Tested Out Upstate: Classical's Future | Orchestras in Albany, Rochester and Buffalo Stay Nimble

April 30, 2014
Two hours into the drive from Buffalo to Albany on the New York State Thruway, you pass Syracuse, a city with dark associations for classical music lovers.

Founded in 1961 and inflated by foundation grants and some flush years, the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra filed for bankruptcy before the end of its 2010-11 season. "The S.S.O. is unable to issue refunds for any tickets because we have run out of money," its website said at the time.

"You can say a city the size of Syracuse should be able to support a $6.5 million orchestra," David Alan Miller, the music director of the Albany Symphony Orchestra since 1992, said over omelets at an Albany diner recently. "But if it can't, it won't."

Even after that minor-key finale, upstate New York remains a part of the world unusually rich in orchestras. Buffalo, Rochester and Albany all have impressive ensembles. It is no surprise that each has appeared at the Spring for Music festival at Carnegie Hall, which features North American orchestras that have been chosen for their programming creativity. (This year's festival starts on Monday.)

But it will also be no surprise to those following the American arts landscape that all three groups face a simple yet daunting challenge: summoning the revenues, in ticket sales and donations, to meet their expenses. Syracuse succumbed to this math, and the region is still a test case of both the perils and possibilities facing this country's orchestras.

In 2012, amid persistent deficits, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, which appears at Spring for Music on Wednesday, fired its music director in the middle of his contract, and has not yet hired a new one. The Albany Symphony has spent the past two years without an executive director. The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra fills fewer than 60 percent of Kleinhans Music Hall's 2,800 seats for an average "Classics" series concert. (Even Spring for Music, conceived as a four-season experiment, ends this year, lacking a viable financial path forward.)

But in visits to these three cities and their orchestras in April, brighter skies were visible, too. Though still suffering reduced donations from once-mighty local corporations like Kodak and Xerox, Rochester's ensemble benefits from a close association with the Eastman School of Music. The Buffalo Philharmonic has a beefy sound, a popular music director in JoAnn Falletta and a relationship with the record label Naxos that has encouraged the orchestra to explore Romantic and post-Romantic rarities. Remarkably, 1,500 Buffalo fans traveled to Carnegie for its Spring for Music concert last year.

Of the three groups, Albany's has most successfully distinguished itself from the tired old American orchestra. The ensemble's economic model will not be to all tastes, even as that model looms in the future as rule rather than exception: The musicians are paid for each concert, rehearsal and other "service."

While this keeps costs relatively low the orchestra's budget is $2.2 million and allows flexibility in season planning, it significantly doesn't include full-time work or more than minimal benefits. But artistically the ensemble is flourishing, with music by living composers on every program and an annual season-ending American Music Festival.

"It's the only way it can be done, I think," Mr. Miller said of his focus on new music, the morning after a warmly received concert that featured Chen Yi's "Caramoor's Summer" (2003). "It should be part of your diet."

Breakfast with Mr. Miller came on the final day of a long weekend of travel through upstate New York, attending concerts and talking with conductors, administrators and donors about what their orchestras might be like in the long, long term, as ticket sales and donations remain challenging, subscriptions continue to decline and ensembles are forced to experiment with new configurations, programming styles and performing spaces.

Are these changes negative? The Spring for Music festival is a discouraging example. How has such a force for good bringing excellent if less internationally prominent orchestras to Carnegie Hall and fostering new repertory ideas while inspiring local communities not found permanent grounding in New York? It seems yet another toll of the old classical-is-dead bell.

Why does that bell keep tolling? The 16-month Minnesota Orchestra lockout, recently resolved; the decimation of public-school music education programs; and the declines in the recording and radio industries and subscription rolls, to name just a few, have collectively incited endless talk of the "death" of classical music. But it is worth remembering that classical music has been said to be dying roughly since it began. Over the centuries it has reportedly fallen prey to new technologies (the grand piano, the compact disc, the Internet); to changes in audience habits; to again and again financial shortfalls.

Then what is the period everyone recalls so fondly, the era that makes the present seem so fragile by comparison? Surely there was a time of true peace and prosperity perhaps during the salad days of the currently reigning generation of 50- and 60-something administrators and commentators?

"I think there were, like, six years in the 1980s," Mr. Miller said, half joking. Yet even those six years seem questionable: they apparently didn't include 1987, when, in the Jan. 19 edition of The New York Times, John Rockwell wrote: "More of America's symphony orchestras are in trouble than at any time since the Depression afflicted with strikes and lockouts, struggling to raise money and in some cases canceling seasons and even declaring bankruptcy."

The golden age, if indeed it existed, must have been fleeting and local, making it more sensible to think about the future than dwell on divergence from a misremembered past. What will the American orchestra be like in 2050?

Once people got over their surprise at being asked that question orchestras are generally focused on meeting next week's marketing targets, not on speculation about 35 years hence they spoke in remarkably consistent terms. Words like multidimensional, varied, flexible and collaboration kept coming up in interviews. The orchestra of the future will likely be smaller and play less. Subscriptions, while not disappearing entirely, will increasingly become a thing of the past.

"The concert hall with the two-and-a-half-hour concert is not what's going to appeal 10 years from now, 15 years from now," said Dawn Lipson, the chairwoman of the Rochester Philharmonic's board, at a pre-concert donors' reception. Her orchestra, along with others small and large across the country, is experimenting with new special events, like next season's "Video Games Live," with arrangements of music from "Final Fantasy," "Halo" and others. These programs are intended to appeal to new audiences, even though such programs pose a marketing challenge, lacking the buffer of guaranteed ticket sales provided by even a declining subscribership.

Ms. Lipson said she advocates reducing the main-stage season to less than half its current size. "The rest should be concerts that deal with our community and what our community needs," she said, like lunchtime appearances at local company headquarters by chamber ensembles made up of orchestra members.

But the Buffalo Philharmonic will be adding a week to its 2015-16 season, and it has been varying the offerings at its New Deal-era hall with concerts that feature pop performers like Natalie Merchant. Ms. Falletta's own tastes are wide-ranging, and her audience seems to trust her. "I can program things, like an all-Ives program, and not worry about people not coming," she said over lunch after a Friday matinee concert prefaced by a recent, swiftly beloved innovation: a free doughnuts-and-coffee reception.

The orchestra's executive director, Daniel Hart, agreed that repertory choices will open up as the standards begin to lose their dominance: "We've had some recent experiences with Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons' and Beethoven Five really not doing the numbers we thought that they would."

It will be a silver lining to the decline of music education if taste now forms from audiences' curiosity rather than by learning in school that Beethoven is good.

This widening of the repertory will be helped along by the fact that, by 2050, there will be few, if any, soloists who are audience draws on the level of Joshua Bell or Yo-Yo Ma today. The star system, endemic to high culture in America for a century, is fading. Intriguing programming and the excitement of an orchestra's music-making will have to carry the day, putting more emphasis on intriguing one-off events and themed festival-style series. Seeking to connect with a large local Polish community, for example, Buffalo has programmed celebrations of composers from Chopin to Lutoslawski.

Musician contracts will grow more flexible to allow ensembles to shift in size from week to week and as they travel to different venues in their communities. Players in 2050, particularly those outside major urban centers, may well find that a more substantial part of their job involves being sent to schools to provide music education. These will be expansions of existing programs in many places, like the Albany Symphony's effort to foster musical literacy through songwriting, partnering with young composers like Ted Hearne.not its executive director.

Deborah Borda, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has long insisted that orchestras of the future will need to more closely align their artistic activities with a social mission. Her ensemble's mission fairly landed in its lap, provided by the association between its music director, Gustavo Dudamel, and the international music-education program El Sistema, but every community has needs that its orchestra can help address.

Matthew VanBesien, the executive director of the New York Philharmonic, which plays at Carnegie on Monday as part of Spring for Music, spoke to this point in an interview in his office at Avery Fisher Hall, invoking another breed of nonprofit organization. "Look at the zoo community," he said. "It used to be just animals in cages and now they're much more about conservation and the environment. They become this larger resource."

The question underlying these expansions of focus is whether they will be accepted by orchestra members who will have to agree to revised contracts granting more flexibility as they also cut costs. Will Albany's per-service framework, or something like it, become the norm?

"It's a model that full-time musicians in orchestras would naturally fight against as hard as possible," Mr. Miller said. "But it's exactly what happens in industry."

Jesse Rosen, the president of the League of American Orchestras, was more skeptical in a telephone interview.

"We will be moving to orchestras that deploy their musicians in many different ways," he said. "I would hope that the ability of orchestra administrators to provide substantial employment would be something we would see. One of the challenges of an Albany is musicians have to piece it together. They also play in western Massachusetts, or Schenectady, or somewhere. From the standpoint of stable employment, they're not ideal."

But young musicians entering the field may be more open (by temperament, necessity or both) to such instability. Administrators said that it was these players who were by far the most flexible in conceiving adaptations of the standard orchestral model; several cited Claire Chase, the flutist who founded the International Contemporary Ensemble, as a prototype for the agile, entrepreneurial player of the future.

It can be hard to accept changes that will involve the losses of jobs and security. But there is something strangely comforting in the fact that classical music has seemingly always been on the verge of collapse, yet here it remains.

"When I moved here from Los Angeles, I was very sad in the fall," Mr. Miller said of Albany. "All the leaves died and fell off the trees, and I associated fall with death. And then finally my wife had to explain to me that it's not about death. People love fall because it's the first step to rebirth."

The New York Times
by Zachary Woolfe