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Behind-scenes friend for American orchestras - and audiences

At a time when some orchestras are in serious trouble because of the sky-rocketing costs of mounting a season, it is good to note that the American Symphony Orchestra League is optimistic about the overall well-being of orchestras in the United States. It is safe to say that most orchestras would not be functioning as smoothly, or functioning at all, if the league, meeting here this week for its annual conference, were not in existence.

And though this Washington-based service organization is not well known by the public, it has a tangible effect, through its various programs, on the average ticket buyer and orchestra subscriber:

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The Orchestra Management Fellows Program has provided 46 internships that have often led to permanent jobs after the training program is finished.

The American Conductors Program, co-sponsored by the New York Philharmonic, focuses attention on gifted conductors who have enriched the musical life of the nation and had an impact on American orchestras in the smaller communities of the land.

The Conductors' Guild is an elite committee of maestros who bring qualified American conductors to the attention of orchestras in search of new music directors.

The Volunteer Council advises all the orchestras' volunteer groups in managing their resources and in the art of fund raising, and provides the chance to share views and problems with other groups.

The league is an active campaigner for the performing of new and recent scores. It also presents various awards honoring composers, conductors, and important figures in the orchestra world.

These are the most influential parts of a group that has been around since 1942. Catherine French, chief executive officer, says the goals have changed little since then, even though the issues have become more complex.

I asked her how a concertgoer's experience might be affected as a result of the league's work. ``I would hope that that person had a good experience in hearing about the concerts and in approaching the concert hall as a customer, if you will. And that that person, once in the concert hall, had an opportunity to have a variety of musical experiences, with interesting programming and things like good program notes, and perhaps an audience education program, much of which I would hope would be developed by the people we try to reach through conferences like this. That person might [even] be inspired to volunteer for the orchestra. And then he would not be the man on the street, but the man on the inside and come to one of our meetings!''

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Miss French goes on to explain that ``the league was organized in the very early days to serve orchestras. It was chartered by Congress in '62 to serve orchestras. And that has been the constant. It's the reason why we remain the single service organization for symphony orchestras, because that [function] is clear to everyone. I think there is an effort to make the league more active, perhaps less reactive.''

In this age of aggressive marketing and bottom-line consciousness, the league has tried to keep stressing the reason why orchestras are in business. As French puts it, ``What I've tried to do - and what the league board has tried to do in recent years - is bring things back into balance.... Orchestras are about music, and we have to be about music.''

French, who speaks from 12 years of league experience, says maintaining an orchestra is always a challenge, but fundamentally the state of symphony orchestras, large and small, in this country is solid. Today, there are more challenges on everyone's leisure time, and the orchestra has to be aggressive about getting those people into the hall and keeping them there. It is this process that the league nurtures unflaggingly.

In French's words, ``What we're really trying to do is inspire [conference-goers] to go back home and be creative and use some of these ideas. ... If you believe in the power of music, once [music lovers] are there, they'll be back, provided you are giving them high quality performances, interesting programs, and all the rest.''

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