The People Business….

I am embroiled in rehearsals for Mahler 5 and was not going to write till later in the week, but something jumped out at me over on Greg Sandow’s blog that I could not let pass by. The talk of free concerts for the community have been the subject of his last two post,s and most of the comments coming back to him make me think that people still believe we are in the music business. We are not, we are in the people business!….

In his post New Mission for Orchestras? Greg says:

So the parks concerts function on a lower artistic level. That doesn’t mean they’re bad, that their audience might not love them, or that they don’t fulfill a function. But it’s not the function I want orchestras to have. It’s not the reason I want them to exist.

Greg is one of my blogging heroes and his posts ask great questions and his perspective is always challenging and inspiring but I am going to challenge this notion of having to find a “reason”. By looking for this elusive reason we will drive ourselves to despair and distraction because it is both looking back and also us deciding for ourselves who we are, and that is what I call a sustainability killer. We will better sustain ourselves by letting our communities creating the reasons for our survival (particularly in smaller cities). We need to do this by establishing both a narrative with them and a personal conversation that is ongoing, and not defined by our own viewpoint or reason for existing. Sure we need to have a mission, but it should not be closed ended i.e we are here to promote the great art of Classical Music. The audience and community must always be included in that mission, and if that means free community concerts then we must do them.

Here is the math: Greg points out that on average 25% of an orchestras concerts are free community concerts. I don’t know the average of attendees, but if you can fill Central Park with 100,000 people for a single concert, it would take the NY Phil about 45 concerts to get that many people to Avery Fisher Hall (presuming they are all sold out). Conservatively if 75% of the time you are playing to 25% of your audience, and 25% of the time you are playing to 75% of your audience in any given year, how is that too many free concerts and how is that affecting us adversely? I would argue the opposite is true. They are not just free concerts, they are the establishment of a narrative with our community, the only way we can say that we reach a large segment of the population (along with educational concerts), and by doing them every year even the most infrequent audience member can at least offer their moral support for an orchestra’s existence. Further to this, doing free concerts really does make a difference when talking with donors and sponsors (this was pointed out in one of the comments), the vital ingredients to our survival, and the survival of our subscription concert series.

In the Knight Foundation’s Magic of Music final report this statement jumps off the page:

Orchestras that are not relevant to their communities are increasingly endangered. The caliber of the playing, the renown of the conductor and the architecture of a world-class hall mean nothing if an orchestra’s programs do not reverberate throughout the community. The more orchestras peel off 3 to 4 percent of an economically elite, racially segregated fraction of the community,the less they contribute to the vital life of a community. In the end, their very survival is placed in jeopardy.

I would say with 3 out of 4 concerts being of the paid/satisfying musically variety, 1 out of 4 concerts being free and some perhaps of the 1 rehearsal “heat and serve” variety, is a small price to pay for survival! Plus in defense of those concerts, musicians have shared with me that they enjoy fact that they can bring their families without worrying too much about the “proper” etiquette, especially at outdoor concert. I see many families at these kinds of concerts which is unlikely to occur at Lukas Foss festival!

As to narrative, it is essential to build community pride for an orchestra, and to celebrate days such as today being Veterans Day, 4th of July, Christmas etc…is a golden opportunity to do so. I remember vividly whilst in 94 auditioning for the Fort Worth assistant job, I visited the extraordinary Kimbell Art Museum and was told by one of the attendants to make sure to go check out Billy Bob’s Honky Tonk (the world’s largest). Whilst at Billy Bob’s the bar tender with the handle bar mustache, boots and cowboy hat, suggested that I should definitely check out the Kimbell Art Museum! The crazy thing, neither of them had been to either place in years but they were both equally proud enough of them to suggest that I should go! That’s community narrative, pride and promotes sustainability.

So let’s say for instance a tourist visiting my city in February is talking to someone who only goes to free summer concerts about how they love Symphony concerts. Well it’s not a stretch for a similar suggestion to be made: well I only go in the summer time but I hear they play year round, you should check it out. What is it that is said about “word of mouth”…..

We can bemoan the fact that a majority of people are not into the live Classical concert experience, but doing more concerts for the sake of it wont help, plus with our music education institutions being singularly centers of Musical excellence and not centers of Musical advocacy (which I have written much about and is a whole other tangent that relates to this), we will only keep fooling ourselves that the notion of being a bigger and better orchestra will make us more sustainable. The opposite is true. Establishing a true community narrative will help create sustainability, and with that sustainability we can then justify becoming a bigger and better orchestra!

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