Troubled American orchestras meet to ponder the future

Osmo Vanska conducting
Hundreds of League of American Orchestra Conference attendees will listen to Osmo Vanska conduct the Minnesota Orchestra at a sold out conference tonight
Photo: Greg Helgeson

With some major orchestras facing bankruptcy and ongoing struggles to sell concert tickets, close to a thousand representatives of North American orchestras will gather in the Twin Cities this week for the annual League of American Orchestras conference.

They have a lot to discuss.

In some ways, it's business as usual at the conference. On Tuesday morning, about 60 people sat in Orchestra Hall watching an open rehearsal as Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra prepared for a sold-out concert tonight.

But elsewhere there was a lot of talking going on.

The orchestra world is facing tough times. The venerable Philadelphia Orchestra recently declared bankruptcy, and the Detroit Orchestra's musicians went on strike for six months in a dispute over benefits.

In the Hilton Hotel, Adam Reinwald, a baritone with the Minneapolis vocal ensemble Cantus, pitched a new work to a representative of a California orchestra.

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"We have a new commission coming out by Nico Muhly premiering this September with the [Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra]," he said.

But it doesn't take long before the talk swings to the recent developments in the classical music world and whether they represent a seismic change.

Cantus Executive Director Mary Lee said the news recently is both good and bad. It's clear there's an audience out there for what they are doing.

"I think classical music has a relevance and is interesting; it's just how we get it out there," she said. "I just really think it's the organizational model and the business model that we have to kind of look at and be aware of."

"The mood is one of facing up to some of the tough realities but also of moving forward," said League President Jesse Rosen.

Rosen became president of the League of American Orchestras in 2007. It's his job to put a brave face on things, but his address to the conference first thing tomorrow morning was recently renamed "Red Alert."

He said it used to be that orchestras could focus purely on musical excellence. No longer. Now he said the world has changed. The performance is vital, but so are the needs and wishes of the audience.

"And so it's a focus on service and on customer and audience instead of what had been a very tight focus on how can we deliver the very best performance ever," he said.

As an example, Rosen points to the Minnesota Orchestra's Common Chord program, which will create community specific residencies around the state in coming years.

"It's actually going to the communities, meeting with the arts and civic leaders and saying 'how can we be of help and service to you?' And when that's the equation, you immediately have a different dynamic and value proposition."

He points to other programs around the country where orchestras have worked with amateur musicians and signed them up for concerts and camps where they can play the music themselves.

Rosen said, while there may be a sense of crisis, he expects good ideas to surface in the next few days as the conference continues. "The sheer fact of bringing people together who are experiencing a common set of challenges as well as successes, to celebrate the success, and work on the challenges together, has enormous power," he said.

It was at this conference a few years ago that the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra announced its decision to cut ticket prices. The theory was it's better to have concert halls filled with people paying less than a half empty hall of high price-ticket holders. Rosen says the idea had a huge impact.

"They kind of broke open the door on the question of ticket pricing, and I think this was really a game changer for the orchestra field."

Tuesday is just the start of the League of American Orchestra's three conferences, but Minnesota Orchestra President Michael Henson said he's eager to see what might develop.

"They tend to be milestones in setting initiatives, challenges going forward," he said. "So at the moment it's too early to say, but I look forward to hearing much of what's going to be said."