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THE ISSUE WITH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRAS – A MUSICIAN’S TAKE

Oct 20th 2012

Orchestra musicians and enthusiasts have a little more to talk about nowadays than the beauties and nuances of the great pieces that refresh and strengthen the hearts and souls of players and audiences.

The news and are about the string of orchestras that are filing bankruptcy, locking out musicians and dealing with labor disputes due to financial difficulties: Symphony Orchestras in Atlanta, Minnesota, Indianapolis and San Antonio have been recently on the news, to name a few.

Opinions are divided and more often than not they incur in the general themes of management models, funding, and the meaning of art music in today’s digital society.

As they say in my country, to avoid raining on already wet lands, this writing intends not to quote specifics on the management and economic reasons why those orchestras are facing hardships. And there are plenty of good opinions out there about how cultural elements are valued or despised by a digitally distracted society.

There are many smaller and local orchestras succeeding with community outreach programs and season calendars despite the difficulties.  But these groups do not populate the news as often because the taste of the public is more suited to tragedies, such as the failures sadly hitting those larger symphonic ensembles.

Professional and personal motives move me, as a musician, when I join this discussion. But at the same time, just as in the moment the concert is about to begin, I stop and listen to my own thoughts and then again wait for silence.

Only in that moment of brief waiting and concentration I can feel the excitement and wonder a musician ready to play can feel, and I can sense the same excitement in the audience.  Only when musicians are able to create that excitement there are chances of success. The success I’m talking about is simply that of having the audience desiring that unique feeling, that unique journey that takes place in concert halls.

But I’m afraid musicians are put in a wrong path of insecurity and confusion about their own role in culture. Orchestra musicians are educated to be concerned with everything that is going to go wrong with their performance before they even start that many times creates a feeling of distance from the audience. Adding to that, we are all trained with focus on solo and chamber music, and the academic musician often sees orchestral playing as an activity that is only a shadow of “real” music making.

         The educational problem that creates this mindset makes it almost impossible to create the excitement that is essential to generate the demand for the experiences offered by an orchestra. That excitement that fills the silence in the beginning of the concert and that will explode in a coda. That excitement will generate the desire to come back and bring someone with you to the next concert. And that type of free publicity is incomparably profitable.

         Without that precious and truly creative capacity of musicians to gather their wills and minds and hearts to impress an audience (and not themselves) – without worrying about how badly they are being paid, or how badly they wanted to be doing something else –there will be no magical management model or marketing gimmick that will bring the deserved meaning to the Symphony Orchestra in the twentieth first century.

         Beginning by where it begins, this is a question missing from conversations and writings on the subject – if you care to google it. Do musicians believe that symphonic music sells, excites, profits? If they don’t, orchestras are in trouble, because they are the ones who make the music.

 

Marcelo Vieira is an international musician, cellist and writer. He is from Brazil and holds a Master of Music from Louisiana State University. Marcelo teaches in the Strings Program in the Jackson Public Schools in partnership with MSO.

 

This is the first of a series of articles on this subject to be published on the Jackson Music Forum.


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