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December 12, 2014

The publication of John Axelrod’s Naxos Ebook The Symphony Orchestra in Crisis certainly caused a stir, with its wry observations and thought-provoking predictions for the industry. One year on, we asked the American conductor for a review of the state of play, which we are pleased to share with you here.

John Axelrod

“Since publishing my book in Germany in 2013 with the title “Wie großartige Musik entsteht...oder auch nicht!”, and in 2014 as a Naxos Ebook entitled “The Symphony Orchestra in Crisis,” I have seen how many of my observations about the crisis in the Symphony Orchestra have in some cases come true, and have evolved in others.

In 2013, the Philadelphia Orchestra was trying to emerge from bankruptcy and the Minnesota Orchestra was in lockout. The New York City Opera closed. The SWR orchestras in Germany were merging. The Arts Council reduced funding to UK theaters and orchestras. And many orchestras and theaters around the world were unable to pay their artists on time.

In 2014, the Philadelphia Orchestra is solvent, but now it’s the Atlanta Symphony in lockout. The SWR orchestras still merged. The Arts Council continued to reduce budgets in the UK. Other orchestras were closing or close to bankruptcy. Same problems, different orchestras, same result: The symphony orchestra (and theater) remains in crisis. While solutions in the short terms could be found, whereby Atlanta reduced the number of permanent players, or Minnesota breathed easier without its combative Executive Director, new problems emerged because the old business model is outdated. When the costs of labor and productivity are out of balance, the net result will be continued stagnation and deficits. Where do we go from here?

My goal at the beginning was to educate the professional and amateur music lover about the realities facing classical music, and specifically the symphony orchestra. Taken from an academic perspective of the anthropology of the orchestra, and based on my personal experiences and the many lessons I myself have learned over the past 20 years of conducting, I tried, with a bit of tongue in cheek humor, to summarize where the symphony orchestra came from, where it has been all this time, and where it seems, or seems not, to be going. That last point, about the future, touches on the all-important question of its destination: That of a socially relevant instrument of the symphony orchestra, sustained by its politicians, sponsors and audience, and providing an enduring cultural patrimony for its people. How we arrive at that future is the unanswered question.

I explored many cultural stereotypes in order to establish the theme that different cultures produce different interpretations when performed through the lens of that culture: how Brahms 4 in France is interpreted differently from a Brahms 4 in Germany, and so on. Those stereotypes exist, but they are to be laughed at and not taken too seriously. That my book was taken so seriously by a few was perhaps the biggest surprise (and success). No harm was intended, yet some people took it the wrong way. Maybe that’s why the orchestra is in crisis: Too many people going the wrong way.

Some ideas I shared in my book were intended to demonstrate the importance of leadership throughout a classical music organization; to identify the successful trend of social humanitarianism in music, especially with the emergence and success of El Sistema (and the LA Phil by proxy); and to consider the benefit of creating an umbrella classical music organization with multiple ensembles at different levels to serve the larger needs of the community. I exposed the formality of the frac concert attire for its divine symbolism; I prescribed a move to tuning at 432hz to calm our modern, over-saturated and attention-deficit brains; and I confirmed the Baumol index that compares cost of labor and productivity. It does take the same number of musicians to play a Beethoven string quartet today as it did 200 years ago, but costs more. And there was the final argument: That musicians of the symphony orchestra do deserve to be paid more for their unique craft and talent. After all, there are only a few thousand people out of billions who can do what they do, day in and day out. That kind of virtuosity has value. And the point was to illuminate the value of virtuosity and not only judge the art that is produced.

Did my observations come true? Well, the Orchestre de Paris does not wear a frac. A few other orchestras have followed. The Metropolitan Opera in New York avoided a lock out strike but asked orchestra and artists to reduce their fees as it operates with a deficit of $22 million as of November 2014. It seems even the biggest opera house in the world is not immune to this crisis. Tuning is even higher than 440hz, with 443hz in some houses. It keeps the public alert. Leadership seems to be a continuation of the policy that people can fail upwards. As for the umbrella organization like a sports team? The unions are reluctant to change. And the recording industry, once a beacon of hope for classical music, has become its Achilles heel.

Of course there are success stories, but they are not able to sustain the overall industry, nor can they ensure the survival of the symphony orchestra as an instrument in the long run. The LA Phil pays the highest salaries to its musicians. The Boston Symphony has its new MD – Andris Nelsons. The Philly Orchestra breathes a sigh of relief with Nézet-Séguin. Seattle Symphony does creative programs to attract a larger audience. In a few years we will know if the trend towards younger conductors was the right direction when a measurable increase in subscribers becomes the norm.

As to the other questions often asked: why was Herbert von Karajan invited only once to conduct the Cleveland Orchestra? Because his Austro-Germanic autocratic approach did not appeal to the American individuals in the Cleveland Orchestra.

Do French orchestras go on strike more frequently than others? It is in their DNA (NDA in French) to strike. So, yes. But American orchestras are currently doing it more than any other in the world. That puts French egalitarianism a far second behind American individualism and freedom of expression.

Are Swiss musicians always so serious? Yes. Is being serious as a good thing? Maybe.

Are English orchestras overrated? Not at all. They are among the best players and sight readers in the world, mainly because they are forced to be. Fewer rehearsals are overrated. Rehearsing less does not mean the musicians know everything already. It means the orchestra is not paid for more rehearsals.

Are professional musicians underpaid? Yes. There is no argument for paying Felix Baumgartner millions to jump from the stratosphere to the earth and to not pay a commensurate fee to the musicians who jump from the earth to the stratosphere every day to play the greatest musical heritage of humanity. Perspectives need to be changed. Musicians are among the must unique individuals in the world whose craft and art should be as valued as the painter who receives millions for one canvas.

Is there still a ‘Big 5’ in the USA? No. The names have changed, and the results in pay and performance are different. We still include Chicago and Cleveland, stabilized by Muti and Welser-Möst. But LA Phil tops the list with Dudamel, San Francisco with MTT aren’t far behind, and perhaps New York Phil and home born Gilbert must remain in the pack because, well, it is New York. But continued success stories in St. Louis, Detroit, Boston and Philly mean that the Big Five will probably return and morph into the Big 10. The United States could use more success stories than fewer. Ten important American orchestras with a healthy subscriber base, tours and recordings, community outreach and solvent budgets means the crisis could be declared over.

But until then, let’s count the beans, because it is going to take a lot of them to keep the symphony orchestra in business. That also might mean I write Volume 2.”

John Axelrod, conductor and author

The Symphony Orchestra in Crisis
by John Axelrod
13-digit ISBN: 978-1-84379-808-8
Barcode: 9781843798088
Approximate length: 50,000 words
Formats: iPad/iPhone, Kindle, Nook

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