Changing the Model of Symphony Orchestra Management

By Rob Tomaro, Classical Music Editor of Cashbox Magazine

Fallout from the downturn has orchestra managers reeling.   Even before the economy went south, the traditional management model was creaking with age and leaking at the seams.  Something had to be done, and it took a perfect storm to put change into motion.

The elements of this storm collided at the outset of 2008: the graying of the audience, diminishing sponsorship, decreasing audience numbers, and increasing competition for consumer entertainment dollars.  Then, in a coup de gras, the stock market tumbled and orchestra endowments from Maine to Oregon  doubled over and yelled for mama.  We're just beginning to dig ourselves out from under the rubble.

But good things have come out of it. Smart Boards realized they had an opportunity to tighten up an outmoded management model and bring it into this century.

For example, Boards have traditionally accepted that major orchestras are awash in red ink, that concerts don't have to pay for themselves, that patron dollars were nice, but the real funding came from sponsorship and grants.

Now, post economic Tsunami, Boards encourage programming committees and Music Directors to design concerts that at least have a chance at being profitable.  

Everyone knows that pops concerts make money, money that can balance short falls from more "difficult" esoteric classical concerts.   So, voila!  We see an explosion of innovative Pops concerts supplanting traditional fare on subscription series.   Now, it's not unusual to see children's concerts, Vienna waltz evenings, orchestras performing soundtrack music to silent films, anything  that will pique the interest of an untapped, non- traditional audience.  "Hey, I don't even like Mozart, but this showing of the 1925 Phantom of the Opera film with live orchestra accompaniment looks interesting. Let's go, honey!"

The Baltimore Symphony manager took a look at his half empty concert hall in 2006 and realized he had to do something to fill it up before the arrival of a highly touted new Music Director, Marin Alsop.  He found a way to bang through complicated ticket structures and just cut ticket prices in half, from $50 to $25.  The next morning, there were lines around the block waiting to buy tickets, and there was Maestra Alsop, happily handing out coffee and donuts in the cold.  Smart.   Simple and smart, and it will work in the long run.  Because here's the thing, once you get 'em in, you got 'em.  That is, if you have a good orchestra and programme, and Ms. Alsop has a wonderful, innovative approach to programming. 

And, pertinent to the subject of a sea change in the symphony world, we have, in Maestra Alsop, the first woman to be appointed as Music Director of a major American orchestra.  Brava, Baltimore for breaking that glass ceiling. Of course, women have been doing wonderful things with regional orchestras for years.  Victoria Bond, Joanne Falletta, and Miriam Burns come immediately to mind.   But this appointment to a major post is well deserved and long overdue, the efficacy of which is evidenced just by glancing at the cover of the July edition of Symphony Magazine:  "It Takes a Village:  Turnaround in Baltimore."

So, it's working there.  Let's see who picks up the challenge and slashes through the undergrowth and who doesn't. Dinosaurs no longer walk the earth for a reason.  And bloated, unworkable management models will go the way of the dinosaur or the orchestra as we know it will wind up in a museum.