Rather than berate and fulminate against managers and funders, Robin Cantrill-Fenwick argues we must support orchestras through their current funding crisis.
The tightening grip of funding pressures in the arts has been thrown into particularly sharp relief recently with news from two orchestras: Northern Ballet is consulting on the closure of its orchestra, and English National Opera is proposing to move to a smaller, part-time model for its orchestra and chorus.
I expect that, like me, you want art in all its forms to thrive - and yet news of some cut or closure will hurt one person more than another. For me, it was an orchestra that first opened my ears to the raw emotional power of the performing arts and changed the course of my life in the process. Not, as it happens, one of our globally-recognised funded orchestras performing some off-the-beaten-track Mahler, but a commercial ensemble whose concert promotion promised live cannons and a laser show.
Aged around 12 or 13, I went for the cannons and instead found myself blown away by the brass and percussion of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. When it comes to a love of the arts, I never looked back. So when orchestras are in trouble, I feel it. It’s personal.
Social media battering
The wage bill for a salaried orchestra of any scale is unavoidably large, even though it’s unlikely anyone in the ensemble is getting rich. Add to that fixed overhead the costs involved in touring – when you start to add up things like transport (Brexit did a real number on cabotage costs) and accommodation and insurance, the sums involved can be eye-watering.
It’s not difficult to see why the technological solutions which commercial producers have used for some years now – to rely on recordings, or to augment live performance with recorded click tracks, are starting to look ever more interesting to those who balance the budget.
Those people - the orchestra managers - have taken a battering on social media. There’s a belief by some that the funding gods may smile on us again if we offer up a ritual sacrifice of managers and board members. Such insular adversarialism is understandable – born as it is out of a pain we all share - but it must be something of a relief to those in governments, who control overall funding, to see our sector turn on itself as much as on them. This debate was going to be the focus of this article, but arts management’s William Norris said it better than I ever could.
"Price isn’t the problem?"
Student blogger, Marino Tomita, recently wrote of her experience of watching the RSNO perform Beethoven’s third piano concerto. Praising the £6 tickets for students, she wrote: “Despite the affordability of tickets, most of the audience was composed of older locals of Edinburgh or the avid concert-goer travelling from Aberdeen.”
Tomita observes that the decline of music education in the educational mainstream has created a problem in both supply and demand for orchestral music which is only now really starting to bite. There is a pressing long-term threat to both the supply of orchestral performers and audiences in the UK that is greater than in other countries.
There are times - many times - when even the most accessible price doesn’t make an artform truly accessible. Orchestras are a great example of this. They have generally been untouched by the headline-grabbing increases in top prices charged in the commercial concert, festival and theatre scene. We don’t often have cause to complain that our nearest orchestra is charging £400 a pop for a VIP package and the best seats in the house. And yet, for some the audience engagement struggle is as intense as it is in other sectors where prices have been on the rise. My colleague David Reece wrote about the distinction between affordable and accessible prices earlier this year.
Orchestras are political, and personal
The potential decline or closure of orchestras signifies a profound cultural loss. In moments of crisis, orchestras have acted as mediums through which societies have voiced their despair, hope, and resilience. They are able to do this in part because they are particularly well placed to be adaptable and flexible, to rapidly respond to and become part of events around them.
This time last year I joined a crowd of New Yorkers in front of a stage set up for a free season of live music, delivered as a post-Covid catharsis for that city. New York’s orchestras, and others, camped out outside the Metropolitan Opera and helped a city work through its pain.
On the night I attended, the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra were performing. Formed mere months after the first incursions by Russia, their performance was a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. As the opening notes of the Largo from Dvorak's Symphony From the New World rang out, I'd swear the restless city stopped around me and for a moment thousands of us were inextricably bound up with the notes from the stage.
Do you remember the Nice truck terror attack back in 2016? 86 people were killed when a 19-tonne truck was deliberately driven into crowds in the southern French city. Less than 24 hours later, the first night of the Proms opened with La Marseillaise, to a packed Royal Albert Hall standing in silent solidarity. The BBC’s old motto - Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation - has rarely been more true than on that night, and it was the BBC Symphony Orchestra that did the speaking for all of us.
I could go on. Following the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013, the Boston Symphony brought their community together in a free Concert for Boston. The Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra's perform an annual Peace Memorial Concert on the anniversary of the atomic bombing. Just three days after the Berlin Wall fell, Daniel Barenboim led the Berlin Philharmoniker in an orchestral concert to mark this continent re-shaping event.
And Barenboim understands the political power of the orchestra perhaps more than anyone. His West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded with philosopher Edward Said, famously brings together young musicians from Israel, Palestine and other Arab countries. Who wouldn’t want to be a fly on the wall of their rehearsal room right now? Who wouldn’t wish to hear them play in harmony in the face of the daily onslaught of pain we read about every day? The orchestra is more than just a group of talented musicians; it's a symbol of hope at a time when such symbols are sorely needed - music as a balm, yes, but also a powerful political statement on peace and understanding. Barenboim wrote movingly about his orchestra in recent weeks.
We stand to lose so much
Orchestras play a multifaceted role in society. They are repositories of cultural heritage, working tirelessly to be a bond in their communities, to plug gaps in our education system, and to simply move us. There are many successes, but the road ahead for survival for some will be tough. Those managing and fundraising and marketing orchestras should be raised up and not assailed with brickbats. Players and managers alike need our support - as ticket buyers, as donors, and as campaigners. We have so much to fight for.
This article is one of a series of articles, case studies and industry insights looking at the power of data to inform strategic decision making.