Well, here we are, 3 1/2 years into in the worst recession since the Great Depression. Unemployment remains ridiculously high and nobody has any money to spend. As a result, people are cutting back on some of the “un-necessary” aspects of their lives– new computers, symphony tickets, new cars, etc. As a result many symphonies are finding themselves in dire economic straits. Further, the wealthier folks that are often very generous in their support of the arts are increasingly finding other charitable organizations that can do an even greater good (e.g. feed and house people). Of course, the recession alone isn’t to blame, the reduced taxes and reduced government spending (odd how the cause of the recession is also proposed as the cure, no?) has accelerated the decline of these ensembles. But this is only one political aspect. The declining audiences that are also often cited as a cause for the problems these orchestras are experiencing can also be attributed to politics. Specifically the ongoing attacks on arts education by corporate interests–citing in a panic the end of American domiance in whatever and the need for more science and math in a zero sum game. Thus, the arts are forced to defend themselves as supportive of the sciences, from the magic of the Mozart effect for children, to the music and math correlations junk. Music is secondary.
This is despite the fact that people spend so much of their money on music and their time listening to music. Further, I am always struck when, at some point in the curriculum of a music appreciation class the students begin to take interest in the subject. By the end of the course (most of them)no longer question the purpose of the course, but are glad they have been introduced to new music. Why must we defend an interest which has proven itself time and time again for 2,000 years. Especially in light of the many and on going ways in which science has failed us. Remember phrenology?
I am also shocked by the attacks from musicologists, particularly those focused on the 20th century or popular music. Do they attack these orchestras because they feel that they are no longer representative of modern interests. For them it is a zero sum game, and all that money that would be spent on the orchestras can go to the production of a performance of the Helicopter Quartet or a doo-wop museum or some such. Unfortunately, that is not what would happen. That money would simply be gone and the overall result would be fewer productions of Stockhausen, Beethoven and Fuqua. Another recurring motif is the “overpaid musician.” Nice. When it comes to cutting wages, don’t you think we should start with the crooks on Wall Street that have failed us instead of those educated and accomplished musicians that help to keep our culture alive?
The economy seems to be improving, I hope those orchestras that can, will hold on just a little longer, and those that are forced to close their doors for a little while, will work towards returning to the stage when things get a little better. It is important work that you do.
(Added on May 2):
Apart from those who are either misreading what I’ve written (or playing with straw men), there also seems to be another kind of campaign against orchestras that I’ve missed, what I am calling the petty Shock Doctrinaires, derived from Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine. Which I am here defining as someone who harnesses a devastating situation “to prepare the ground for the introduction of radical free-market reforms.” How else could anyone read this sentence: “Our structural deficit has been created by a decline in ticket revenues, decreased donations, eroding endowment income, pension obligations, contractual agreements, and operational costs.” and decide that the “Structural Deficit” is not largely related to the recession? What does “…been created by” mean? Sure orchestras need to innovate, sure they should always try to seek new audiences, and educate. But they were already doing that when the bankers crashed our economic system. Hey! Chicken Little! the world isn’t ending. It isn’t the tipping point of anything. It’s just a really bad economy that is s-l-o-w-l-y recovering. With the recovery, the ticket revenues, the donations, and the endowment incomes will return and the pensions, contracts and operational costs wont seem as bad as they do right now. Do you remember a few years ago when they said the value of a house will never decline? Now they are saying that it will never come back. Has it occurred to you that they were wrong then and they are wrong now? And do you know what? The Detroit Symphony is playing again!