Opinion: The problem with the Nashville Symphony isn’t the music

guerrerosideExactly two years ago this month, I came up with the idea of launching this website. At the time, no other media were publishing regular reviews of Nashville Symphony Orchestra concerts. That struck me as a terrible oversight, given that the NSO had won six Grammy Awards (the tally is now seven).

Of course, I had no idea whether a venture like this would fly, so I decided to ask a prominent composer and university professor for his thoughts. He listened attentively for a few minutes and finally declared the endeavor to be admirable. But then he added that he also thought the idea was moot.

“Why, do you think no one will be interested in reading about the arts?” I asked.

“No,” he said matter-of-factly.  “I just don’t think there will be any orchestras left in America to write about in 10 years.”

I was thinking a lot about that stunning statement last week, after the Nashville Symphony Orchestra announced that it would not renew a letter of credit on about $100 million in bond obligations. Symphony managers hope this extraordinary – and seemingly desperate – action will force the banks to renegotiate the amount the NSO owes. The orchestra incurred the debt in order to build its magnificent Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

schermerhornI write about the symphony’s financial problems in some detail in this week’s Nashville Scene. Already, the story has attracted the one comment that disturbs – and frightens – diehard symphony fans the most, namely, that the NSO’s problems are the direct result of the orchestra playing too much contemporary music.

No doubt, some patrons are turned off by contemporary works, though I suspect their real objection isn’t the music’s newness but rather its lack of familiarity.

batesyA few weeks ago, I sat behind a gentleman at the Schermerhorn who complained bitterly about having to sit through contemporary composer Mason Bates’ new Violin Concerto. He told his companion that Bates’ (tonal and lyrical) concerto was the “punishment he had to endure” before he got to hear his beloved Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.

Never mind that some of Tchaikovsky’s contemporaries described his music has having been conceived somewhere in the inner circles of hell. His music is infinitely familiar now, and we love every overblown, hyperemotional note of it.

Over the years, I’ve covered orchestras in numerous cities in the Northeast, Midwest and South, and without exception the ones with the worst attendance at classical concerts have been the ones with the most conservative programming. You can identify these conservative (make that timid) orchestras almost instantaneously from their brochures.

These glossy pamphlets refer to classical concerts as being part of a “masterworks” series, meaning you can expect to hear lots of Mozart being played as frumpily as possible. The main problem with these concerts is that they are themselves masterpieces of negative publicity.

Their message is simple: Come to our concert, and you’ll hear the same pieces you’ve heard played the same way by the same orchestra a dozen times before. The lamentable result is itself always the same: Fewer and fewer people opt to give up the novelty of their electronic devices to sit through a predictable and archaic concert.

Orchestras like the Nashville Symphony are definitely in trouble, but it’s not because of the music. The real problem, unfortunately, is just about everything else. And at the moment, I don’t see how a country that can’t seem to agree on anything can solve the myriad and intractable problems now facing orchestras.

For starters, I see absolutely no political will to provide even an adequate music education in our schools. The National Endowment for the Arts reported in its latest “Public Participation in the Arts Survey” that the number of 18 –to-24-year olds who’ve had any music education at all (38 percent) has dropped by a third since 1982. I doubt that the more than 60-percent of young adults who’ve never had a day’s worth of music education – and who have probably never even heard of Gustav Mahler – are planning to buy season tickets to the Nashville Symphony.

At the same time, those few who have heard of Mahler may not be able to afford the tickets, which is part of another problem. George Bernard Shaw once quipped that the two most expensive inventions of mankind were war and opera. Shaw can be forgiven for naming opera, since he had no experience with the modern full-time symphony orchestra. The biggest orchestras today employ 85 or even 100 full-time musicians year round. And at blue-chip orchestras, musicians’ unions have procured jaw-dropping salaries for players – San Francisco Symphony musicians, who are now on strike, earn a minimum of $141,000 a year.

Naturally, orchestras that pay those kinds of wages (the NSO minimum annual compensation is a handsome though not overly-excessive $60,000) need large and expensive administrative staffs just to raise money. They also need to sell lots of subscription packages. Yet in America these days, people are not inclined to indulge in weekly rituals, routines and subscriptions. Consider religion. Attendance at Sunday worship services has been in decline for decades. A Pew Research Center study found that a third of Americans under 30 now have no religious affiliation. Young people today are just not interested in going to the same place every week to hear a canon – scriptural or musical.

So what’s an orchestra to do? The Nashville Symphony is already doing a lot of things right. For over a year, the NSO has been transforming the Schermerhorn from being mostly a symphony hall to being a regional entertainment presenter. Big acts like Bill Cosby and Lyle Lovett will help bring in desperately needed cash. The symphony is also right to modernize its outdated pops series. These need to be big, contemporary, glitzy shows, not quaint exercises in Arthur Fiedler nostalgia. And though it breaks my heart to say it, it makes no sense to stage Thursday night classical concerts if so few people want to attend.

BenFoldsBut how will the symphony keep people coming to classical shows on Fridays and Saturdays? The traditional subscription series is not the answer. People don’t want to buy tickets for subscription weeks 4, 5, 6 and 7. They want to buy lasting memories. That suggests future events designed around festivals and competitions. It begs for city-wide artistic collaborations – the NSO’s upcoming venture with the Nashville Ballet, featuring a choreographed Ben Folds concerto, is a perfect example of what’s needed. The future could be bright and contemporary. Or it could be extremely quiet.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.


  1. Lex Poppens says:


    Thanks for putting in writing what many, particularly those in the classical music industry, need to see.


  2. Gary Stewart says:

    John, Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I lived through the NSO bankruptcy and reemergence some years back, and I don’t like the thought that it might happen again. My history with the Nashville Symphony goes back to the days when they performed in the War Memorial Auditorium, and there was no TPAC, and certainly not a magnificent symphony center.

    I have been mesmerized by the pre-concert classical conversations held during each of the subscription concerts. Giancarlo is a breath of fresh air who has those events standing room only. I think if more people would take advantage of these free conversations, they might learn to appreciate more of the contemporary pieces that he programs.

    The Symphony is a lot like other huge organizations that find it difficult to make needed changes for a litany of reasons. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the NSO has made huge steps forward in programming and reimagining the Schermerhorn as the regional performance center which you mentioned. It would be great to realize the dreams of many to transform the old thermal transfer plant property a premier summer outdoor venue for the NSO. I hope the early signs we have seen are just small preliminary steps in turning that area into Nashville’s premier outdoor amphitheater.

    I just yesterday renewed online my subscription to this year’s classical series, and I was delighted to see the new “Coffee & Classics” Series on select Fridays at 10:30. I found one concert that I will attend for sure. It also is my hope that the new “Signature Series” will be the answer to the Thursday night problems. And, of course, who can resist making reservations to see and hear Amy Grant and Vince Gill who have consistently supported the NSO for a very long time.

    The Symphony’s new emphasis on multimedia has been just remarkable, and they seem to have a great person heading up that area which should result in a larger younger set of concert goers.

    It is very true that the ticket costs have continued to climb and make this more of a financial challenge each year, especially when buying multiple tickets. However, the NSO made new options available several years ago allowing patrons to spread the package price over several months. I had to change from the full 14 concert package to the less expensive A/B series, but I am still there! And to show my support for what they are trying to do, I added what for me was a generous (I wish I was able to do more) Annual Campaign Gift.

    Please forgive the length of this comment, but you have touched on an issue that is going to be difficult for a lot of communities to deal with, and I just wanted to have my say also.

  3. This is an excellent post. So glad to have come across it.

  4. Joshua says:

    Lots of good stuff here. As a musician and former SF Bay Area resident, I would point out that the housing market in that region is 5-6X higher than Nashville; so it doesn’t seem fair to refer to the $141K salary of a San Francisco Symphony player as ‘jaw-dropping’ and then turn around and state that $60K in Nashville is ‘handsome, though not overly-excessively’. The truth is, neither salary is enough for a professional to make a comfortable living in their respective markets.

  5. hey John,
    thanks for writing this. Your comparison to the challenges facing churches is very appropos. The challenge is 1 part institutional and 2 parts cultural. While there are plenty of things classic american institutions like Symphonies and churches can do differently to be more relevant to the communities they serve, the root of the disconnect is the myriad of ways in which our culture has changed. (this is also very similar to what’s ailing the music industry- illegal downloads a part of it, but the larger issue is how people consume entertainment in the 21st century) I think the answer for the NSO is the same as for older congregations- new and different churches who, while retaining the core values of their predecessors, function in completely different ways.

    Some congregations attempt to satisfy both camps by hosting “blended” services..wherein a traditional liturgy is intersperced with contemporary songs or videos. – This never works. The rift between the cultures is just too great. What has worked is older congregations creating entirely new experiences- which eventually grow into new organizations.

    I think this is what symphonies will also need to do.

  6. I don’t think the answer is to commission pop artists like Ben Folds create symphonic works and then play these up these alongside works of actual value. Why? Because guys like Folds have no idea how to write for orchestra, how to develop themes, or how to create a long work with an actual form. It takes years of study to gain that competence. Besides, no one would never consider letting Willie Nelson conduct the orchestra on a supposedly serious concert, and I seriously doubt Folds would give away half of his first set by gleefully announcing that he and the band were now going to perform a number of pop tunes songs by “classical” composer Steven Stucky. So, why drop all standards when it comes to composers and give huge programming time to a pop artist who really is not up to the task – just as a novelty? This is the equivalent of TV trying to boost ratings for a sitcom by having Rihanna appear as a guest actress. It smacks of desperation.


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