Here is a belated follow-up to last week's column on the orchestras of Indianapolis, Nashville, and Alabama. Each ensemble's website is well stocked with information on its doings, so there's not much to add there. But I'd like to say a little more about other orchestras that I explored online and would like to have seen live.
One is the Redwood Symphony, a volunteer orchestra based in the Silicon Valley area. As I mention in the piece, this has to be one of the few community orchestras in the country that has performed all of Mahler's symphonies, even the Eighth. It has also lately essayed such challenging repertory as the Sibelius Sixth Symphony, Berio's Rendering, Ives's Fourth, and Copland's Third. Eric Kujawsky, the Redwood's conductor, sent me a couple of sample CDs, and I was particularly impressed by the energy of the playing on the all-American disc. Incidentally, to produce the famous hammerblows in Mahler's Sixth, the orchestra deployed a large wooden box that matched Mahler's original specifications.
I'd also like to cite imaginative programming at the South Dakota Symphony, the Duluth-Superior Symphony, the Albany Symphony (which puts to shame better-known ensembles in its promotion of new and American music), the Pacific Symphony, and the Kansas City Symphony (which, as PlaybillArts reports, is doing exceptionally well at the box office). Anyone who believes that orchestras outside the so-called Big Five or Big Ten — increasingly ill-defined and unhelpful categories — play nothing but warhorses and pops programs should take a close look at some of these season listings. Many others are worthy of mention; some are listed in this PlaybillArts piece on ASCAP's adventurous programming awards.
A little litany often accompanies articles on the ups and downs of the orchestra business: "...ageing subscribers, dwindling audiences, orchestras folding left and right." The ageing of the subscriber base is not in question, although whether the cohort has precipitously aged in the last ten or fifteen years, as Greg Sandow has often suggested, is a matter of debate. Greg has statistics suggesting that the median age of the orchestra public was much lower back in the thirties and forties. I don't doubt it. But let's not overlook the ageing trend of the sixties — a fairly sudden development that led to a flurry of classical doomsaying circa 1970. Philip Hart's 1973 book Orpheus in the New World has a couple of pages on this issue. He writes: "...the symphony audience is older than either the urban population or the performance arts audience in general." And he cites a 1970 study by a University of Washington marketing class that showed 48% of Seattle Symphony subscribers to be fifty or older. Nonetheless, I don't wish to sound a complacent note here; I believe that orchestras must work hard to cultivate new listeners. Many orchestras would send out self-congratulatory press releases if they could match the demographics of the Seattle in 1970.
As for "folding orchestras," it's good to be wary of that much-used phrase and its variations. Six orchestras expired in the 2002-3 season, raising alarms that a wave of bankruptcies was about to sweep the nation. Drew McManus is the only person I know who has bothered to follow up on the fates of the ensembles in question. As he shows, the Colorado Springs Symphony has become the Colorado Springs Philharmonic; the San Antonio Symphony is back in service, though chronically underfunded; the San Jose Symphony has become Symphony Silicon Valley; and the Tulsa Philharmonic has given way to the Tulsa Symphony. This leaves two orchestras, the Florida Philharmonic and the Savannah Symphony, which have not been replaced. But it should be noted that the Savannah Sinfonietta is now serving that gracious city with some very attractive-looking chamber-orchestra programming. And Orchestra Miami hopes to fill the void created by the somewhat mysterious demise of the Florida Philharmonic.
In short, life goes on.