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The Future of American Orchestras May Be Bright After All

The picture was bleak five years ago, but musicians are finding innovative ways to draw in new listeners

Five years ago, the American Symphony Orchestra League (ASOL), a national service organization of 850 orchestras around the country, initiated a multiyear project that resulted in a stunning wake-up call for those in the field of classical music.

The initial assessment, "The Wolf Report," was sobering, charging that the American symphony orchestra was "economically fragile" and in danger of becoming "both culturally and socially irrelevant."

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Then, with the 203-page "Americanizing the American Orchestra," released in 1993, the ASOL offered its constituents a kind of workbook for typical management issues, such as volunteerism, repertoire, developing orchestra leadership, and relations with musicians. But two chapters - "Achieving Cultural Diversity" and "The Orchestra as Music Educator" - sent up red flags to orchestras around the country.

Both dealt strongly with popularizing the orchestral product by finding ways in which orchestras could reflect the cultural and ethnic world around them.

These aspects of the report were initially met with strong criticism. Leaders throughout the industry charged that the ASOL had opted for political correctness over practicality and substance, subverting the traditional mission of the symphony orchestra - to make music - by fusing it with social, political, and community agendas.

But at the ASOL's 51st annual conference, held in Cincinnati last month, it became clear that many of the ideas suggested by the report were being successfully integrated into current orchestra objectives.

And the recent Harris poll on participation in the arts shows attendance for classical music up 7 percent from the National Endowment for the Arts' (NEA) 1992 figures. This suggests that orchestras, long known as bastions of staid tradition, are finally letting down their hair and meeting with greater enthusiasm by a wider American public.

"The reason is terrific music-making and a lot of hard work," says Catherine French, the ASOL's executive director for the past 16 years. "We shouldn't underestimate the sophistication and dedication orchestras have to finding ways to connect with an audience.... All those disasters people have been predicting about the field have not happened because orchestras have paid attention and started taking care of business."

What became evident during the conference, which served as a sounding board for ideas among almost 1,600 musicians, conductors, administrators, board members, and volunteers from orchestras of all sizes, was that many orchestras used the report as a guidebook for more progressive thinking.

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"We weren't telling orchestras what to do, but giving ideas, providing food for thought, in some cases giving permission to think in different ways," Ms. French explains. "And each orchestra has responded in the ways that are right for that orchestra in that particular community."

The strongest concern faced by most American orchestras today is that of creating and maintaining a wider audience in an era of aging, shrinking constituencies for the arts in general. Those concerns took center stage at the ASOL conference.

The most sobering seminars there dealt with the latest demographic and social research, culminating in dire prognoses if the industry cannot keep up with the extraordinary rate of change occurring in society and the public's need for value, independence, and flexibility.

This was countered with examples of the ways in which various orchestras are trying to meet those needs: subscription packages and series in conjunction with other arts and sports organizations; full-season exchange policies for flexibility; free concerts; theme concerts; mixed-media presentations; preconcert talks; new concert lengths and starting times; and Web sites and hot lines.

The need to nurture young listeners looms paramount. National Public Radio special correspondent Susan Stamberg posed the overriding question during her keynote address: "How do you go about filling your concert halls with young, unfidgeting audiences, and how do you find a place for tradition for tomorrow's generations?" Her suggestions centered on "lowering the brow of classical music," such as breaking the distinction between regular and pops programming and taking music out onto the streets and into the malls.

She cited the Los Angeles Philharmonic's "Composer in the Classroom" program to help children create their own music and Baltimore Symphony's series of casual concerts, featuring talks, interviews, and skits.

Countless other examples imply that orchestras are taking seriously the call to educate and diversify. Over the past few years, there has been a virtual explosion in the quantity and variety of education and outreach projects as American orchestras search for new audiences, cultivate a new generation of listeners, and fill the growing void in public-school music programs. There are now more than 300 youth orchestras around the country, with at least 25 percent of the players coming from minority populations. Educational/outreach concerts continue to pull in new listeners who might not go to classical music concerts.

Last year alone, non-series concerts reached more than 3.5 million people.

David Myers's landmark NEA study of orchestra-school-community partnerships shows the impressive success of nine orchestras currently working with their local school systems. Dr. Myers found almost 300 orchestras fostering relationships with their local schools, mostly in the form of youth concerts and small ensemble performances. More than half also reported closer partnerships featuring expanded curriculums with culturally diverse programming, parent programs, musician training, teaching artists, program evaluation, and student assessment.

The major "Community Imperative" launched by the Saint Louis Symphony includes a merger with the local Community Music School and building a bridge to the African-American community through area churches. The Detroit Symphony, in cooperation with the Detroit public-school system, plans to build a performing-arts high school on the grounds of its new Orchestra Place. Community music schools are also operated by orchestras in Boulder, Colo., Wheeling, W.Va., and Flint, Mich.

One of the most effective and lively presentations at the conference was by an Evansville, Ind., ensemble called Tales and Scales, which gives creative in-school presentations of music and stories. They maintain that the future of the orchestral profession hinges on getting children interested in music of all kinds at an early age. Curtis Pendleton, the group's artistic director, says, "There is a lot of talk about future audiences - there are no future audiences. There are audiences now. Children shouldn't be addressed as marketing issues."

Bridget Muldoon McDaniel, the group's founder, agrees. "The orchestra is a collection of artists who have incredible resources to ignite the imagination.... The mission we're all charged with is about making art a vital and nucleic part of everyone's life...."

Few disagree that education and an awareness of cultural diversity must be integral to this mission in order for orchestras to survive, much less thrive, well into the next century.

Many say the key may lie in the transformation, both in attitude and skills, of the classical musician.

"It's a new world out there," says French. "We've got to prepare musicians not just to play the notes, but to be musical resources for their communities, to be complete musical citizens. And musicians around the country now are starting to reevaluate what it means to be a symphony musician. But when you see the energy and enthusiasm coming out of some of these conservatories now, you have to believe that the future is very, very bright."

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