Are We Looking at the Last Days of Orchestra?

From the extravagant and distinguished to the modern and mesmerizing, concert halls around the world celebrate one of the greatest achievements of human artistry – the symphony orchestra.

Masterpieces from the iconic Beethoven No.5 to the revolutionary and riotous Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky continue to echo in theatres and music venues; the works of Puccini and Verdi, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev delight and enthrall opera and ballet lovers alike. Without a doubt, this music – whether sacred or secular – inspires a certain kind of divinity, an immortality which embraces the highest of art forms and the deepest, most intense response from within, driving passionate and dedicated musicians from all walks of life to devote their soul to their art.

And yet, orchestras are seemingly dying, losing their resonance in an ever-changing world where we find ourselves distanced from our imaginations and the artworks which once inspired a huge response fade into the ether.

Struggling to Survive

The past few decades have been challenging for arts programs and musical ensembles on a troubling scale.

As the humanities continue to be cut from mainstream education as well as liberal arts departments in leading post-secondary institutions, art is becoming increasingly divided by class and race. While some ventures like community outreach have been successful in helping people from vulnerable neighborhoods have the opportunity to enjoy art, music, and dance, and new, enterprising techniques like music therapy are being used increasingly to treat individuals – particularly children – who experience depression, anxiety, and autism, finding a “reason” to keep this aspect of American culture alive is becoming more and more difficult.

Techniques like music therapy are being used increasingly to treat individuals – particularly children – who experience depression, anxiety, and autism.

Despite its long-standing acceptance as an integral part of high society, orchestras all over the world are watching the slow death of an entire artform – and America is no exception.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reason behind the decline of the orchestra, but there are a multitude of possibilities.

One is that classical music – used in its broadest term, covering the periods of music known as the baroque, classical, romantic, and contemporary etc. respectively – is no longer accessible. This isn’t because people are not capable of appreciating the multilayered harmonies, beautiful melodies, striking dynamics and all the charming intricacies which make the form so engaging. It’s the fact that the experience of going to a classical concert, just like buying an album, is so intimidating. It’s hard to debunk the popular myth that classical music is only for the rich – and to remind people that in reality, composers such as Beethoven wrote very much with the everyman in mind.

Class Wars

Extravagantly dressed concert-goers combined with a certain snobbery which surrounds the concert hall and the idea that classical music is “difficult to get” rather than simply enjoy its eccentricities is off-putting to say the least, and classical programs which have endeavored to reach out to younger audiences have come across as patronizing at best. Concert etiquette – the fear of clapping at the wrong moment, such as between movements and the overall quiet – sometimes make it a tense atmosphere. And while this magnificent music should be revered, it should never force its listeners to restrain themselves completely.

Some orchestras – like the famous Philadelphia Orchestra, helmed by the innovative Yannick Nézet-Séguin – have tried to relax the dress code in an attempt to make concerts a more enjoyable affair.

But this isn’t the only reason orchestras are struggling.

Workplace Stress

It’s about the cut-throat politics, backstabbing and pressure-cooker atmosphere which rules the ensemble, where conductors are permitted to play the tough sports coach or enraged artist persona at the expense of their musicians’ health. Certainly, not every conductor creates in this way, and more progressive organizations have taken a different, more updated approach to governing work ethic. But this is the same accepted behavior which dethroned the notorious Charles Dutoit of the renowned Montreal Symphony, whose success came from fear just as much as talent.

Musicians often take up a second job to make up for their low pay, while continuing to practice and perform in an environment where even the rewards of playing the world’s most beautiful music wane over time. Some organizations have finally taken steps in the right direction to combat workplace bullying, realizing that like conventional businesses, employee wellbeing and happiness is critical to productivity.

Surely, adopting measures which create a more 21st century approach to the workplace is part of the answer.

Challenging Our Values

Making music more accessible and improving the work atmosphere are just small parts of the puzzle. Perhaps the next step is to question what the great works mean today. Sometimes, this means reinterpreting a piece and changing the setting, or trying out new works completely. While this music will always be immortal, we should also remember that art is meant to be challenged. The best way for art to die is to accept it as an established, untouchable, infallible monument, which produces an alienating affect on members of the public who fear its reputation. It must be laid bare, vulnerable, open to new ideas.

We need art to be fulfilled as a society.

As the great thinker Joseph Campbell once expressed, we need art to be fulfilled as a society. But we can never take that art for granted.


Gemma Hunt 

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