Too many orchestras?

With strikes and bankruptcies, North America may be in orchestra overload

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Jenn Ackerman / The New York Times / Redux

Jenn Ackerman / The New York Times / Redux

It was what music critic Alex Ross called “Black Monday” for U.S. music. The New York City Opera, the city’s second most-important opera company, filed for bankruptcy, and the Minnesota Orchestra lost its music director, Osmo Vanska, after a labour dispute that has crippled musical life in the city due to what music critic Norman Lebrecht calls a “highly aggressive board, weak English manager, isolated group of players, a complete absence of mutual respect and good faith”; even the intervention of George Mitchell, a former U.S. senator who brokered peace talks in Northern Ireland, couldn’t save the once-great orchestra. With the Philadelphia Orchestra recovering after a bankruptcy of its own, and many orchestras shutting down or cutting back performances, the question about classical music is whether it can survive in its current form—or whether it should.

Some people are already trying to find new models. Scott Dibble, a Minnesota state senator, is co-sponsoring a bill that would create community ownership of the orchestra. He tells Maclean’s that “we had a world-renowned orchestra, one of the very best ensembles in the world, and now that’s been thrown in the trash.” Many people feel the same way about the New York City Opera, which was once considered superior to the Metropolitan Opera and is now just trying to stay alive. These collapses, Dibble says, prove that it’s no longer viable for wealthy people and musicians to think of music as “a private concern that we need not worry about. Now they’ve betrayed that. So maybe it needs to be taken away from them.”

Unlike Europe, where classical music is considered almost a ward of the state, North American musical life has always depended in large part on private funding to keep it going: philanthropists and corporations give money to the arts either because they like it, or to look good. That model started to crumble in 2008 when the recession hit: it “wiped out endowments,” says Lebrecht, the pugnacious critic who writes Artsjournal’s Slipped Disc. And old age is taking away “the last generation that regarded symphonic music as central to its culture.” The Baby Boomers who are becoming the new generation of old people have grown up with rock music, and may not be very likely to invest in classical music.

The lack of funding for orchestras and opera companies may already be raising the question of whether North America has too many of them—or whether, as with other institutions, there should be more streamlining and consolidations. In Europe, Berlin, Vienna and London all support multiple opera companies, due to what Lebrecht calls “delicate social questions of prestige and priorities.” New York used to support two opera companies because it was a matter of prestige, but with the reduced importance of classical music, Lebrecht continues, a city “won’t support two unless each gives a compelling raison d’être. City Opera has failed to do so for at least a decade.”

That may leave arts organizations in a delicate position as they try to argue for their continued importance and survival. Phyllis Kahn, the Minnesota representative who originated the bill to put the orchestra up for what she calls a “public stock sale,” says that she received a hostile reaction from a student newspaper reporter: “She said symphonies are a dying thing. I said, ‘You should go to one once.’ ” She adds, “We put a lot of public money into sports, and some people think if we can do this for sports, we can certainly do this for classical music.”

If public money isn’t forthcoming, then new funding streams will have to be found, but new media isn’t always old media’s friend. In a last-ditch attempt to avoid bankruptcy, New York City Opera tried to use Kickstarter, the hot new thing, to raise $1 million, and wound up raising only a third of its goal.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota, even those trying to save the orchestra don’t see much future in it. “Now that Vanska has left,” Dibble says, “it’s like, ‘Who the hell cares any more?’ ” Still, Kahn hopes her bill will at least start a “conversation” about how to fund orchestras in general. Because she says one thing has been proven for certain: “No cultural thing survives in the free market.”