Why don’t orchestras play more pop music?

Why don’t orchestras play more pop music?

Well, the simple answer is that the musicians in the vast majority of symphony orchestras only want to play classical music. And this would be fine, if there were no financial considerations. And in places where the orchestras are government-funded, the classical artistic model works. But in places where the orchestras are at the mercy of the commercial market, it means that they’re dying a slow and sometimes hasty death. (Just ask New York’s City Opera.)

The problem, from a commercial (and therefore survival viewpoint) is that in the orchestral world, “orchestra” = “classical.” Yes, it’s true that orchestras were invented to play classical music, but they’ve outlived the golden age of classical music by about 100 years at this point. From this perspective, it’s amazing that they’re still around at all. The big jazz bands, after all, largely stopped making money at the end of the Swing Era, back in the early 1940s. This brings us to the big question: why don’t orchestras play the music that the public consumes the most of? Why don’t they play more pop music?

I teach a small student ensemble at a local high school, and even the classically trained violinists beam with delight when I suggest we play a pop song, or jazz. They love Mozart and Adele equally, and for them, “violin” can mean either type of music. But orchestras mainly mean “classical,” and for good reason. So there’s a big disconnect, even for many young players who are getting the classical education and are enjoying it. These kids I know would enjoy hearing an orchestra play Beethoven in the first half and Adele in the second. They wouldn’t see any dichotomy at all. But you can’t simply change a whole artistic and financial model like that, even if the powers-that-be wanted to. And it’s also true that the core, subscribing audience for most orchestras mainly wants to hear Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and the like. so by changing too quickly, the orchestras risk alienating their core audience and hence losing too much money in the short run to last long enough to enjoy success in the long run.

These issues also relate to piano teaching. If I have a student who wants to learn Disney, I can shift to that in a minute. An orchestra can’t, and probably wouldn’t want to. It’s true that some orchestras are programming some film music and even jazz. But an evening of Michael Jackson’s music played by the NY Philharmonic is probably a long way off. My guess is they’d rather go out of business that resort to that.

So what are the answers? Any ideas? Are we nearing the extinction of the symphony orchestra? Or will they survive? And if so (fingers crossed!), how will they do it?

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