Sounds like the Delaware Symphony Orchestra is going through a rough patch. The 2012-13 season has been suspended, a newly appointed Executive Director quickly fled, and the orchestra’s management is operating with a skeleton crew as they try to plug the deficit, scrape together enough for a season, and find the best footing to move forward. Music Director David Amado, in a short speech that sums up the many paradoxes of making art in modern times, beautifully pleas for support from the community to keep the DSO going.
“We need our community to understand and succumb to the power of what we do,” he says. “We need our community to crave that connection with humanity, to be touched deeply, to have profound, specific emotions conjured by abstract sounds.”
True. Yet Amado surely understands that a community is not entirely to blame for financial troubles in an arts organization. The performing arts relies on a paying, donating audience, but also on leaders who are willing to invest the resources needed to keep the ship running, and make tough decisions as needed. So many of the sad headlines of orchestras and opera companies facing bankruptcy have behind them gridlocked board meetings and overwhelmed staff. While corporate boards will have compensated experts from the field who are personally invested in a company’s success, non-profit boards take what do-gooders they can recruit and hope their expertise adds up to what the organization needs. More prominent brands, say, the Met, will attract prominent members of society who gladly bolster their own reputation with generous gifts to highly visible causes. And they bring business acumen to boot. Smaller organizations may not be so lucky, and will suffer for it.
When faced with financial difficulties, performing arts organizations appear to be taking one of two paths: folding or reinventing. Folding is an obvious loss, but reinventing promises an undefined kind of sinister. Look at the Colorado Symphony, with its “consumer-first business model” that promises an even more watered down symphony experience than what they have offered in the past (Celtic Woman, show tunes, etc.). Their reincarnation includes:
• Reducing the number of big, symphonic pieces in favor of chamber and percussion ensembles or brass quintets to broaden consumer appeal.
• Teaming with pop culture powerhouses, such as Natalie Merchant and a Queen cover band.
Because brass quintets have such broad appeal and Natalie Merchant fans will even notice who her back-up band is? Neither folding nor reinventing to this extreme gives people a chance to learn to like what orchestras can do. Whether orchestras disappear or turn into a different kind of ensemble entirely, the result is the same: fewer opportunities to hear live classical music, and a narrower selection of repertoire on offer.
My bet is that the future holds more of the same, though larger organizations of national standing will continue to survive with minor tweaks to programming and scope. Good for the people who live in cultural capitals. But when a community stops supporting a 100 year+ organization such as the Delaware Symphony, maybe no one is safe….