The Orchestra is Dead…Long Live the Orchestra

October 26, 2010 by Paul Gambill
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Orchestra audiences are fading away. If we don’t change course and revitalize the orchestra concert experience, many of our orchestras will slide into decline as the next generation of audiences passes by without noticing.

Yet this is an exciting time for orchestras as more composers are breaking stylistic boundaries. And there are pockets of experimentation with new kinds of concert experiences that are bringing in the diverse audiences we need to sustain our orchestras into the future. Slowly, a new kind of orchestra is emerging.

To keep the orchestra a meaningful part of American life, we need to change what and how an orchestra performs.

Our challenge is to present performances that engage and inspire our audience. It’s always been that way, it’s just that over the last few years there has been a noticeable shift in the values held by today’s audience. Their sense of what is remarkable is considerably different than what it was for prior generations. The values that drive audiences to decide how they will spend their Friday and Saturday evenings are not in alignment with much of our current orchestra programming and performance practice.

The complex issues surrounding the artistic values that guide our programming decisions is at the core of the Orchestra Remix discussion.

This discussion of artistic and cultural values leads to the fundamental challenges facing orchestras. The infinite availability of music on the web has ended monochromatic playlists for a lot of people. So why do we cling to the notion that an orchestra concert should be packaged into narrow stylistic boxes? I think this limits our options for creating an experience that is as diverse as the audiences we need to attract.

Orchestras need to start mixing it up more if we expect the iPod generations to stick around to hear what we have to say and in turn support our efforts at saying it.

Let’s broaden the definition of what an orchestra concert can be, at least some of the time, and let go of the traditional boundaries we put around styles that are deemed appropriate for a “classical” program. How could we meaningfully integrate that kind of diverse programming without turning off (abandoning the values) of our core, sustaining audience? How would that support our efforts at bringing the inspiring power of orchestral music to more people of all ages in our community?

To examine the challenges and exciting opportunities that this discussion of artistic values inspires, I’ll explore programs (mine and others) that offer solutions, or at least fuel for the fight to address the complex issues surrounding programming in this age of declining concert attendance.

First up is a program I designed several years ago for Nashville audiences. It was inspired by the fact that Nashville has more churches per capita than any other city in the U.S. The program, titled Music of The Spirit, surveyed different forms of spiritual music found in Nashville, and included Gregorian chant, traditional and contemporary gospel, classical song from southern India, instrumental “spiritual” music, a Bach cantata and the premiere of Anima Mundi, by J. Mark Scearse, a cantata that I had commissioned with instructions to Mark to compose a work of spiritual music.

You can read the program details here.

Excpert [1:12] Anima Mundi, by J. Mark Scearce
Orchestra Nashville, Paul Gambill, conductor

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Certainly this mix of styles is unusual for a traditional classical concert. And some people might consider this hybrid programming inappropriate or unnecessary. Yet, this program with the Nashville Chamber Orchestra was presented on the Ryman Auditorium’s “VISA Classical Concert Series” and out-sold every other concert on the series that season, which included internationally acclaimed chamber orchestras and chamber ensembles.

If we value most highly the traditions of classical music as established in European concert halls, then this program of gospel, chant, Indian song and traditional and new classical music falls short. But if we prize the fundamental values of engaging and inspiring our community, then this hybrid program is a home run.

I believe orchestras should present unique programs that engage their community and inspire audiences to learn something new about themselves and the world around them. Orchestra Remix is about exploring the joy, fear and wonder that surrounds the pursuit of that kind of programming mix.

For more info and audio on this program, visit the Music of the Spirit Program page here.

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