What do orchestras do?

I’m still thinking about some of the issues brought up in this post, and some of the issues I mentioned in the comments about how one can be considered a die-hard fan of a pop or rock band without ever seeing them live. Or how seeing them live might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience that one wouldn’t really expect to duplicate multiple times. It’s considered a special thing, especially with the biggest bands. Perhaps you might go to smaller venues to see your favorite local band, but the biggest bands? Nope. Once in a lifetime. Twice if you’re lucky. See them more often, and you will be revered for it by that band’s other fans.

And yet the best-of-the-best orchestras — and yes, I’m thinking of Philadelphia here — would expect people to pay to see them over and over and over and over and over, habitually. Not even considering the massive inconveniences of seeing any big-ticket live performance (often insurmountable if you have an hourly job and/or kids), people just do not think of seeing even a big-time favorite band multiple times like that.

So … what does that leave the orchestra to do? What do they give their communities if not live performances?

People have made hay over the Baltimore Symph’s Rusty Musician program, inviting community musicians — who are not kids from Curtis! — up on stage with them as a great example of how to connect orchestra with community.

They rarely mention the upshot of this: that the Symph created an adult summer camp for rusties that they could attend for about $1600 to come together with other rusties, learn a few things from the musicians, socialize, and enjoy masterclasses — things that as a non-conservatory grad and amateur, I wouldn’t normally have a prayer in hell of doing even if I wanted to.

Think about it. That was $1600 a pop from several hundred local community members for a week of camp with some time from the musicians. No, they weren’t kids from Juilliard or the Rock School. They weren’t cute, fresh-faced and photogenic kindergarteners twirling plastic pipes over their heads. They weren’t people who would become orchestra musicians themselves.

They were ordinary folks. And they forked out $1600 a head! “Will that translate to ticket sales?” asks the breathless outreach coordinator? Who cares! $1600 a head! That’s a revenue stream in and of itself! Who needs ticket sales and subscriptions?

The issues with this sort of effort are that it does radically redefine what the role of an orchestra is, and what the musicians need to do. Plainly, sitting on stage, playing, and going home, and only teaching sober, driven type-AAA teenagers with $45,000 violins is not your role anymore. You aren’t teaching people how to become part of your community (the orchestra). You are teaching people who will remain part of their community (the outside world). You know, the one your orchestra is trying to reach.

The chief objection to this that most people in that world would raise is, “What’s the point of teaching some aluminum siding salesman how to flutter tongue a trumpet if he’s never going to do it professionally, anyway?”

I’d say that even thinking that question is the problem with that world, much less asking it.

Yet however you may consider it lowering yourself to engage with the community (even if they demonstrate themselves willing to part with the upside of two grand a head), the fact remains. Just sitting up there and playing live concerts isn’t going to cut it anymore. Orchestras need to offer something else —

— something that might not even be live music.

They also need to offer something else to their members, the musicians. I’m still not sure why it took a lightning strike on the venue to get Time for Three on stage with their orchestra. What other little jam session groups exist in orchestras all over the country, bubbles of creativity that are being left untapped? Can they be tapped without being forced under the baton of the conductor? Can they be tapped according to the union rules, and can the rules be adjusted to account for this possibility? Musicians nowdays can offer up their wares on iTunes on their own; they don’t even need a label. Is there something that an orchestra can offer its members to help them achieve this, if they are interested?

There’s going to be a lot of experimentation in the future of orchestras. (And a lot of failure as people learn what works and what doesn’t.)

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