How Competition Could Revive Classical Music


As a professional orchestra violinist you can count on a few steady dressing room conversations between colleagues. As of late, the alarming drop in ticket sales and concert attendance is a popular topic. Someone will say something like “There are more people on stage than in the audience, what is up with marketing?!” Frankly, as a performer, it is hard not to take low attendance rates personally. All of the effort and commitment required for 75+ colleagues to produce a successful performance should be rewarded by a large audience.

Orchestras across the country regularly promote their ensemble as a “truly a world class symphony.” But how do they determine that their ensemble is world class and if it’s true, why is it not good enough to sell tickets?

If you search Google for “world class orchestra” you get links to ensembles in Houston, Pittsburgh, Ft. Worth, Dallas, Toledo, and a dozen more ensembles. So what does the label “world class” mean for orchestras in the U.S.? Just about everyone assumes, at the minimum, ensembles from the traditional “Big Five” fall into that category (Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, and Philadelphia). Many listeners are familiar with the Philly sound, the Chicago Brass, the Cleveland Strings, etc. but “world class” criteria can also be measured by an organization’s budget size, how many full time musicians they employ, and city size. These additional standards allow groups such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, and Minnesota to be included in that “Big” grouping.

But what is so special about every other orchestra claiming to be a “world class” ensemble? If they don’t measure up through historical accomplishment or current criteria, can they back up their bold statements with the quality of their performances? And if so, how can this be measured?

In the U.S., we are obsessed with rank and competition. Just look at the variety and volume of reality television shows which center on competition, just when you think there’s a show for just about everything imaginable, the networks come up with something new.

NBC’s The Biggest Loser details overweight people competing to lose pounds while loosely educating the general public on weight maintenance. Fox’s American Idol shows singers getting critiqued after each performance by a panel of judges. The program regularly shows footage of the judges tearing apart contestant’s ability, or lack of, along with offering guidance on how to make it as a pop singer. American Idol is a blunt, yet effective, tool for educating the public on just how much effort it takes to become a pop star.

And who would have thought that gourmet cooking could turn into ratings bonanza for Fox. “Hell’s Kitchen” displayed chefs competing for a top restaurant job by making, of all things, jalapeno tortellini or foie gras with a quail egg. How did anyone determine this would be exciting?! Well, it does once a basic competitive edge is added to the formula. Not only will the audience learn why one chef’s braised short ribs on a parsnip puree with a honey mustard sauce is better than another’s, they will begin to develop a preference, or displeasure, for the chef’s personality.

All of these programs have a common thread which apparently resonates with viewers: contest shows increase viewer ownership by educating them on how intricate and artistic any of these mediums can be in an entertaining, inclusive process. In a sense, what has been crated is a new way of educating people without lecturing at them.

Why can’t the same thing exist for orchestras? Why not host a series of competitive concerts between orchestras designed to build an audience while educating them about the art form along the way? I’m not suggesting that Fox create an orchestra based reality television show (even though it could be really cool); however, I am suggesting orchestras unite create a healthy competition in the name of selling tickets, educating patrons, and growing an audience.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how the Columbus Symphony would fare against take neighboring ensembles in Cincinnati or Cleveland, both of which have substantially larger budgets? These orchestras could be given the same concert program so that judges could make comparisons across an even playing filed. The audience could be kept up to speed by reading judges comments (maybe in a blog) along the way and when a winner was named, the audience would be able to understand why.

I think it would be a huge boost to orchestras across the country if their listeners knew more about the components which make one ensemble better than another. There’s nothing preventing new listeners from learning why the phrasing in one ensemble was more moving than another. Judges comments would explain what phrasing is and why it worked better one way than another. Maybe the violins in one group were not in sync with the leader, the judging panel could explain how bowings work and how effective it is when all in the string section play exactly in the same part of a bow. Maybe the brass in one symphony was overpowering the woodwinds, the panel could comment on melody vs. harmony and explain what needs to be heard. Concrete examples like these are numerous and as a professional musician, I know these ideas aren’t so complicated that newcomers can’t pick up on them.

Regardless of how a “winner” is declared, the audience learns how the judges listen, why they came to a particular conclusion, and how they can use those same skills the next time they attend a concert. I know the amount of cooking knowledge I have gained simply by watching “Hell’s Kitchen” (and other programs like The Food Network’s “Iron Chef”) is astounding. The topic of gourmet cooking should seem very difficult, and untouchable, but somehow I felt involved in the process and discovered that it wasn’t as unobtainable as I once believed. Now I appreciate every aspect of what goes into a gourmet meal and there’s nothing preventing listeners from gaining that same level of connection with classical music.

Ultimately, I think an orchestra competition is the key to rapidly increasing ticket sales and the general level of understanding orchestral music. At the same time, a competition could capitalize on a prominent tendency among Americans to root for the underdog. Can you imagine the flood of local interest if a smaller budget orchestra beat someone like the New York Philharmonic? Not only would there be an instant spike in interest for an already talented smaller budget group, but there would also be a pride in the hometown team that over came. Even if that smaller budget group didn’t win again, they would likely retain a new core group of “fans” that will continue to support their new interest. Or, shouldn’t the big five have the opportunity to prove why they are the big five?

The thing that is odd to me about the orchestra business is you start off as a child competing in student competitions, then bigger concerto competitions, then competition to get into a good conservatory, competitions for scholarships, and after all of that there’s the biggest competition of all: winning an audition for a full-time orchestra position. After growing up with all of that competition, there seems to be nothing to strive for except personal interpretations of what does and does not constitute an excellent performance.

While that is a goal every musician should strive for, this doesn’t exactly help build a connection with our audience and concerts will eventually fade away without audience interest. Audiences certainly can be entertained by the traditional methods of the symphonic experiences, but why not, in the words of Emeril Lagasse “kick it up a notch?”

About Holly Mulcahy

After hearing Scheherazade at an early age, Holly Mulcahy fell in love with the violin and knew it would be her future. She currently serves as concertmaster of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. She spends her summers at the celebrated Grand Teton Music Festival. Believing in music as a healing and coping source, Holly founded Arts Capacity, a charitable 501(c)3 which focuses on bringing live chamber music, art, artists, and composers to prisons. Arts Capacity addresses many emotional and character-building issues people face as they prepare for release into society. Holly performs on a 1917 Giovanni Cavani violin, previously owned by the late renowned soloist Eugene Fodor, and a bespoke bow made by award winning master bow maker, Douglas Raguse.

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