Fragmentation and Specialization: Video Game Music Orchestras

The Video Game Orchestra of Boston. Founded in 2008.

As any field grows in size and complexity, fragmentation and specialization inevitably happens. When orchestras first evolved there wasn’t any need to make a differentiation between an early music orchestra or a new music orchestra. Early Music ensembles (or Historically Informed Performance ensembles as we now often call them) couldn’t exist since the repertoire was also at its foundational stages–in fact, the rep and orchestras co-evolved and constantly fed back on one another.  All the music was new music.  As repertoire accrued and the orchestra evolved for a while in tandem with it until we got to the point that we started making sharp distinctions between musical historical periods.

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What American Chinese Opera can tell us about the US Classical Music “Crisis”

chinese opera

In a previous post I discussed how a number of professional and full time Chinese Opera theaters and companies folded during the Great Depression in the US and how all the work relief programs (at the state and national level) helped keep European styled Classical Music organizations afloat.

Note that all the professional companies folded before the Great Depression. Sadly, due to a lot of the anti-Chinese sentiment, these performing groups didn’t benefit from the economic initiatives (FERA, WPA Federal Music Project) that helped many US European Style Orchestras survive the Great Depression. Neither were new ensembles formed due to those initiatives like the 150 plus European styled Orchestras around the US. After the Depression, most of the earliest groups were “clubs” that did occasional performances rather than the 6-nights-a-week performances we saw in the pre-Depression years. I wonder if this might have happened to many of the US European Styled Orchestras had many of them not had the funding from the Federal Government through FERA and the WPA. One crisis was averted for the dominant cultural majority while another wasn’t for a cultural minority.

One thing to keep in mind is that, these Chinese Opera companies were performing often up to 400 performances a year and practically every day of the year (cf. Sunbeam Theatre Chinese Opera in Hong Kong which produces 400 sold out shows a year and is having financial problems).  Sometimes these would be community and ritual functions, but often, full blown Chinese Opera production might be performed twice a day during the run of these groups in New York and San Francisco. With the exception of perhaps the Boston Symphony Orchestra, no American Classical Music institution came close to a 52 week season.

By the end of the Great Depression, there were no longer any full time, year long Chinese Opera companies in operation, while most American Classical music organizations survived, eventually, relatively intact.

Classical Music, Great Depression, and the Government Funding Crutch

As I stated in my post, The Classical Music Crisis during the Great Depression, there were many periods of work stoppages, and even the great New York Philharmonic curtailed their season by eventually cutting concerts down by a third–and it almost merged with the Met Opera to cut costs. The San Francisco Symphony actually cancelled a whole season in 1935.  The Tuscon Symphony Orchestra merged for a time with the local University Orchestra to survive.

A great many orchestras became jointly funded by the Federal Music Project and the communities–such as when the FMP payed for 67 of the 79 members of the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra until it became a private group in 1939. But even before that it was funded by the CWA. The Newark Civic Symphony Orchestra and Seattle Symphony were partially funded by the CWA and the Syracuse Orchestra and an orchestra in North Carolina were fully funded by it. Some orchestras, like the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, were organized as FERA orchestras before becoming Federal Music Project orchestras.

Classical Music organizations were Part-Time Organizations during the Great Depression

Let’s set aside how many orchestras were actually directly funded by relief programs in the US during the Great Depression and look at how they were indirectly supported by the relief programs.

As I said in my post about part-time musicians being the historical norm (and how we don’t always mean what we mean by being a “full-time musicians“) most musicians held “day jobs” throughout history.  Some, who were lucky enough, could cobble together several revenue streams through music (as many freelancers today still do). The Great Depression changed that.  While the unemployment rate of the US popualtion reached an all-time high for Americans at nearly 25%, for musicians it was closer to 70%. With the cuts that were happening with the normal classical music institutions and the loss of cinema work (cinema musicians were the only regular full-time 52 weeks per year occupations for musicians) due to the rise of sound movies most musicians had fewer revenue streams to draw from.

Enter the work relief programs. The CWA, FERA, and Federal Music project (as well as all the individual state relief initiatives) created jobs for musicians in many fields that were music related.  Either as music teachers, music copyists (for scores and sheet music parts), or as members of all kinds of musical ensembles no just limited to orchestras, musicians were given a pool of resources to create those varied revenue streams again–and revenue streams which actually had to deal with music in some capacity rather than manual labor or civic work related projects to build infrastructure and other amenities.

In other words, relief programs allowed musicians to continue being musicians in effect creating government subsidies for Classical (and other genres of) music. This simply replaced how the classical music field was already being subsidized by private means since there were practically no full time Classical Music organizations. If these opportunities hadn’t been created, many musicians might have left the field completely to find jobs in fields which weren’t in decline–which is what Chinese American musicians had to do.

Chinese-Americans and Federal Work Relief programs

Due to the Chinese Exclusion act (which was still in effect during the depression) and the National Origins Act, the climate for Chinese Americans was pretty dire. Chinese Americans who did apply for relief were often treated the same as other non-white Americans in that they were put on the rolls for manual labor and not the special rolls created specifically for relief for white collar professions such as music and the arts.

Like the full-time (i.e. 52 week) cinema musicians, full time Chinese Opera performers lost their main source of incomes. Unlike the full-time cinema musicians and other classical trained musicians in the European traditions, the Chinese musicians didn’t have the same governmental relief sources for creating multiple revenue streams through various musical activities due to the differences between Chinese musical traditions from European ones–i.e. there were no relief positions for teaching erhu and Chinese  singing as there were for teaching violin and choral singing; no positions for transcribing Chinese repertoire and copying it as there was for various ‘negro’ and Native American tunes or for scores and parts for composers in the European Classical Music tradition; and no positions in traditional Chinese ensembles as there were for European styled orchestras, Concert Bands, Dance Bands, Choral Groups.

What is a “Crisis?”

The question is, again, what if these programs weren’t in effect for Classical Music? What if this cultural and governmental funding structures didn’t favor European art traditions? As I stated above, “[a]fter the Depression, most of the earliest groups were “clubs” that did occasional performances rather than the 6-nights-a-week performances we saw in the pre-Depression years.”

Since we still have no lack of orchestras, operas, ballets–and since they’ve not failed in a short period of time such as what happened to Chinese Opera troupes in the US during the Depression–then talk about a Classical Music Crisis just belittles the fact that there have been very real musical crises in the music history of the US which practically decimated musical traditions that still haven’t recovered in any appreciable way.

It also lessens the impact of what we mean by “crisis” since, as I’ve been detailing in this blog over the years, nearly every thing cited as an example of the Classical Music Crisis is also happening in practically every live performing field in the US as well. Of course, I have an alternative hypothesis which can account for all these similarities in various arts and entertainment fields. The theory that can take into account more of the phenomenon while also being falsifiable (as the Classical Music Crisis “theory” isn’t) is far more useful–especially when it comes to predictions (e.g. solutions to problems). The hypothesis can also take into account things like the growth of ethnic orchestras in the US.

What about the rising ethnic orchestras?

While there has been a rise in traditional Chinese Orchestras and ensembles in the US, none are performing at the level that these pre-depression Chinese Opera troupes were, and most are mimicking the European-styled orchestras and ensembles (if not the repertoire) in ways that only make sense if we consider how much force European styled ensembles and orchestras and choirs still have in the US.

The same could be said of the Arabic Orchestras and Latin-American Orchestras–and I guess the question to be asked here is are these groups a continuation (or expansion) of Classical Music styled organizations, or some newer hybrid (despite the histories of these ensembles) which reflects ethnic communities and their desire for art music that they prefer? These are far more interesting questions to me, and have far-reaching implications for the evolution of music(s) in the US and the cultures that support them.


Orchestra 990 Database Project


I’d been meaning to blog about this especially given how often those of us who blog or talk about arts organizations and finances discuss economic issues in the field, but as a last minute reminder, Drew McManus’ has blogged about his kickstarter campaign for an Orchestra 990 Database.

As you can see from the post, here’s what the Database will include and feature:

  • Converting a decade’s worth of IRS Form 990s into a searchable format along with assigning category filters.
  • The database will begin with the 2003/04 season filings. The database will include all US based professional orchestras with total expenditures of $2 million and higher.
  • A website that will retain a searchable database of professional orchestra IRS Form 990s.
  • The user interface will provide multi taxonomy filtering to assist with narrowing results (think searching by state, zip, and other custom categories).
  • Users will be able to download copies of documents returned in the search query.
  • Searches and results will be free for all users, all the time. 
  • The website will be built atop an open source publishing platform and feature a responsive design, allowing users to easily interface via desktop, laptop, tablet, or smartphone without the hassle of downloading and installing platform specific apps.
  • An L3C will be formed as the entity under which all work and ongoing administration will be conducted (more on that below).

Drew was also recently interviewed and gave more info about the project on the video blog, SoundnotionTV, which can be viewed on youtube:

For a field which has tons of researchers, pundits, and bloggers making claims about the financial conditions of large arts organizations without the ease of access a project such as this would allow, it would really be nice to have some level of transparency and, more importantly, ease of access to the public and other independent scholars who don’t have significant resources for doing research.

Even if this kickstarter doesn’t fund the project this time around, I’d hope that the next time it get proposed we can see the value of it and get it funded and off the ground because we sorely need easy access to things like this to combat the hedgehog pundits on any side of debates about arts sustainability!

Recent expansion and growth of US Orchestras: Latin-American Orchestras

Miguel Castro, Tambora, performing with the Houston Latin American Philharmonic.

Miguel Castro, Tambora, performing with the Houston Latin American Philharmonic.

A few days ago I discovered the Houston Latin American Philharmonic. An orchestra formed by Venezuelan conductor Glenn R. Garrido in 2013, the group is obviously based in Houston, the fourth largest city in the US with a est. population of 2,160,821–nearly one million of which is comprised of Hispanics or Latinos (including White Hispanics).

As you can see from its mission statement:

The Houston Latin American Philharmonic is a professional orchestra created to promote and elevate to the highest artistic level possible Latin American music, musicians and composers.

The group focuses on Latin American music, musicians, and composers.

I’d mentioned the Boston Latin-American Orchestra (formed in 2011) in my post, Classical vs. Pop [vs. the Rest], but hadn’t really spent the time exploring this type of ensemble.  I’ve started a subpage in my Ethnic Orchestras of North America tab for to list Latin-American Orchestras and ensembles which focus to some extent on this repertoire.

I think groups like this highlight the difficulties we have with defining Classical Music. With the other large ethnic ensembles which, while modeled on European styled orchestras, tend to incorporate a significant amount of native or indigenous instruments and repertoire (i.e. Traditional Chinese Orchestras and Arabic Orchestras) the Latin-American composers have some closer ties to Western world, instrumentation, and compositional style while still incorporating many indigenous idioms, rhythms, and other stylistic quirks.

Composers such as Ginastera, Piazzolla, Villa-Lobos, Chávez, Golijov, and Revueltas have regularly been included in programming of Western Orchestras for some time. While most of these composers don’t have the canonical status of many of their German, French, Italian, and Soviet counterparts belies the fact that there are a fair number of composers which are ragularly performed in Meso- and South American countries which rarely get programmed here.

One of my favorite CDs, Musica de la Puebla de Los Angeles: Music by Women of Baroque Mexico, Cuba & Europe, is by one of our resident ensembles at IUS, Ars Femina, an early music group which focuses on compositions by women composers. It’s sometimes difficult for us to understand how classical music traditions morphed when introduced into countries outside of continental Europe which impedes our understanding of the art form as it has developed in those non-European Countries (or even in European countries not considered central to the Classical Music tradition).

What I find interesting about some of the Latin American Orchestras is the focus on Dance and having dance soloists during their concerts.  For example, during the Houston Latin-American Philharmonic concert, “VIVA LATIN AMERICA,” Elizabeth Wingfield and Mauro Marcone danced during the orchestra’s performance of Piazzola’s “Libertango”:

Elizabeth Wingfield and Mauro Marcone dancing to Piazzola's "Libertango" performed by the Houston Latin-American Philharmonic

Elizabeth Wingfield and Mauro Marcone dancing to Piazzola’s “Libertango” performed by the Houston Latin-American Philharmonic

And in 2011, the Pan American Symphony Orchestra (formed in 1990) had a concert with performances by a quartet of Flamencas (Carmela Greco, Maria Juncal, La Truco, and Pepa Molina) from Spain during one of their recent concerts which also featured Composer and Oudist, Marcel Khalifé.

Carmela Greco, Maria Juncal, La Truco, and Pepa Molina

Carmela Greco, Maria Juncal, La Truco, and Pepa Molina with PASO conductor and artistic director, Sergio Alessandro Bušlje

Given the fact that one of the fastest growing populations in the US is the Hispanic and Latino group, and that the NEA SPPA have shown that Latin Music has the second largest number of online participation (after, interestingly, Classical Music) I can only imagine we’ll start seeing more and more of these Orchestras (as well as other types of Latin bands) forming and probably at an accelerated rate as we seem to be seeing with Chinese and Middle Eastern Orchestras here in the US.

How I’m starting to interpret this growth of the Ethnic Orchestras is simply a continuation of the fragmentation of audiences which is leading to specialization of orchestras for their particular niches. While the traditional Orchestras tend to be the default, they are no longer the dominant arts ensembles that they might have been in the middle of the 20th century.

We first saw a rise in Early and New Music Ensembles and Orchestras and groups which was natural since Symphony Orchestras tend to focus on late classical to early modern music with the bulk of the repertoire in the Romantic/Late Romantic. That has only increased. Similarly with non-Western Orchestras–since Symphony Orchestras focus on that Central European tradition, orchestras focusing on Symphonic Works or large ensemble works outside of that region are now filling the gaps at the periphery and are getting to be far less marginal as they increase in size and number.

As I’ve blogged about here in the past, I believe that the ratio of Art Music (and the small and large ensembles which perform it) to population is relatively constant.  What’s changing is the type of Art Music which is just a reflection of the changing ethnic demographics.  Whether we refer to these non-European Orchestras as “Classical Music” or not is irrelevant since many of these cultural institutions co-evolved with the European Classical Music culture, sometimes overlapping and dovetailing it, sometimes diverging significantly from it, but always in tandem with it.

Musical Chairs in Louisville Arts Music Culture 2011-2014

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Photo of orchestra at Mullins Hall.
 Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Photo of orchestra at Mullins Hall.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Photo of orchestra at Mullins Hall.

As we approach the three year anniversary of the work stoppage of the Louisville Orchestra and as I’ve been doing a significant amount of research into the local Greater Louisville Music and Arts scene I’ve realized how interesting the past three years have been. I’ve constructed a short (and by no means complete) timeline of significant events within the that three plus year period starting with the Louisville Orchestra’s attempt to file for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Protection in December of ’10.






Notice how many changes happened during the period Louisville was without it’s premiere Orchestral Institution. By the end of the year of the work stoppage of the LO in May 31, two local community orchestras also underwent significant changes.  The Jewish Community Center Orchestra and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Orchestra both “dissolved” in 2011.

Within three months, the JCC Orchestra reformed as the Louisville Civic Orchestra under the auspices of Bellarmine University and by early 2012 the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary reformed as a musician run organization, the Louisville Philharmonia (otherwise known as “The Musician’s Orchestra”). I’ve heard various stories as to why the Jewish Community Center and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary revoked their sponsorship of their orchestras, but I haven’t confirmed anything (more due to lack of time than anything else) so won’t speculate.  The link for the Seminary Orchestra is to a member of the group and her blog about the change.

Also in 2011, the Louisville Bach Society, after 47 years closes its doors. This has only become more bittersweet as founder, Melvin Dickinson, passed away earlier this year. While I can’t say if the formation of the Louisville Chamber Choir had any direct relation to the dissolution of the Bach Society – especially given the span of time between the two organizations – the LCC was apparently making some appearances for some time before finally having their debut in February of 2013.

I’ve included the new music groups as it is interesting to have five form within such a short span of time.  Well, to be fair (and full disclosure), I’m involved with three of them having founded two myself.  But more on these in a later post.

As you can see, the Louisville Orchestra finally returned to the stage in 2012, and by that time the other two orchestras have settled back into some sense of normalcy (the Louisville Civic Orchestra eventually became the official university orchestra of Bellarmine University). Also note that after the dissolution of those two community orchestras, the Kentucky Opera, which normally uses Louisville Orchestra personnel ended up hiring a number of players from those groups as a “substitute” orchestra for their Merry Widow production in February of 2012.

It was a whirl wind of changes during those two to three years, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it given how much of it overlapped.  See, the thing is, the JCC Orchestra had practically been in existence since 1915-16 (depending on whom you ask) as the Young Hebrew Mens Association Orchestra (which initially fed into the Louisville Orchestra at its inception in 1937).  It was later renamed the Jewish Community Center Orchestra when the JCC was built in the late 60s.  While I’m not sure how long the Seminary Orchestra had been in existence, most of what I found says at least the 80s though this image implies it existed in some form as far back as 1932.

That two orchestral organizations with such a lengthy history folded at roughly the same time as the LO was undergoing difficult labor relations and a work stoppage is…curious. That the Louisville Bach Society, which also often hired LO musicians for their orchestra, also folded during this time is probably coincidental. But all four organizations within a six month period? That’s just bizarre!