Sunday, August 29, 2010

Bad Orchestra News

The South Bend Symphony is in contract negotiations this year. We met yesterday with our committee for updates on their progress, and they did not have good news to report. Our already small season is contracting still more. Under the current proposal I personally would lose 10 of my guaranteed services - about a 15% cut in the number of rehearsals and performances that I can expect to do over the course of the season. I have said before that my family's finances are not tied to any one employer, and I stand by that. $1000 is not nothing, but it won't make or break me. Money always comes from somewhere.

What troubles me is that as the orchestra season continues to shrink (this is not the first service cut we've taken in recent years) we can only become less and less relevant to the community that we theoretically serve. This current economic downturn will pass. The dip in our endowment income will pass (or so it has been explained to me). But a loss of audience awareness and interest may not.

The way to balance a budget is to cut frivolous spending. But for a non-profit organization - an orchestra, in fact - surely the musicians themselves are not a frivolous expense. Surely putting on performances is not a frivolous expense, but rather the WHOLE POINT.

The symphony needs to stay on people's radar screens as a destination for the evening. In the middle of winter in Indiana it is always tempting to curl up by the fire and listen to CDs in your pajamas, but you can only do that for so many nights. Why not provide an experience that people can dress up for? A place for people to get away from their computer screens and spend two hours in the presence of greatness? (Here of course I speak of the timeless compositions, and the occasional opportunity to hear something brand new - and every now and then the spark of magic that only exists in a live performance.)

I'm aware that the our staff works hard to fill the auditorium seats. They make a major effort to build audience by doing ticket giveaways, by offering very affordable student tickets, by sending our educational ensembles out into the community to perform at schools, nursing homes, libraries, and zoos (!) for little or no charge. It seems incredibly short-sighted to toss aside all of the publicity and good will we've been working so hard to achieve by performing less. It disappoints and dismays me.

The more time I spend working on my own career, the more I realize that I have to be visible to be relevant. I performed yesterday for free and my goal was to be noticed and enjoyed. I maintain this blog. It's for myself - I love this additional creative outlet in my life - but it's an effort to connect with the world (the concert-going public) as well. So that when I actually do perform on the big stages there are people who want to see me do it. So that when I charge admission to my self-produced recitals there are people who know that I'm worth it. Or at least people who are curious enough and interested enough to take a chance on me for an evening.

I would be so much happier to see us aggressively promoting newer music and trying to attract younger audiences. I would love to see us try a new time slot, a new series, a new anything. I've heard John Mack quoted as saying, "If you're going to go down, go down in flames." He was talking about taking risks in performance, of course - reaching for that softer entrance, that smoother interval - but I think that that sentiment applies to our current management situation as well. The orchestra is not in crisis, financially - not so much as to dictate such drastic cuts. Let's try something new instead. Maybe the Michiana audience can still surprise us!

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