Too many orchestras?

With strikes and bankruptcies, North America may be in orchestra overload


Jenn Ackerman / The New York Times / Redux

It was what music critic Alex Ross called “Black Monday” for U.S. music. The New York City Opera, the city’s second most-important opera company, filed for bankruptcy, and the Minnesota Orchestra lost its music director, Osmo Vanska, after a labour dispute that has crippled musical life in the city due to what music critic Norman Lebrecht calls a “highly aggressive board, weak English manager, isolated group of players, a complete absence of mutual respect and good faith”; even the intervention of George Mitchell, a former U.S. senator who brokered peace talks in Northern Ireland, couldn’t save the once-great orchestra. With the Philadelphia Orchestra recovering after a bankruptcy of its own, and many orchestras shutting down or cutting back performances, the question about classical music is whether it can survive in its current form—or whether it should.

Some people are already trying to find new models. Scott Dibble, a Minnesota state senator, is co-sponsoring a bill that would create community ownership of the orchestra. He tells Maclean’s that “we had a world-renowned orchestra, one of the very best ensembles in the world, and now that’s been thrown in the trash.” Many people feel the same way about the New York City Opera, which was once considered superior to the Metropolitan Opera and is now just trying to stay alive. These collapses, Dibble says, prove that it’s no longer viable for wealthy people and musicians to think of music as “a private concern that we need not worry about. Now they’ve betrayed that. So maybe it needs to be taken away from them.”

Unlike Europe, where classical music is considered almost a ward of the state, North American musical life has always depended in large part on private funding to keep it going: philanthropists and corporations give money to the arts either because they like it, or to look good. That model started to crumble in 2008 when the recession hit: it “wiped out endowments,” says Lebrecht, the pugnacious critic who writes Artsjournal’s Slipped Disc. And old age is taking away “the last generation that regarded symphonic music as central to its culture.” The Baby Boomers who are becoming the new generation of old people have grown up with rock music, and may not be very likely to invest in classical music.

The lack of funding for orchestras and opera companies may already be raising the question of whether North America has too many of them—or whether, as with other institutions, there should be more streamlining and consolidations. In Europe, Berlin, Vienna and London all support multiple opera companies, due to what Lebrecht calls “delicate social questions of prestige and priorities.” New York used to support two opera companies because it was a matter of prestige, but with the reduced importance of classical music, Lebrecht continues, a city “won’t support two unless each gives a compelling raison d’être. City Opera has failed to do so for at least a decade.”

That may leave arts organizations in a delicate position as they try to argue for their continued importance and survival. Phyllis Kahn, the Minnesota representative who originated the bill to put the orchestra up for what she calls a “public stock sale,” says that she received a hostile reaction from a student newspaper reporter: “She said symphonies are a dying thing. I said, ‘You should go to one once.’ ” She adds, “We put a lot of public money into sports, and some people think if we can do this for sports, we can certainly do this for classical music.”

If public money isn’t forthcoming, then new funding streams will have to be found, but new media isn’t always old media’s friend. In a last-ditch attempt to avoid bankruptcy, New York City Opera tried to use Kickstarter, the hot new thing, to raise $1 million, and wound up raising only a third of its goal.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota, even those trying to save the orchestra don’t see much future in it. “Now that Vanska has left,” Dibble says, “it’s like, ‘Who the hell cares any more?’ ” Still, Kahn hopes her bill will at least start a “conversation” about how to fund orchestras in general. Because she says one thing has been proven for certain: “No cultural thing survives in the free market.”


Too many orchestras?

  1. So, where are the “strikes” referred to in your headline? Because the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra were locked out by management, and are not on strike. The terms are in no way interchangeable.
    It’s odd that you’ve come to the conclusion that those trying to save the orchestra don’t see much future in it, based on the Senator Dibble quote. That certainly comes as news to the supporters of Save Our Symphony Minnesota, whose Facebook page ballooned to over 8000 supporters in the last two months.

  2. What a shoddy piece of journalism. It starts with a headline that talks of ‘strikes’ but doesn’t mention any, then writes about the Minnesota Orchestra but fails to mention the key information that the musicians were ‘locked out.’ (Does the writer understand the difference between a lock-out and a strike?) The article purports to write about “North American” orchestras, which would include Canadian orchestras, but these are differently funded to US orchestras and no Canadian orchestra is in crisis. The grandiose generalization “The lack of funding for orchestras and opera companies may already be raising the question of whether North America has too many of them” is entirely unsubstantiated, as it the comment about ‘Baby Boomers’. Really Macleans, is this the best you can do?

  3. Please see this recent article written by Bruce Ridge, chair of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM). It is viewable on the ICSOM website at
    Mr Ridge is an experienced observer of U.S. orchestras and the professionals who comprise them. His commentary debunks many of the more supercilious misrepresentations about the current state of U.S. orchestras that some journalism proclaims as fact. In their place Mr Ridge offers actual facts.

  4. Bravo on a highly misleading headline. Did the headline writer bother to read the story, and does he or she know the difference between a strike and a lockout? What other orchestras besides Philadelphia went into bankruptcy as part of this story?

  5. What a senseless article with an idiotic headline! Yes, more funding is needed and it takes a village to nurture our arts organizations and orchestras. That village should include the media too. Imagine what it would have been like, if in their heydays, the print media devoted as much space to the arts as it does to sports? The musicians of orchestras that have been negotiating their contracts have been plenty reasonable and in many cases have accepted major financial cuts in order to continue making music. The Minnesota Orchestra is not in strike it is in a lockout, now in its second year. Their board has been paying the orchestra’s general manager a six-figure fortune to manage an orchestra that has been locked out.

  6. This shoddy piece of flame bait proves one thing for sure; most media outlets have no interest in SERIOUS coverage of the arts. This is a USA Today-style article, with a misleading headline, mention of a self-aggrandizing music critic as some kind of authority on the matter, INCORRECTLY labeling a lock-out as a strike and the inclusion of a few tidbits of don’t-think-about-it pieces of received wisdom that fail to pass the smell test.

    Like Republicans in the USA with their voter suppression tactics, this article is a statement of opinion looking for a set of facts to give it verisimilitude.

    If media outlets like Maclean’s are not going to cover the arts seriously, they would do the world a favor by ignoring them entirely.

  7. It seems that the decline of orchestras is precipitated by the decline of serious arts journalism. This article is merely a string of out-of-context anecdotes and quotes that do nothing to deepen one’s understanding of the so-called “crisis” or address the irresponsible headline.