Orchestras work to change with times

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 8, 2011 - 9:18 AM

League of American Orchestras is meeting in Minneapolis amid an era of severe challenges in the symphonic world.

Nearly 1,000 delegates will hear a heavy dose of reality in Minneapolis this morning, as the League of American Orchestras convenes a special session at its 66th national conference.

Titled "Red Alert!" the meeting focuses on severe challenges facing the orchestra world, such as the recent bankruptcy filing in Philadelphia and the Detroit strike that resulted in huge cuts in musician salaries. Beyond that, audiences have declined, and orchestras have cut back programming.

"I'm going to point to the urgent need to address these challenges," said Jesse Rosen, league president, when asked Tuesday about what he would say to delegates at the Minneapolis Hilton. "The percentage of the population that attends one concert a year has fallen 29 percent between 1982 and 2008."

The Philadelphia Orchestra, which filed for Chapter 11 in April, recently rolled out a blueprint to cut its artistic budget by 15 percent and put international touring on hold unless those trips are fully funded. The Detroit strike was settled this spring with musicians' annual salaries falling $33,000.

Rosen said orchestras also are receiving a smaller share of philanthropy and facing declines in income derived from ticket sales.

Yet he also saw some reasons for optimism, citing the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra initiative to lower ticket prices, which he described as "a game changer."

"That broke a longstanding tradition of reflexively raising ticket prices," Rosen said. "St. Paul pioneered the idea that it's more important to get bigger audiences, because that draws more philanthropic giving."

Not as bad in Minnesota

The Minnesota Orchestra and the SPCO have skirted the worst of the problems facing some American orchestras, though both have cut budgets and salaries in recent years. In addition to lowering ticket prices, the SPCO's longstanding program of taking concerts to neighborhoods is an example of the flexibility necessary to address the challenges. Detroit, for example, back from the strike, dropped prices and said it would move 20 concerts from its downtown hall to neighborhoods.

"I hope that ideas like that get around," said Rosen, who believes orchestras need to become more versatile and nimble.

Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who formerly headed both the Minnesota and the St. Paul orchestras, was one of several speakers Tuesday who stressed the need for innovation.

"We simply cannot manage our orchestras as we did 20, 10, or even five years ago," Borda told delegates, who work in administrative and artistic jobs throughout the United States. "We have always had an artistic imperative. Today it becomes clearer and clearer that the requirement for a social, indeed a moral, imperative has emerged. Do not take our continued presence for granted."

Delegates last night attended a Minnesota Orchestra concert, featuring Osmo Vänskä and pianist Yevgeny Sudbin playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3. The SPCO will perform Haydn's Harmoniemesse and Schubert's Offertory in B-flat for Tenor as the closing concert Thursday at the Ordway Center in St. Paul.

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