MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Are American Orchestras Undermining Their Mission?

In a substantial and thought-provoking article in The New Republic, Philip Kennicott grapples with the issue of American distrust of “cultural authority” and how it affects the identity crisis suffered by today’s orchestras.

“The problems are financial and cultural, and the two are intertwined,” he observes. This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Kennicott compares the self-questioning undergone by American orchestras to a “protracted and painful Vatican II,” while the failure of the traditional subscription model has put orchestras in the same sinking boat as newspapers in the Internet era. As a last-ditch survival effort, orchestras have been forced to create a new paradigm based on audience segmentation, performing not just classical concerts but presenting a smorgasbord of watered-down “special events.”

But the most paradoxical and distressing result is the utterly generic quality of what most American orchestras now offer. By parsing audience taste to smaller fractions, the concert schedule in Oklahoma looks more and more like the concert schedule in Maine. At the League conference, the mantra was all “local, local, local”—that orchestras will survive only by catering in nuanced ways to their local constituents (not to audiences or listeners or music lovers, who are all passé). But a tendency toward groupthink across the field has led to the repetition of the same solutions, few of them successful or in any way particularly local.

Read the whole thing here.

(Above: American premiere of Mahler’s Eighth in 1916, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra)

Filed under: American music, orchestras,


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