Will symphony orchestras evolve?

Will symphony orchestras evolve (like they did in their early days)?

I’ve been thinking a lot about symphony orchestras lately, and I’ll probably write more them on this blog soon, since I’m getting so many ideas and it’s related to piano teaching as well as to the overall music scene these days. (And please let me say that I LOVE going to orchestra concerts. One of the highlights of my life was hearing the Met Opera Orchestra perform Beethoven’s 7th Symphony at Carnegie Hall.)

It’s no secret that orchestras are struggling to survive. Their core audience is getting older and older, and the music they play is generally far removed from the current popular culture.

Here’s the key point: Everything is always in flux.

And not only now. Everything has always been in flux and always will be in flux. So when an organization decides to ignore this and stay the same for a long period of time, as the orchestras did, then at some point they’ll wake up and find themselves going out of business. Unless they do something about it, quick. (And do you think it’s easy for a large organization like an orchestra to change quickly? You’re right: it isn’t. And even if they did, their core audience won’t, so they’ll risk losing a lot of money in the short term.)

Orchestras are such a great example of organizations that were built for one purpose, and stayed that way as society changed. They did change in the very beginning, by adding woodwinds, brass and other instruments as composers (and the public) asked for them. But at a certain point, the model became codified, like with many other organizations in our world. It worked well for decades, as long as huge numbers of kids had classical music education and it was a big part of our overall culture. These kids would grow up to become concertgoers, and they loved the music.

But while this was happening, throughout the 1930s-1970s, things were changing. The big band era came and went. The commercial jingle industry came and went. And school music programs that emphasized classical music came and went.

So instead of adapting and evolving gradually, in a “do-able” way over several decades or even a half-century, orchestras now find themselves struggling to sell tickets, get young and middle-aged people into their concert halls, and to perform music that’s relevant to the culture at large. (Let’s remember that orchestras were invented to perform music that was relevant to the culture at large. Go back to 1840 and you wouldn’t find many orchestras playing “old” music such as J.S. Bach or Handel. No, they played the music the public wanted to hear, from mostly living, contemporary composers. When this model changed to a repertory model, the writing was on the wall for it all to become eventually unsuccessful, as the musical public’s tastes gradually changed. Now, a century later, the orchestra are facing a day of reckoning.)

What will happen to symphony orchestras? Will they die out over the next decade, as their audience becomes too old to attend performances any more? Will they stay the same and find new ways of attracting audiences? Or will the orchestras themselves change by either altering the types of concerts they program or their very instrumentation?

One thing’s for sure: we’ll soon find out. I wish all the symphony orchestras in the world the very best as they find creative and hopefully successful ways of navigating this challenging time in their history.

(Maybe someone in 100 years will walk out of a NY Philharmonic concert, turn to their friend and say, “That was great! And just think: it took them a whole century before they began playing _______.”)

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