America's Orchestras are in Crisis
The future of the American orchestra may well look like the Church after Vatican II, a contest between “progressives,” who believe, as Rosen suggests, that “the concert is not what it’s really about,” and traditionalists, who search out the rare High Mass of real music or retreat to their home stereos and isolation. The best hope for the latter is still big-city orchestras that must for now cater to an older, more traditional audience, which includes serious listeners. But even that category—serious listeners—is an uncomfortable one for almost all orchestra leaders.
In late June, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra came within days of foreclosure on its concert hall, an imposing neoclassical structure that opened in 2006. Designed by a national architecture firm that specializes in faux-historical buildings, and costing $123.5 million, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, with its massive columns and impressive portico, was meant to give one of this country’s finest regional orchestras cultural and civic gravitas.1 But in March, leaders of the institution decided that they could no longer afford the interest rates on a letter of credit, and effectively threatened to default on their mortgage. A confidential agreement, brokered by wealthy symphony supporters, saved the orchestra from homelessness, but the situation remains bleak. In recent years, the Nashville Symphony has been running deficits of $10 to $20 million a year, and a contract with the musicians is about to expire. If recent history is any guide, negotiations will be complex and rancorous.
It has been a dark few years for this country’s orchestras. In the past season, a bitter strike in San Francisco and a lockout in Minneapolis led to cascading cancellations, including of the San Francisco Symphony’s East Coast tour. Since the economic crisis of 2008, bankruptcies have afflicted orchestras around the country, leading to the closure of the Honolulu, Syracuse, and Albuquerque symphonies, and in April 2011 came the stunning news that one of the country’s “Big Five,” the Philadelphia Orchestra, had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Some of those groups reorganized, or opened in new forms, and Philadelphia emerged from bankruptcy in July 2012 with a hiring freeze, ten fewer players, and a 15 percent pay cut for the remaining ones.