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?”

As many of you know I’ve been blogging about the growth of Non-Western Orchestras in the US as well as talking a bit about the indigenous art ensembles found in other countries and some of the struggles they have due to Westernization.  I’d recently been taking a look at Chinese Orchestras in the US and have [obviously] found a high correlation to the number of ensembles and the population of Chinese Americans (e.g. the Bay Area, which has a Chinese-American population of  close to half a million has nearly two dozen Chinese Orchestras or Ensembles, including a couple of Youth Symphonies that feed into them as well as a k-12 Orchestra that feeds into the youth symphonies) that I’ll be blogging about in the near future.

The point is, with the changing ethnic make-up of the US, there’s inevitably going to be a change in the entertainment choices for that demographic.  In the case of Art Music, Traditional Chinese Orchestras have been around for some time and are probably the closest equivalent to Western Orchestras (structurally speaking) which was partially what they were designed to be like.  The difference is, these Orchestras play music (Chinese folk, traditional and art songs) that is indigenous to China as well as compositions that have been composed for this kind of ensemble which is idiomatic enough as to be untranscribeable for a Western Orchestra without significantly altering the color and style of the compositions.  And if Western Orchestras don’t generally play Chinese Repertoire, what’s the likelihood of getting much of an audience or donor base from the growing Chinese-American (nearing 4 million people) population in the US?

The same kind of correlation of indigenous ensembles and arts organizations to population demographic can be found for other ethnic groups.  For example, the region encompassing Chicago to Detroit has the highest proportion (from what I can tell) of Arabic Orchestras and Ensembles, which is not surprising given that Detroit has the biggest Arab population outside of the Middle East.  When I was more involved with the music and arts scene in Indianapolis, I was tangentially involved with the India Association of Indianapolis Fine Arts Committee (IAIFAC) helping them to promote their handful of annual events which usually brought in Indian Classical Music and Dance artists from India into Indianapolis for the (still growing) Indian Community.

Point is, with a growing ethnic demographic, that will mean a shrinking audience and donor base (proportionally speaking, of course) for traditionally European-American Arts institutions like Western Classical Music and Ballet.  Folks in these ethnic groups are more likely to support the Arts from their homelands, which I don’t necessarily see as a bad thing since high quality human artistic and musical achievement isn’t the province of Europe alone.

So in a sense, yeah, [Western] Orchestras are Replaceable, but Orchestras aren’t necessarily replaceable.  Question is, how will Western styled orchestras fare in a climate where the Orchestras that are forming and growing are reflecting the changing taste of a changing ethnic demographic.


  1. Greg Sandow says that young musicians don’t see this as a problem? Wonder who he is talking to. Every young, first rate musician I’ve ever known has lamented the small number of jobs and saturation of top talent. Of course they would see themselves as “lucky” to get those positions. That’s the factual definition of luck.


    • Sorry, Dave–I added the preceeding paragraph from the piece to give a little more context. I think what Greg is saying is that the younger players don’t see a problem with the cuts that are happening with Orchestras. Hope that makes more sense now.


  2. This is just plain depressing. Instead of seeking solutions we eat the mature artist. Sort of the “give Jimmy Hendricks a Strad to play with” school of thought. Greg Sandow used to be loopy but at least benign. Now he’s just loopy. That webcast on WQXR by his wife and friends on the NYCity Opera was an embarrassment. No answers just platitudes.


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