Exactly 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.
I 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.
A 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.
But 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.