Are Orchestra Musicians Replaceable?

Drew McManus pointed out a piece written by Michaela Boland which had some interesting quotes by Greg Sandow with whom I don’t necessarily agree on many points though he is one of the critics of the current status quo of Classical Music in the US.

Among the orchestras that have shut their doors and dismissed players there are some groups that have survived due to radical restructuring, which is where Sandow sees the future of the industry. Columbus Orchestra, by way of example, staved off closure in 2008 and retained 53 full-time players by reducing salaries by 27 per cent. Detroit Symphony Orchestra is engaged in similar talks with players.

Sandow argues that players in America’s top orchestras have traditionally been well paid, with salaries above $100,000, and the cuts are having an invigorating effect. “It’s interesting to talk to young musicians about this; they don’t see it as a problem, they’d consider themselves lucky to get any of these positions,” he says.

Historically, however, because of the status and the good pay, few of them could secure such jobs.

Sandow says that if the Philadelphia Orchestra were to suddenly discharge all its musicians and replace them with young players on contract, what might be lost in polish could easily be made up for in pizazz.

“I wonder if that wouldn’t be more exciting to hear,” he says. “It might really surprise people.”

This echoes some things said by Eric Edberg during the Detroit Symphony Orchestra debacle

I’m living in New York this semester, and have met a number of young free-lance players, some of whom are graduate students at big conservatories.  Guess what?  Most have little if any sympathy for the DSO players (who have not managed to successfully reframe the conversation and are losing the PR war, even with music students). They love all sorts of music in addition to classical music.  Plenty find traditional symphony (and other) concerts boring.  There are plenty of classical-change advocates, in various stages of self-awareness, among them. Right now, they have little or no work.  Student and, in many cases, instrument loans to pay.  Fantastic players.

Many see the union as the problem (even if they’re not going through one of those college-age Ayn Rand phases).  The players have been successfully characterized to/construed by them as greedy, selfish, and/or out of touch.  A lot of these incredibly-accomplished young players (and I bet there are bunches more in Baltimore, Bloomington, Cincinnati, Cleveland, LA,Miami,  etc.) seem excited at the idea of going to Detroit to work in a “new model” symphony.

While Unions may or may not be the problem (cf. Michael Kaiser’s recent post, Are Unions to Blame?) there is this sense that for good or ill, with younger musicians (many of whom are, as Eric says, struggling as freelancers much less in this economy) who haven’t matured in the Union environment, few are going to have as much sympathy as those musicians who rely on collective bargaining to sustain their livelihood.

On the other hand, a question I’ve been exploring–or rather, I could reframe the title of this blog post in a different way–is, “Are Western Orchestras Replaceable?”

Continue reading

Classical vs. Pop [vs. the Rest]

The Firebird Youth Chinese Orchestra in San Francisco is one of several dozens of large ensembles formed in the US which don't follow the European Orchestra model. There are over two dozen ensembles of traditional Chinese instruments in the Bay Area, ranging from grade school ensembles to semi-professional/community orchestras as well as traditional Chinese Music Education at various k-12 schools and colleges in the area.

Takht Ensemble of the Michigan Arab Orchestra

There’s a phrase in post-colonial criticism and politics that essentially states that the overriding dichotomy is the “West vs.the Rest.”  One of the things that strikes me about discussions (in the US and in Europe to some extent) about the decline of Classical Music (and by “Classical Music” I’m obviously meaning the Western or European Classical Music tradition) is the debate about relevancy and/or the relative (though usually couched in terms of absolute) worth of “Great Art Music.”

The title to this post reflects that di(tri)chotomy as the bracketed section is the part of the discussion that so often gets left out.  I’ve blogged somewhat about what I’m calling the false dichotomy of Classical vs. Pop in the past and have attempted to infuse some of these discussions with a much broader context than most of the disputants are willing to acknowledge.

A recent piece in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette by Emma Downs has made me think more about the changing demographic of the US and how that is ultimately going to impact the quality (in the hierarchical sense) of music in the US.  The piece is titled Orchestras slowly add racial, ethnic diversity and is a discussion of the proportion of ethnic minorities in US orchestras in general and the ethnic make-up of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic (which is slightly higher than the national average) in particular.

The piece starts with the bold (and sometimes tired)

Although racial and ethnic diversity is increasing in the United States, many orchestras and symphonies across the country still do not represent the communities they play for.

which I don’t think is a controversial claim when looking at the basic numbers and implied issue of a “quota.”  On the whole, US Orchestras are primarily composed of whites.

Los Angeles Balalaika Orchestra, formerly known as the Los Angeles – St. Petersburg Russian Folk Orchestra

The piece gives a few reasons for this, but this one is the important one for my purposes

The lack of diversity is based on several factors, including historical precedents. For hundreds of years, orchestral music was predominantly a European tradition and a venue for self-expression that seemed to be “an unwelcome field for minorities,” [John] Bence says.

This is obviously a problem–and something that non-minorities can’t fully appreciate.  A poignant story Eric Edberg posted about one of his former students (full disclosure: I am also one of Eric’s former students), Troy Stuart, can drive this home.  I’m taking the quote Eric posted from a profile in the Baltimore Sun (link is dead) about Mr. Stuart:

In the 1980s, as a graduate student at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, the toughest challenge Stuart faced wasn’t in the pieces he studied, but in a large mirror on the practice room wall – the reflection of an African-American staring back at him.
“I had to cover it for the first half-year,” Stuart says. “I wasn’t gaining any confidence from seeing myself.  If I had had a Yo-Yo Ma to look up to, I know I wouldn’t have had any problem looking into that mirror. I still remember the first time I saw an African-American on a classical album cover, I almost fainted.”

Not having a role model to look up to can be very trying psychologically.  I remember while growing up in the States that the only Asian role models on television I could see were those found in the occasional Hong Kong Kung Fu films or in Japanese Daikaiju (e.g. Godzilla, Gamera).  Of course, I’m neither Chinese nor Japanese, but Thai and we could probably debate the relevancy of having revenge-minded martial artists or giant-monster-fighting heroes (to be candid–I always identified with the “good” monsters) as a role model for participation in real life society.

Continue reading

Is there really a Classical Music Crisis?

I’ve been trying to catch up on my blogroll, mainly because (and maybe this is ironic) I’ve been so busy gigging that I haven’t really had much time to dig into my subscriptions.  This weekend will be no different as I’ll have 5 shows to play plus the two on Monday.  This despite Greg Sandow also stating that freelancers are having a hard time–this past month for me has been my busiest gigging month in, well, a year or so.  To be fair, I have a bit of an unorthodox skillset that allows me to, as the proverbial chinese chopsticks say, “pick up anything” so maybe I’m not a fair case to judge by.

But that’s what this post is about.  Eric Edberg posted a recent post at his blog questioning whether or not there is a classical music crisis.  He also linked to a recent post by Drew McManus (also on my blogroll though I hadn’t gotten that far yet) about the same topic.  I think they are a bit cautious about making such a claim (even if they both might have hinted at it in the past).  I don’t really think there’s a crisis either.

Or rather, I’m stating now that after a couple years of exploring and researching the subject that I’ve come to the conclusion that there isn’t really a crisis.  Sure, the face of classical music is changing, but Anne Midgett put some of that in perspective with a recent blogpost about the situation in Germany almost 20 years ago.

Let me quote at length what she says about Orchestras in Germany (she follows with some info about Opera and ballet companies):

Twenty years later (almost), we can look back and see what the crisis actually looked like. According to the book “Musical Life in Germany,” an informational publication put out by the German Music Information Center (MIZ) that just landed on my desk, there were 168 publicly financed concert, opera, chamber and radio orchestras in reunified Germany in 1992. “Since then,” the book states, “35 ensembles have been dissolved or merged.” That’s a lot. There are 2,237 fewer full-time positions for orchestral musicians in Germany today than there were in 1992 — a loss of 18%. As we wring our hands over the loss of orchestras in Louisville, Hono lulu, Syracuse, and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s declaration of bankruptcy, imagine what we’d do if we lost 35 of them. The vast majority of these closures were in the states of the former East Germany; some areas, particularly smaller towns and cities, were left without orchestras and opera companies at all. And mergers and closures are continuing to take place.

However, even after all these cutbacks, Germany still has 133 orchestras, and 83 opera houses – one-seventh of the world’s opera happens in Germany alone. And the number of orchestral concerts, and of attendees, is actually going up: there were about 1,800 more orchestral concerts in the 2008-09 season than there had been in the 2001-01 season (and no, those figures don’t include school concerts and educational events). Orchestral attendance, given at 3,666,142 in the 2000-01 season, was, by 2008-09, up to just over 4 million. What are we to make of this?

Yeah, what are we to make of this?

See, for a few months, after mulling over data regarding live audiences versus audiences for digital media and/or live HD streaming, it just seems like the audience is still there and just as strong as it has always been.  Just the way the audiences ‘get their fix’ of classical music has changed.  Many of the pieces, reports, studies, etc. seem to be saying the same things–even over a relatively broad period (in some cases up to 20 years)–the audiences are still there, but they just aren’t going to live events.

I was thinking that what would happen here in the states is exactly what happened in Germany.  There’s going to be a restructuring–we’ll probably lose alot more orchestras before its over, but in the end with fewer orchestras, there will be a slightly (if not significantly) bigger audience for all of them.  Just as what seems to have been happening in Germany.

Continue reading

Music of the Whole World: The ABCs of Intercultural Music

Member of the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra during a performance

So tonight, the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra is having their “Music of the Whole World: The ABCs of Intercultural Music” event that I mentioned in a previous post.

The performances details:

Thursday March 3, 2011 at 7 pm
Vancouver Public Library Central Branch
350 Georgia St.
Alice MacKay Hall (Lower Level)
FREE Admission

But what really sold me to this group–other than the fact they are doing what I would love to be doing with an ensemble, is this:

For the third presentation in the 2010-2011 edition of our educational series Music of the Whole World, the VICO is proud to feature the future of intercultural music, in the making: student composers from Seycove Secondary School in North Vancouver will present new pieces they have written for tar, oud and santur, performed by VICO musicians. This event is part of VICO in the Schools, an innovative workshop program through which VICO musicians and instructors introduce students to a selection of non-Western instruments and impart techniques for composing intercultural music.

This is something I can stand behind and fully support.  The type of outreach, especially for such an “unorthodox” ensemble that I would think should be part and parcel of any performing groups’ activities.  If anyone reading is on the left coast and near the border of Canada  I would highly recommend this concert just out of principle!

Eric Edberg has an insightful blog post about Education and Outreach and I think this description of Adrian Ellis’ (Executive Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center) talk at an event he attended last month says it all:

He elaborated on a variety of topics, outreach being perhaps the most critical.  With much of country “two to three generations beyond routine arts education,” the task falls to arts organizations.  Jazz at Lincoln Center, he said, is “basically an education machine with programming.”

Continue reading

Tuesday Rehearsal Reflections: River City Klezmer Band

I’m posting this now as I may or may not be back in time tonight to finish a post before midnight.  If you folks hadn’t noticed I am attempting to blog once a day–more for the discipline than anything else, but also because I have been really inspired by Eric Edberg‘s (one of my former cello teachers and someone who I still consider a mentor–at least he’s still teaching me things even to this day!).  As an aside-if you haven’t been following Eric’s Sabbatical adventures in New York City–you should!  Some really neat and interesting things happening there an I envy him his time being spent there!

You folks now know what I do on Mondays, Tuesdays are a little different.  I’m usually giving private lessons at IU Southeast to college students as well as kids enrolled in the IU Southeast Arts Institute (which is primarily for k-12 ages), but as I also teach lessons on Wednesdays I’ll wait till tomorrow to blog about this experience (which will be interestingly difficult as the privacy of students is always an issue!).

But what I do want to blog about is that Tuesday nights are also a rehearsal night for me.

Every first and third Tuesdays I make the journey across the river to Louisville, Kentucky to the Jewish Community Center of Louisville to rehearse with the River City Klezmer Band from 7:30-9:00 pm.  This is an amateur group of folks at various level of abilities and stages of musical ability.  Very few of the group are professional musicians and as we often say before our shows the whole idea of Klezmer is to bring together whatever musicians happen to be there to play Klezmer music. Continue reading