stood up, waving furiously, hoping to garner Mr. Faber’s attention as he waked on stage. There is absolutely nothing like it.

  • NYMike says:

    Hear, hear!

  • Al Jacobsen says:

    Norman – it was nice meeting you at the Beethoven/Strauss Cleveland Orchestra concert we both attended.

    You mention that “Not one conductor, not one principal player, was invited (or agreed) to address the heads of their industry” during the conference.

    This is false. The conference’s closing session had a conductor, a composer and the Principal Flute of the Cleveland Orchestra Joshua Smith among 5 featured speakers and they all engaged in a Q&A after they spoke. All 5 most definitely addressed the hundreds gathered.

    It should also be mentioned that the League offers free admission to the conference for orchestra musicians. Everyone else – board members, managers, volunteers, general public – has to pay a registration fee. Why there are so few then goes to deeper questions of culture in the field that are certainly addressed in your article and the comments here.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      I missed that, as I was on my way to Chicago by then and it was not previewed as such in the program. Doesn’t really change the argument, though: no single musician was invited to address to a plenary session on any of the major issues of the day (which, themselves, went unaddressed. Thanks for the information. Norman

      • Al Jacobsen says:

        Thank you for acknowledging the error in your argument. I do agree with your assertion that there is an overall collective mindset of them and us and that should change.

  • John Porter says:

    The League of American Orchestras conference has never had many musicians there. While many would like to erase the divide, it is still governed by the relationship between labor and management. Simply put, the League is management and the musicians are labor. Also, attendees are mostly people who have jobs that pay for the to attend. Musicians would have to bear the costs themselves and while they could deduct it from their taxes, there simply isn’t all that much for them to do at a conference designed for and run by orchestra managers. That said, the guy who runs the League is a former musician and quite a decent fellow trying to do the best for all concerned.

  • norman lebrecht says:

    Celeste Wroblewski, VP for Communications, League of American Orchestras, writes:
    There were a number of musicians and conductors who were leading sessions, including but not limited to the opening session, which featured Alisa Weilerstein on the panel, and the closing session, which featured Daniel Bernard Roumain, composer and performer; Delta David Gier, Music Director, South Dakota Symphony Orchestra; and Joshua Smith, Principal Flute, Cleveland Orchestra among others on the panel.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      I was on my way to Chicago by the time this panel was convened and there had been no advance notice of its membership so I was unaware of its existence. But that doesn’t conflict with my main argument which is that no single musician was given a keynote at a plenary session where he or she could address the leaders of the industry on the great issues of the day.

  • Robert Levine says:

    I’ve been at the last few League conferences as a musician (principal player, even) and also a League board member. There have been musician speakers at general sessions at every conference I’ve been to, as best I can recall. I’ve even spoken at plenary session on a couple of occasions, and have been on panels on several others – as have other musicians, both Board members and others.

    The “us v them” mentality is pretty universal in orchestras, at least those with music directors, judging by what I’ve heard from being at FIM meetings and hearing about them. The malignity of the relationship varies greatly from place to place, depending partly on local history and much more on the attitudes of those who run orchestras. Minnesota is a perfect example of the latter.

    I though the overall tone of the Conference was quite a bit more positive than past years, and so did the other attendees I talked to. An especially good sign were the number of young staffers there; many likely sent by their orchestras. Both the energy they brought and the fact that the purse strings are being loosened a bit were good signs.