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.


  1. 1. Pay conductors less. Perhaps even consider a model where the musicians together “conduct” as happened in orchestras before the onslaught of multi million dollar conductors arrived. Utilize the concert master more.
    2. Make the occasion less formal: yes, coffee and food with the musicians after the event is a great way to break down the barriers. So are talks and lectures.
    3. Schedule fewer “big names” and bring in lots of younger people (who are also very talented but do not have a big rep, and pay demand, yet). I believe that Maestra DeMain already does this quite successfully.
    4. MSO should take better advantage of Overture Hall and offer MORE concerts. But perhaps of a different nature with more small groups. Expand the organ music concerts too to take advantage of the wonderful one Overture has. More small choral events would also be terrific.
    5. Offer more “small music” and less large symphony experiences. Cheaper and no less entertaining. Chamber music is a great way to go. See above for examples.
    6. If the food movement should go local, so should the music one. There is lots of local talent in the Madison area: use it. It is just as good and costs less. Someone like the pianist C. Taylor is world class. So is the Pro Arte Quartet. Schedule them more.
    7. Develop new recording/listening opportunities via the Internet. Wisconsin should set up a way to record/reproduce more concerts in a new way since “records” and even CD’s are pretty much dead.

    Comment by F Flambeau — March 28, 2014 @ 11:57 pm

    • Thank you for reading and replying so carefully and insightfully.
      All of your ideas and suggestions are good ones — some that I have myself espoused and advocated for in the blog. They a;ll deserve consideration and many deserve implementation.
      Let’s hope others in positions of power and decision-making listen and think the same way.

      Comment by welltemperedear — March 29, 2014 @ 10:14 am

  2. Several useful suggestions here for “re-inventing” the concert experience but few that will significantly reduce the cost of operating a symphony orchestra.

    For most US orchestras – bigger or smaller – the ratio of earned income to contributed income remains pretty steady, so increased ticket sales would obviously help, but as costs increase and budgets grow, while endowments and charitable giving contract, it gets harder to bridge the $$$ gap between income and expense.

    Comment by Marius — January 5, 2013 @ 12:56 pm

  3. Last Sunday, Ann and I were in Albuquerque for “Sunday Chatter”, a weekly series of one-hour mostly music events. (We had also attended two years ago when it was called “The Church of Beethoven”.) On the program Sunday: Knee Play No. 2 for solo violin by Phillip Glass (about 6 minutes); poetry readings of about 5 minutes by an excellent young NM poet; a Celebration of Silence, reminiscent of solent Quaker worship (2 minutes); and an excellent performance of Schubert String Quintet in C Major. Al in one hour.

    No pretense, held in an old warehouse, comfortable clothes, come early and enjoy a free coffee or latte. We loved it.

    Packed house!

    No easy answer for me for symphony orchestras. But is there a lesson here?

    Comment by Anders Yocom — January 5, 2013 @ 11:08 am

  4. IMHO, the core problem is that music became a commodity and started being marketed as entertainment. Mindless music is nothing more, but fine music, like fine literature and fine arts, takes some effort on the part of the listener, reader, viewer. Once music was perceived as only entertainment, it was jerked out of our schools’ standard curricula as a frill, and kids grow up knowing nothing about it. Adults who have worked all day want passive ‘relaxation’ in the form of banal tv and movies and best sellers. I wish I were optimistic, but as long as profit is running the show, concerts and recitals will be judged by how entertaining they are. I don’t listen to music to be entertained; a good performance will surprise me, challenge me, inform me, deepen me. I may leave baffled or pained by what I heard, and those may be the best possible performances I could hear. Examples: the first time I heard Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Havergal Brian’s ‘Gothic’ Symphony.

    Comment by Susan Fiore — January 5, 2013 @ 8:02 am

  5. I’m in favor of shorter concerts. For my money, they could eliminate the shorter piece that usually serves as an “appetizer” and go directly into the larger piece of the first part. For the portion after the intermission, they could perform two shorter works. By then, my attention is begining to wander, and a change of pace might be good.The catch is that sometimes the short first piece is the most interesting one of the entire concert, It’s when they play the old familiar pieces first that I object..
    There have been concerts when my companion and I have left after intermission because we simply felt we’d heard enough music,

    Comment by Ann Boyer — January 5, 2013 @ 7:08 am

    • Hi Ann,
      I agree with you.
      Sometimes so-called curtain-raisers seem short, but actually end up adding the intermission and stretching out the whole concert.
      I think movies could be a model.
      No more intermissions in epic movies today.
      I say 90 minutes to 2 hours is plenty of music at one sitting.
      It might also bring down the cost of tickets as well as attract younger listeners — sand even older ones — who often find that the longer concerts tax their attention span, their backs and their patience.
      I would shoot for 90-100 minutes minutes without intermission but with a pre-concert lecture and maybe a bit of post-concert socializing.
      We will see where it all leads.
      As always, Ann, thank you for reading and replying with such intelligence and candor.
      Happy New Year!

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 5, 2013 @ 9:14 am

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