What Happens When The Band Stops Playing?

Around the world, symphony orchestras are threatened as public subsidies dry up. But great cities need them more than ever

Like a condemned man on a guillotine that jams in mid-fall, the symphony orchestra appears to survive on a whim and a prayer. The past year has been a testing one, the most parlous in memory, and few orchestras go into the summer festival whirl feeling entirely secure about what lies beyond.

Take a look at the 2011 toll so far. An incoming Dutch government pledged eight months ago to abolish all radio orchestras. They are still talking about it and a vote is due in parliament some time soon, but a country that once discussed culture with sombre reverence is now resorting to the rhetoric of Sarah Palin and the Governor of Kansas, who recently eliminated all state funding for the arts. Culture is no longer a sacred cow. Climate change in the political arena has heated up a tide of public resentment towards arts subsidy.

Elsewhere, Spain and Portugal, growth markets for symphonic music, have frozen over with economic fear. The orchestra in Seville has taken a 40 per cent funding cut, par for the course, and has called on the state to stop funding Daniel Barenboim’s showcase East-West Divan. It’s dog-eat-dog in Iberia.

In South America, the orchestras of the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires are locked out by their bosses and have not been paid for months. In Rio, the business-backed Brazil ian Symphony Orchestra has sacked half its musicians and is being boycotted as a result by the country’s top soloists, Nelson Freire and Cristina Ortiz.

The United States sustains half the world’s 500 or so professional orchestras. After decades of conservatism, the floodgates finally broke last winter. Symphony orchestras in Honolulu, Syracuse (NY) and Bellevue (WA) went into liquidation. Detroit toughed out a six-month strike before musicians finally accepted a 22 per cent pay cut; some of the best players have since left town. Louisville went into bankruptcy protection with a view to cutting the orchestra to chamber size; Columbus, Ohio, has halved its band.

And then came the bombshell. In March, Philadelphia, the first US orchestra to earn world fame in the 1920s when Leopold Stokowski conducted and Rachmaninov gave premieres, went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy to fend off its creditors. Philadelphia is — with Boston, Chicago, Cleveland and New York — one of America’s big five orchestras, so designated for the power of their playing and the depth of their financial endowment, built over a century. The Philadelphia sound was once held to be the acme of musical perfection, a symbol of what musicians could achieve in a free society. The conductor Klaus Tennstedt wept at his first rehearsal, telling the musicians how he and his father would crawl under the bedclothes in Nazi Germany to hear their contraband message. Philadelphia was the pride of American orchestras.Now the orchestra says it cannot meet the rent at the over-bright new Verizon Hall, or feed the musicians’ pension pot. Unless someone pumps in a few spare millions, the Fabulous Philadelphians are finished. “What would Philadelphia be without its orchestra?” cry traditionalists. Good question, but it’s not the only one. Realists are demanding to know exactly what a city of six million wrestling with post-industrial decline gains from having a costly and cumbersome musical pantechnicon. Who needs a symphony orchestra? That’s what they are asking, the world over.

Any competent historian would tell you that the crunch has been a long time coming. Symphony orchestras, evolving in the 1830s to meet subsistence needs of urban musicians and a rising demand for entertainment from a growing middle class, started out by playing music that was fresh and new. Leipzig, Vienna, Paris, Boston and New York led the way; Schumann, Brahms and Dvorak wrote the pops. Berlin gained an independent orchestra in 1882, Amsterdam in 1888, London in 1904, but these were small spring shoots before the big flowering.

The First World War precipitated a public need for musical comfort which, before radio and records, could be experienced only between the walls of a concert hall. The second war redoubled that urgency, audiences rushing to the ink-wet symphonies of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Vaughan Williams as to an oracle. By 1950, London had five full-time symphony orchestras, Vienna four, Berlin eight.

Attendance crossed all social barriers. In Angel Pavement, a 1930 novel by J. B. Priestley, a London clerk, Mr Smeeth, takes himself to Queen’s Hall on a whim. They are playing Brahms, the first symphony. It was some time before he made much out of it. The Brahms of this symphony seemed a very gloomy, ponderous, rumbling sort of chap, who might now and then show a flash of temper or go in a corner and feel sorry for himself . 

What is significant about this response is that a lower-middle-class man with a very basic education feels that he has the wherewithal to understand great music on his own terms. By the time the big tune comes around in the finale, swelling his heart until it nearly chokes him, Smeeth is lifted out of his woes and endowed with hope for a better future. This perception of symphonic music as an improving grace was widespread. Two out of five Mass Observation diarists collected by Simon Garfield in Our Hidden Lives (Ebury Press, 2004) were regular concert attenders in the late 1940s. It was both “the done thing” in English cities to go to symphony concerts and a refuge from the otherwise inescapable gloom of postwar austerity.In America, GIs returning from war to a free college education and a small-town life demanded orchestral concerts of the kind they had heard abroad. The late Russell Johnson, who became the world’s foremost concert hall acoustician, told me that he first heard an orchestra when he was in khaki fatigues in Manila and knew instantly that he would never go back to join his father in a blue-collar job. A symphony concert represented aspiration for postwar millions.

Soon, however, the audience grew confused. Modernism introduced a complexity to the concert diet that was beyond the reach of the “ordinary” listener and often painful to the ear. At the onslaught of Webern, Cage, Stockhausen and late Stravinsky, Mr Smeeth and his kind came to feel belittled and unwanted and orchestras struggled with conflicting demands to renew the repertoire and not alienate the audience.

In Europe, supported by growing amounts of state funding — the London Symphony Orchestra went from a £2,000 annual grant in 1949 to more than £2 million today — they could afford a measure of experiment, the occasional half-empty house. Many adapted artistic obligation to social opportunity and cultivated an elite audience, acquiring an unheralded role in the intellectual life of city and society. On to this base they added elements of public education and social outreach, which pleased the politicians and strengthened their appeal to big business.

In 2011 the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra receives a record 15 million euros in city subventions, almost half its 34 million euro budget (and more than double the total grant to four London orchestras). Berlin’s business is augmented by a 6 million euro grant from Deutsche Bank for education and digital outreach. It is also an aggressive player for record fees from tour and festival organisers. A residency in London is now so costly that the rival South Bank and Barbican centres had to collaborate in procuring it. In May, the Berlin Philharmonic announced it was leaving the Salzburg Easter Festival after receiving a bigger offer from Baden-Baden.

Such is life at the top for the privileged few. Lower down the leagues, with the collapse of record income and the onset of unforeseen demographic change, orchestras found themselves in a fight for survival. Germany, after unification, managed the decline rather well, reducing the number of symphony and chamber orchestras from 170 to 133 by quiet attrition. The number of ensemble jobs for musicians has fallen from 12,159 in 1992 to 9,992 in 2010. The ructions triggered in Holland were consensually avoided.

In Britain, one chamber orchestra has come within days of going under. Nevertheless, contrary to predictions, audiences have grown in two years of economic recession, and in some instances diversified. Cool young artists like Lang Lang, Gustavo Dudamel and the American composer Nico Muhly attract a significantly different audience to mainstream venues and a sensation of generational renewal.Not in America, however. Deborah Borda, who signed Dudamel at 26 as music director at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, told me last summer that she expected two of the Big Five to go under. Too stuck in their ways, was her view. Her Dude has Hispanic street cred and the music he plays often swings. Hollywood is sitting up and taking interest.

Other US orchestras are wrestling with long legacies of stasis. In the 1970s American orchestras lost the thirty-somethings to rampant rock, an art that refused to grow old. Audiences who would once have gravitated in midlife from the Stones to the symphony stuck with the Jagger tours. The symphony lost its Middle America hinterland.

Heavily dependent on local donors, themselves of advancing age, orchestras carried on playing Brahms, Schumann and Dvorak, music of a distant past, accentuating their geriatric profile. Musicians, fearful for their jobs, adopted a hard-hat unionism that won them $100,000 starting pay for a 20-hour week in the Big Five, unaffordable when the market crashed. Attitudes have since hardened into confrontation. Only in American orchestras do I hear well-meaning executives referred to as “management”, the natural enemy.

Remedies are rare and largely unproven. Gary Hanson of Cleveland, feeling the recession in a depressed, rustbelt city, switched his orchestra part-time to Miami. Zarin Mehta of New York installed a music director Alan Gilbert who, while light on prior achievement, is putting Messiaen into Manhattan ears and bringing a Finn, Magnus Lindberg, as composer in residence. Chicago SO president Deborah Rutter lured the glamorous Riccardo Muti back into American contention. Boston’s Mark Volpe is reeling from the sudden loss of James Levine while Philadelphia has hired the bright French-Canadian Yannick Nézét-Séguin as its next music director, should it succeed in emerging from the bankruptcy courts.

Seeds of orchestral revival are found only in the Far East, where the Japanese audience has not wavered amid economic and natural disasters, China is creating six new orchestras a year and the Seoul Philharmonic in South Korea has become the first non-European, non-US orchestra to win a major label record contract, with Deutsche Grammophon. Classical sales in Korea are the highest in the world, amounting to 18 per cent of the total record market, against less than 2 per cent in the US. These are encouraging signs, apparently a significant shift in the centre of orchestral activity. But at close hand, it becomes clear that the impetus in Asia is often attributable to local causes — inter-city rivalry in China’s command economy, self-education drives in Korea. The question of who needs the symphony orchestra in the 21st century is not going to be resolved by isolated national phenomena.So, let me repeat the question. Who needs the symphony orchestra, and can it survive?

The core requirements are unchanged. Musicians need orchestras for their livelihoods in the city. It may not be much of a living. Many in London earn less than £30,000 a year, some are reduced to driving cabs. Yet they persist with an arduous vocation because it is what they enjoy, what they believe in and what they were trained for in state education (whether we are maintaining too many music colleges is an argument that has wittered on in government for nigh on 30 years).

In Belfast, Birmingham, Bournemouth, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle, musicians earn rather less than £30,000 but a couple who both play in an orchestra can raise a family quite comfortably on a double salary and will obtain a higher quality of life than they could in the Big Smoke. They also enjoy higher social status and recognition, as well as richer possibilities of private tuition and playing chamber music. All in all, it’s not a bad life and the bonus of local pride puts a spring in the step of regional musicians that I seldom encounter in capitals. When Liverpool goes on tour, it takes along a charabanc of supporters.

The value of an orchestra to a city is a matter of pride and self-worth. If Philadelphia were to lose its sound, the metropolis risks fading to blank. Whether that threat is enough to winkle extra millions from its richest citizens remains to be seen.

Beyond civic self-interest lies the potential for social cohesion. What the twinkle-eyed chorus master Gareth Malone has shown in several television series is that music has the capacity to change the lives of those who feel abandoned by every other social organisation. Starting from an East End community project at LSO St Luke’s, the orchestra’s music education centre, Malone has rallied people of all ages in sink estates, youth clubs and army barracks to come together and find themselves in a musical activity. It is an initiative that could not have flourished without the bedrock of an orchestra to give it life. The LSO has led the way in offering its players opportunities outside the concert hall — in hospital visits, prison rehab work, small ensembles and remedial teaching. The players have richer working lives than ever before and the city benefits enormously.

Simon Rattle’s projects with immigrant communities in unified Berlin have had similar resonance. Dudamel in Los Angeles is a symbol of social inclusion in a deeply schismatic city. An orchestra in the 21st century is more than the sum of its parts, more than the ear beholds. It is woven deep into the social fabric, so deep that its abolition becomes almost impossible.

Louisville, as I write, is emerging from bankruptcy protection. Syracuse, which I visited in deep doldrums last winter, is trying to form a new part-time orchestra. The sacked musicians of Rio have regrouped as an independent ensemble. You can shut a theatre but you cannot keep a good orchestra down. There will always be an audience for what it has to offer.

And why is that? Because in a lifestyle of wall-to-wall wi-fi and instant tweets, the concert hall is one of the few places where we become reachable, where we can switch off our lifelines and surrender to a form that will not let us go for an hour or more. The symphony orchestra is our relief from the communicative addiction. It forces us, willy-nilly, to resist the responsive urge. It is a cold-turkey cure for our reactive insanity, our self-destroying restlessness.The more concerts I attend, the more I see how they restore balance to over-busy lives. It may well be that we, as a society, need the symphony orchestra now more than ever before. How we pay for it will have to be reconfigured over the next two or three difficult years, amid challenges from rival art forms and digital distractions. There has never been such heated competition for every nanosecond of our supposed leisure time.

But after 30 years’ close observation of orchestral ups and downs and half a century after the Arts Council pronounced that London needed just one super-orchestra, I have reached the irreversible conclusion that the symphony orchestra will always survive — not on the weary old argument that it is somehow “good for you” to listen to “good music”, nor on any cod theories that classical music breeds clever kids and better citizens, but simply because there is a cogent human need for what an orchestra adds to the relief of city life. That need becomes ever clearer as the world speeds up

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