Mission Possible: Conducting Orchestras to Contain a World

Michael Zwiebach on November 2, 2011
Michael Morgan

A few months ago, in an interview, the beloved Oakland East Bay Symphony music director, Michael Morgan, when I prodded him, said this:

I think that everyone should be shooting for the widest possible range of things that a symphony orchestra can credibly do. ... You just have to see how far you can expand your audience.

I found myself thinking back to that interview during the San Francisco Symphony’s inaugural American Orchestra Forum, held Oct. 23, on the topic of “Talking About Community.” A ton of information and ideas to digest were presented at this highly successful symposium, from hard data factoids to historical context to brand-new initiatives.

The League of American Orchestra’s president, Jesse Rosen, is the person most familiar with the situation across the country right now, and he had several surprising things to report. How many of you know, for example, that of the approximately 32,000 concerts that American orchestras present each year, half (as in 50 percent) are educational and outreach performances? Or that no fewer than 14 American orchestras have instituted El Sistema–like programs?

The Oakland Youth Orchestra and Morgan take a bow

At the forum, Afa Sadykhly Dworkin talked about how the nonprofit she founded, the Sphinx Organization, brings classical music to black and Latino populations in underprivileged neighborhoods. (More on that in a future SFCV article.)

The main attraction, of course, was a brief appearance by Gustavo Dudamel, whose Los Angeles Philharmonic was in town for two concerts. He’s the poster boy for outreach, and not merely by virtue of his heritage and connection to the original Venezuelan version of El Sistema. He and his Los Angeles orchestra are actively deepening connections with the support system that already exists there and marketing the institution to many other underserved or overlooked potential audience segments.

“El Sistema is bringing beauty to the children.” – Gustavo Dudamel

The Philharmonic is doing this partly through educational outreach. A month ago, the orchestra’s president, Deborah Borda announced the opening of a new office to coordinate and facilitate the training of teachers for El Sistema in the U.S. Its training orchestra program, the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, or YOLA, continues to expand.

Dudamel’s view of El Sistema is an interesting one, worth quoting here:

El Sistema is not a musical factory. It’s about how to affect the lives of our children with art. Because art is connected to creativity and that is something that is missing sometimes in our education. El Sistema is bringing beauty to the children.
Gustavo Dudamel

In this view, the goal is not measurable, except in the number of children reached. Maybe there will be a payoff in future audiences for the parent orchestra, and maybe there won’t. If it were all about ticket sales, there has to be an easier way.But it’s not about ticket sales. What it’s about is demonstrating the orchestra’s value to the community in return for community support. That’s what nonprofits do. There are lots of different ideas and arguments out there revolving around what classical music organizations need to do to survive in 21st-century America, and in the end one answer won’t fit every organization.

But if you’re going to have to ask for large sums from donors in your service area, it just makes sense to add to your value. Orchestra leaders across the country have realized this, and the industry is turning to embrace new realities. If one musician can make a difference in a community — we can all understand that — imagine what 100 can do, with a well-funded organization behind them.

We need orchestras to shoot for the widest possible range of things an orchestra can credibly do.

In other words, we need orchestras to shoot for the widest possible range of things an orchestra can credibly do, including, of course, presenting world-class concerts. And on that note, it’s worth recalling the other part of Michael Morgan’s opinion that I began with:

... if you notice, the OEBS never does anything called a ‘pops concert,’ partly because our community is so diverse that it’s very difficult to define what exactly would go on a pops concert in the East Bay. And then also because a lot of things that other people might relegate to a pops concert, we pull into our main stage series and play alongside the classics from the canon.
A symphony to contain a world

Now have a look at the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s home page. Almost uniquely among American orchestras, because it operates the Hollywood Bowl and presents concerts year-round, all kinds of music are advertised right there on that home page: classical, jazz, world, pop, family concerts — a wide range to suit a city with 10 million people and myriad cultures and tastes.

When I asked Deborah Borda whether the orchestra was simply trying to sell out the Hollywood Bowl to make money, or whether it was part of an institutional effort to reach new audiences, she responded, through Senior Publicist Sophie Jefferies, that she “sees our full range of programming at the Bowl and the Disney Concert Hall as part of a strategy to truly integrate our institution into the fabric of the city and spearhead the creation of new works to create new audiences.”

People can be drawn to classical music and great music in a variety of ways; there probably are as many ways to maintain the vitality of an orchestra as there are orchestras. But, while we continue to want orchestras to specialize in making great music, we have to ask them to shoulder that task while also increasing their presence and their value to the community. If, as Mahler said, a symphony should contain worlds, why shouldn’t the orchestras that play Mahler do likewise?