Orchestra Crisis? Or the Pundits Who Cried Wolf?

Ron Spigelman of Sticks and Drones has his own things to say about the Philip Kennicott piece I blogged about last week.  He opens it with this:

Cutting to the chase, the bottom line with the 4000 + words of “thesaurial” prowess from Philip Kennicott, is that we should stop doing what isn’t working now, and go back to what wasn’t working before…Huh?

You also might want to check out this short exchange between Jesse Rosen (President of the League of American Orchestras) and Philip Kennicott about the piece.


Greg Sandow asks a question about the so-called crisis in Classical Music.  Well, really he asked several questions throughout the blog post but this paragraph sums up the sentiment:

So here’s one way to start. We all know there’s a classical music crisis, or at least — thinking now of some of us who don’t think classical music faces any serious problem — we know that people talk about a crisis. But how long has this been going on? How long has the crisis lasted (or at least how long has it been talked about)?

A bit later he states “But as far as I know, we have no data. No one, to my knowledge, has gone searching through old newspaper articles, trying to find the first reference to a crisis.”  Of course readers of this blog know I actually started a bibliographic timeline of the Orchestra Crisis primarily listing old newspaper and magazine articles–the earliest of which date to 1903 piece in the New York Times by Richard Aldritch, “‘Permanent Orchestra’ Season A Bad One.”

Several folks have commented at Sandow’s post as well as on his facebook wall here.  The usual claims that there isn’t a crisis in addition to several folks using their personal experiences as anecdotes to trace how early they think the crisis goes back.  The irony here is that the further we trace the crisis back in time, the less of a crisis it really is since any real crisis that’s lasted over a century isn’t really much of a crisis at all, right?  It’s becoming a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” syndrome and I do recognize the slight bit of irony that the Wolf Report is precisely one of the early 90s cries.




16 thoughts on “Orchestra Crisis? Or the Pundits Who Cried Wolf?

  1. “No one, to my knowledge, has gone searching through old newspaper articles, trying to find the first reference to a crisis.”

    Even if he doesn’t know that someone has, then I really have to ask, if he thinks that, then why the hell isn’t he doing it?! Isn’t he supposed to be some sort of global chief pundit laureate about saving orchestras? In every other case where an academic researcher identifies a problem and decides it’s important enough to solve, they actually put in the effort to study the history of damn thing! *headdesk*

    Seriously, it’s just the basic freaking research process. Okay, we’ve identified a problem. In what other cases in the past has this problem cropped up? What seems to have caused it? How have people dealt with it? Did their actions improve things or make things worse? Everything from dealing with epidemics to researching how to build better earthquake-proof buildings, people do this. They don’t just pick up a damn megaphone, climb to the top of a tall building, and proceed to make themselves the center of attention yelling about the fact that a building fell over in the last earthquake and then shrug when the topic of actually researching things comes up.

    It is seriously just getting on my nerves. He either doesn’t really believe there’s a problem or doesn’t care that there’s a problem — or doesn’t want to be proven wrong — or else he’d be doing this “important work” of looking into the history of the “crisis” that he claims no one else is doing. Or he’d be digging through the academic journals and newspapers himself. He’s at freaking Juilliard — shouldn’t he be publishing?

    I should shut up. The whole thing started out as fascinating and interesting to me until I realized that it all boiled down to making a loud noise to get people to look and very little else. And in this case, he is freaking the shit out of a bunch of youngsters that were entrusted to him and who think he knows something. AGH.

    *sigh* I am a musician. I am also the person who says stuff like this, which is why I will never be a successful musician. I can’t keep from saying it when someone has a rhetorical booger hanging out of their nose. 😦


    1. Haha–yeah, it’s ironic that I, who really have no vested academic or economic interest in the issue, have actually gone through the trouble of looking at the history of the phenomenon as well as the history of how similar organizations (Sports teams and Popular Music) have dealt/are dealing with the problem. I guess I’m an academic/researcher at heart, which I always knew anyway. 😛


    2. Yeah, well that’s because with the heart of an academic researcher, you’re expecting to be peer-reviewed. If you made a huge assertion or statement of the absence of significant research activity in your subject area like that and then didn’t remedy it, you’d expect your paper would get bounced from publication.

      I’m the same way. Once a hard-sciences grad, always a hard-sciences grad. If your whole thesis revolves around Thing N and you never tested Thing N, you’ll fail your defense, and you can’t say, “Well, nobody else ever tested it, either!” That just means you should have. Pete’s sake.


    3. To be fair he’s pulled out a number of older studies which mention audiences. Granted, he uses them (erroneously, IMO) to bolster his position of an aging audience (but we know what I think of that) but had he not posted about them I may not have found them. Or at least not found them as quickly as I did. I’m curious how he’s actually going to incorporate those in his book as well as how he plans to cite them.


      1. I wish he’d publish, in a seriously peer-reviewed way. I guess I just wished people in the performing arts approached their damned research like ACTUAL RESEARCHERS. There really are methodical ways to look at these things. But in the arts, people are so used to appealing to taste and opinion that they don’t seem to “get” when it’s time ot say, “Okay that’s nice, but we have to be somewhat rigorous now.” I mean, this is money we’re talking about here. There ARE numbers and graphs and other fun science-flavored things attached to these issues!


    4. Most of the cost disease related work published about the field are usually in industry related publications or simply as foundation reports. I wonder how much this so-called crisis would disappear if these things were to be peer reviewed.


  2. Speaking of a reasonable, logical way to approach the “orchestra crisis,” have I recommended this interview to you yet?


    It’s a fun one — they go way back as friends and end up laughing like gurgling drains through part of the podcast, but Morgan says so many really good things here about being willing to not know what’s going to happen and respecting the tastes of the audience that are almost in direct opposition to the Kennicott attitude that uses the orchestras as a crowbar to ram the audience over to his opinions of the music.

    One of his most interesting comments was to the effect that the audience has the permission to hate everything, and that if you make that clear to them at the outset, they listen much more openly, even if they end up disliking a piece.


  3. You know, I’m reading that last interview for the dozenth time, and I still disagree with the prevailing opinion that the old chestnuts (Beethoven 3, Brahms 4, etc.) are unlikely to bring in new faces. It’s one of very few points of tangency between Morgan’s opinions and those of the crisis-oriented pundits.

    There’s a serious logical flaw in that opinion. Beethoven 3 doesn’t appeal to old-time orch veterans, so they don’t want to play it … because they think it won’t appeal to newcomers. They want to hear stuff they haven’t heard a million times, is what they say — but newcomers haven’t heard that stuff a million times. That’s the point.

    They are using their own tastes — the tastes of people who have been part of this world for four decades — as predictors of the tastes of people who haven’t heard anything classical a million times.

    I still agree with Morgan on pretty much everything else, especially the role of the orchestra to reflect and respect the tastes of its audience without dumbing down or patronizing them, or trying to get them to finish up hating music-that-pundit-no-143-hates and loving music-that-pundit-no-143-loves. But I do think that the old warhorse pieces have a far greater potential to bring in people completely unfamiliar with classical music than the insiders think. There are a lot of people nearing retirement age who, as Morgan himself observed, never studied music in school and have never been in a concert hall, and to a lot of them, Beethoven is unfamiliar and new. They’ve heard of the guy … yeah — some old, dead dude who wrote stuff … but no, they haven’t heard it “done to death.”

    It’s the disconnect between “We need to get people here who haven’t heard classical music before!” and “We have to do it by playing stuff that we like, we who have been here since the Taft administration!” There’s a real problem with putting an equals sign between those two opinions. I’d wager that every single time a chamber orchestra has griped about playing the damn “Four Seasons” yet again, a sizable chunk of the audience might never have heard more than a few bars of it in an Audi commercial.


    1. I think the comment you made at Eric Edberg’s blog about the old chestnuts being relatively popular was interesting–I was thinking at the time that given the aggregate audience for, say, Beethoven’s 5th, there may very well be a very sizable group of folks willing to see it–the problem is that these are folks scattered throughout the world–but it might be interesting to know if the numbers of folks who go hear Beethoven Symphonies in a year outnumbers the number of folks who would go to see a top touring pop act in a year.

      And that points to another problem–since Beethoven’s works (and most of these chestnuts) are public domain, there’s nothing about any of these works that would differentiate one orchestra from another–which goes back to my idea of how i think orchestras would benefit from local content (i.e. local composers) and build their own sound in a way that no other orchestra can monetize due to the local content ties (which can also be legally binding in the forms of exclusive contracts with composers for their works). Not quite the same thing Morgan is talking about when he refers to local resources, but related, I think.


      1. Yeah, part of the problem of tying a performance entity to one geographic location … and a lot of the chestnuts also compete with previous recordings of them, whereas the new stuff that may have been commissioned or reflect local tastes more is a “hear it here or you won’t hear it at all” sort of thing.

        It sort of reminds me how Windows XP’s worst source of competition was actually Win 3.1 — I’m a dinosaur, what can I say. 🙂


    2. I’m really curious to see how Lisa Kravinsky’s Go-Go Symphony works out–I can totally see thing like this become a model for the local in similar ways that Traditional Chinese Orchestras and Arabic Orchestras have cropped up in regions with large Chinese-American and Arab-American populations. European Orchestras (and Euro-American Pop Music) are no longer the default standards in a very similar way that “Whiteness” is no longer a human standard, I think.


  4. I would really like to know what Philippin Kennicott wants from new music, especially after he tore Ingram Marshall apart. He mentions “new, complex music” being the savior. Does Kennicott mean Ferneyhough? I’ve already spent enough time wading through Kennicott and posing dissenting viewed, but that little quote in his text just confused me more.


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