The State of American Orchestras: A Case Study in Syracuse

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I’ve been reading articles, blogs and points of view from pundits, board members and administrators on the state of American orchestras. Not because it’s fun and exciting reading material, but because American orchestras seem to be ailing.

Honolulu, Detroit, Syracuse, Philadelphia- bankruptcy, strike, bankruptcy, bankruptcy.

After doing my homework, I noticed the absence of one important voice in all of this: the musician’s.

So, for the moment, let’s forget about all of the orchestra gurus. Instead, let’s explore this scenario from a musician’s perspective.  Michael Winter, former Principal Hornist of the now defunct Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, graciously agreed to help connect the dots for me on the inner workings of the orchestra in Syracuse.


According to Bernard Holland of the New York Times:

American orchestras will keep failing… Darwinism is at work, and American orchestras must adjust…

I asked Michael to respond to this. Instead of punching me, he astutely offered that this is a very simple out for a very complicated issue. Indeed blaming Darwin seems to be a convenient way of abandoning the symphony orchestra.

Rather than attempt to understand the complicated issues facing our orchestras today, let’s point our fingers at a science god. Rather than address these issues and nurture our orchestras so they can thrive once again, let’s brush this all under the rug! No one will ever know!

Or will they?

Well, how come orchestras across the pond in Europe seem to be staying afloat? Not to mention Latin America, with more than 200 orchestras in Venezuela alone.

Curiously, The Colorado Symphony is on track for record ticket sales this season while the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s endowment has skyrocketed.

Is Darwin so busy with the rest of the US that he’s forgotten about Colorado? Is he allergic to Los Angeles? Is he afraid of Gustavo Dudamel?

So is Darwin to blame? Something tells me it’s not that simple.

The culprit: Art for art’s sake?

The whole point is to play what our audience wants to hear. Nothing is more depressing than playing to an empty audience. It’s demoralizing!

– Michael Winter

Exploring the concept art for art’s sake could (and maybe should?) be an article in itself. For now, I’ll bypass this discussion, and say only that presenting art for art’s sake with little regard to audience taste did not happen in Syracuse.

This season alone, the SSO programmed classics by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Strauss and Tchaikovsky- composers all historically well received in Syracuse, with newer works sprinkled in for variety.

Musicians in Syracuse even proposed increased programming of pops concerts, and were also in favor of exploring new venues and concert formats- all to please their audience and attract new listeners.

A “new” model?

It seems like traditionally, the orchestra is responsible for delivering excellent performances while management has an obligation to support the orchestra in its fulfillment of the organization’s artistic vision and mission.

With American orchestras struggling, I asked Michael if maybe these roles can be re-examined and new models explored.

With a patient smile, Mike explained that as far as new ideas of community engagement go, they’re simply not new in Syracuse.

With the SSO Principal Wind Quintet, I’ve played in community centers, libraries, retirement homes, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, colleges, outdoor venues and this is just one of the many ensembles the symphony had… but playing at a school is intended to educate students, not make the nightly news. We’ve had these types of small ensembles happening for decades.

In addition to their roles as performers, at least half of the musicians were actively providing leadership by participating in orchestra committees, engaging in artistic planning, sitting on boards, pitching their marketing and advertising ideas to administrators, developing new educational initiatives, and exploring other ideas to make for an improved community experience.

All in all, the musicians of the SSO spent dozens, if not hundreds of unpaid hours supporting the orchestra in alternative roles. All for the sake of keeping their orchestra afloat, not because they found their instruments too easy to play (“they are not!”), or Mahler simply no longer a challenge (“it is still!”).

Furthermore, when it became clear that the orchestra could not continue operating without immediate financial aid, each musician returned over $7,000 of their salary in an effort to help keep the music playing in Syracuse.

Looking ahead in Syracuse and elsewhere

As demonstrated with gusto in Syracuse, musicians recognize the great need in this particular moment to be proactive in the creation and sustainability of their art. However, Michael, and I suspect others, see this as an intermediary solution, rather than a definitive answer to all problems.

That’s just not what I do. That’s not what I went for school for… I can tell you between a Conn and a Geyer, which will slur better in what register, but I can’t run a non-profit organization.

Perhaps he’s got a point. After broaching this subject with Michael, I felt suddenly less like someone with an innovative new idea, and more like someone that had kicked a friend while he was down.

While I agree that musicians should gain an appreciation for, and better yet an understanding of the organizational aspect of orchestra management, I think there’s only so much we can reasonably expect them to take on.

After all, musicians work diligently to master the art performance, not marketing or strategic business planning.

It is easy to discern how this could result in a jack of all trades, ace of none scenario. I imagine that if Yo-Yo Ma had to compose his own music, engineer his own recordings, manage his own PR and handle all of his bookings… well, he’d no longer be Yo-Yo Ma.

Musicians understand why music is a fundamental part of the human experience and deserves a meaningful place in our communities more than anyone.

Instead of asking our musicians to wear ever more hats, perhaps administrators can invite more musicians to have a seat at the table, listen to their ideas with sincerity, then take the ball and run with it.

With common interests and working side by side, musicians, administrators and orchestra gurus can reengage our communities and cultivate a new generation of listeners.

6 Responses to “The State of American Orchestras: A Case Study in Syracuse”

  1. Jon Gorrie says:

    Note: This comment is not intended to offend, rather, to open the floor to debate.

    It’s such a loaded topic that it’s hard to know where to start…

    I guess in this time of economic crisis, it can be ‘easy’ for governments to cut back on funding for the arts, and concentrate rather on the ‘essentials’, like the military, which required apparently US$1.3 trillion since 9/11 for the ‘war on terror’.
    (Now there’s a pandora’s box warning if ever I saw one!)

    Without getting too deeply into politics and international relations, you might argue that in an ideal world, we wouldn’t need a defence force at all.

    (Note that I don’t mean to say anything negative here about the forces, or those men and women that serve in them! I understand that due to the nature of the current goings on in the world – the core of which unfortunately haven’t changed since before year dot – an effective defence force is necessary in many countries).

    But I wonder, if just 1% of the USA’s war on terror budget was syphoned into the arts and culture, it would (I’m guessing) be enough to keep all of the orchestras in the US afloat for a fair while. (Perhaps 0.1% would be more than enough?)

    But why keep orchestras running at all? Why have arts and culture, if they can’t support themselves just like any other business?

    Because arts and culture are what make us human, IMHO. As far as we know, the arts and culture are a big part of what separate us from the rest of the animals on the planet.

    Arts and culture ad slogan coming up: “Be a human, support the arts.”
    Perhaps I should copyright that? :) I digress.

    Anyway, these are just my musings. What are your thoughts?

  2. Brie Jones says:

    Great article Rachel! As a social worker who just happens to play music, I was initially on the same train of thought as you – community engagement! innovation! revolution! So, I appreciate getting reminded that these are musicians not community organizers.

    However, I really think that it is only through community partnerships that orchestras and really all arts programs will thrive economically. We need partnerships that are sustainable and benefit both the community and orchestra equally. I agree that it just can’t be all on the shoulders of the musicians.

    Keep ’em comin’ : )

  3. Jon Gorrie says:

    This article seems to paint an even darker picture:

  4. I always think of this when I hear stuff like this about orchestra’s

  5. gary g. says:

    Too many chiefs, and not enough indians. I’ve responded to a call for mentors made by the region’s ‘Arts development officer’, to assist youth in my area. Thinking, here I am; an underemployed, registered music teacher with a lifetime’s experience to share. Response? Sorry but we want volunteers, and won’t pay anything for this work. Is she getting paid to ‘develop’ the local Arts ‘community’? What about the other local Arts officials on the payrole? Maybe if we got rid of the facilitaters and cronies that go middle-man between musicians and their audience, we wouldn’t have orchestras (collections of musicians) going bust?

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