The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Some big American symphony orchestras are in deep financial trouble, while others are not. What makes the difference? asks a story on NPR. And what solutions or reforms do you suggest?

January 5, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

2012 was generally not a good year for symphony orchestras in the US. It featured lockouts and bankruptcies in some surprising places like the Twin Cities, Detroit, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Philadelphia.

On all sorts of year-end short lists, the financial woes and labor disputes of symphony orchestras ranked among the top stories.

And on New Year’s Day, NPR featured an insightful report on the overall state of the American symphony orchestra. It included some orchestras that are doing badly and others that are doing well. (Below are some locked out players from the Minnesota Orchestra in Minneapolis.)

Here is a link to the NPR stories. Be sure to read and respond to the reader comments, either here in COMMENTS or on the NPR site:


It is enough to make one grateful to be living in a relatively prosperous and insulated place like Madison where the part-time Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top) and the part-time Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below bottom) seem relatively secure — as do so many other thriving local classical music organizations — if not totally immune, from the really troubling trends that their sister organizations face in other cities.


WCO lobby

Will the problems be solved? The Ear wonders and suspects yes.

After all, it wasn’t too long ago that chamber music seemed to be in crisis. But now it is thriving. And that is a good thing too – especially in times of economic strife. Chamber music, which Madison has in abundance, is certainly cheaper to support than a symphony. (The UW Pro Arte String Quartet, in a photo y Rick Langer, is below.)


And even while big budget symphonies are having trouble, a lot of even bigger budget opera companies are thriving, in part because they appeal to the “screen” generation” that grew up on TV and likes to have pictures, characters and dramatic or romantic stories along with its music. (Below is a photo by James Gill of the Madison Opera‘s production of Verdi’s “La Traviata.)

Traviata bed Madison Opera James Gill

Add in other outreach and educational efforts, including free pre-concert lectures and concerts for children and young people. Then add in the efforts of groups like Chamber Music Revolution and New MUSE (New Music Everywhere) to reach non-traditional audiences (read young people) in traditional venues (below, the Brink Lounge). Some new music might help, but so might some old reliable classics and some one-composer concerts or concerts with a theme. And then one can hope finally that an economic upswing will put orchestras will soon be on the rebound and more solid footing.

brink lounge

Of course, The Ear has a few others suggestions. They include performing programs that are shorter (about 90 minutes) with no intermission and providing some kind of short post-concert reception with snacks where audience members can mix with the performers and other audience members.

In short, reinvent the whole format to make a symphony concert more fun to attend, more like a community event that is fun to participate actively, not just passively, in. I think that the Middleton Community Orchestra concerts (below) provides some hints of what could work. Maybe it wouldn’t work, but it might be worth a try.

Middleton Community Orchestra reception

But you are the audience members. Why don’t you tell The Ear — and the managers of symphony orchestras — what you would like to see done to make symphony orchestras concert more popular and fun.

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