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Will Bruckner survive the 21st century? Should he?

Orchestras and the quest for relevance.

Brent Assink

Thank you, Kate, and a special thank you to each of you for your flexibility.  Scheduling this presentation has been an enormous challenge and I am really grateful for the opportunity to be here today.  This is my second visit to Australia in as many months after never having been here before.  What can one say?  It is beautiful here, and we are having a wonderful time.  Before I begin, let me also acknowledge upfront that I am somewhat aware of the differences between Australian and US orchestras in our funding and governance structures.  Clearly, I will speak from the perspective of a career spent in the US;  I hope you will make allowances for that and my rather one-sided perspective.

I’ve chosen today to talk about Anton Bruckner with you as a proxy for the ongoing debate about orchestras and relevance.

You all know  Anton Bruckner, the Austrian composer who died in 1896, a social misfit to the end.  Painfully shy, he was even mocked for the old-fashioned way he dressed.  He was insecure to a fault, endlessly revising and re-revising his symphonies.  He adored Wagner, which immediately placed him in the camp opposing Brahms who was roughly his contemporary.  His compositional output was relatively small—several masses and nine symphonies which are so clearly from the same pen that some critics claimed he wrote the same symphony nine times.  Even though he lived during the period of high Romanticism in art, he stayed away from those crowd pleasing virtuosic showpieces that were, and are, so characteristic of that period.  Were he alive today, he would probably be shocked that he, this humble Austrian church organist, is being mentioned here, in Sydney, Australia, in 2013.  You might be, too.

And, yes, he’s still around.  The Sydney Symphony performed his ninth symphony last week three times.  The San Francisco Symphony has included his works on 48 of our programs since 1971—and given the length of his many of his symphonies, those probably WERE the programs.   American orchestras programmed his works over 660 times in the first decade of this century.  Over on YouTube, the performance of the Eighth Symphony by the Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by Christian Thielemann, has garnered 140,000 views in the last several years.  Not exactly Beethoven or Mozart, is it?  But he is still with us.

Why?  Some of our musicians don’t particularly enjoy playing Bruckner.  The unrelenting patterns in the strings are exhausting to play.  Because of the size of the orchestra, his music is expensive to mount—lots of extra musicians are required.  Our audiences aren’t clamoring for his music—checking the last four performances that the San Francisco Symphony gave of his music from 2008-12, the percentage of our hall sold ranged from 50% to 66% compared with a season-long average of 80-84%.  His music doesn’t carry the emotional temperature that Mahler’s does and that seems to speak so vividly to our audiences today.  His symphonies are not conductor showpieces—they are long, repetitious, and full of such dense counterpoint that only a music theorist could love them.

And yet, he is still with us.  What are we to make of this?  Is Bruckner, in some mysterious way, relevant?  Our dictionary’s definition of “relevant” is “having practical and especially social applicability.”  Whatever else one may say about Bruckner, you might not call him “relevant,” by that definition.  Bruckner is, I suggest, a bit like orchestras.  These centuries-old organisms are still around.  For those of us not in Europe, these types of collections of musicians are not only from centuries past, they also were created to perform music from a culture that is imported to our shores.  Like Bruckner, our orchestras specialize in delayed gratification.   Like Bruckner, there is something stiff and formal about our concerts.  Like Bruckner, our attire of white tie and tails is old-fashioned.  Like Bruckner, we can be socially awkward—gathering people together for a social experience and then limiting their opportunity to interact.

And WE are still around.  There are almost 1000 member orchestras of the League of American Orchestras.  In the seasons of 2005-2009, American orchestras performed between 3600 and 4700 concerts per season.  The San Francisco Symphony performs or presents over 225 concerts in each season, performing for over 500,000 people at our home in San Francisco.  Like Bruckner, are our orchestras, in some mysterious way, “relevant?” 

I don’t know about your experience here, but we in the US are constantly challenged to be “relevant”  by funders, by Board members.  I think that is the wrong term.  Our tendency is to focus on the first part of our definition, and I suggest that most people think of it in that way.  We are not practical; orchestras never have been.   So when a funder or Board member or donor challenges the San Francisco Symphony to be more “relevant,” I immediately ask them to clarify exactly what they mean.  I find that they almost invariably want us to be more “meaningful.”

I like that term much better.  It’s clearer and more easily understood.  And it lays out a blueprint for how we might proceed as orchestras.  Let’s review eight ways in which our communities seek meaning in their interactions with music and examine how effectively we deliver on that quest for meaning.  I have chosen to present this from the perspective of eight potential or current audience members.

1. MY MEANING IS CHOICE.   Have you ever seen this catch phrase in an orchestra’s brochure:  “Our Music:  What We Want to Play and When We Want to Play it…Come Pay To Hear Us If You Want to.”  No, I haven’t either.  But this is how orchestra concerts are perceived by many in our communities.  To be fair, almost every performing art form, every sporting event, places similar expectations on its community.  We are called to join together at an appointed time to observe an activity for a fixed period of time—whether that is going to the Opera or Symphony or Ballet, watching a movie, or watching football (of any kind).  This works as long as there is a significant percentage of our community that finds meaning within a structured ritual to experience something over which they have had little choice.

But we now live in a world of practically limitless choice, in practically anything.  I can listen to any type of music that I want to, for any duration, at any place and at any time.  We have become so quickly accustomed to this that we don’t often realize what a recent phenomenon this is.  Interestingly enough, this desire is not limited to the “younger” generation.  In the US, the percentage of adults with a college degree is increasing, the population is growing, and income is rising.  But with each passing year, the percentage of those people who would have traditionally been in our audience has been declining.  The post-war Baby Boom generation, the largest generation in history, has now aged into the typical demographic of loyal subscribers.  We should have full halls at all of our concerts.  One reason we don’t, I suggest, is that there is limitless choice—how they spend their leisure time is one choice they need to make, and then whether they get to curate part of the experience is another choice.  We can’t or don’t give them the latter choice, so the former choice tilts away from us to other activities where they might have that choice.

2. MY MEANING IS PARTICIPATION.  For many years, our communities have asked us to help them educate their children in music.  And we have responded.  Since 1987, for example, the San Francisco Symphony has essentially been THE provider of music education in the San Francisco Public School District, grades 1-5, because of significant cutbacks in California state government support for music education in the previous decade.  This has consisted of ensemble visits into the classrooms, teacher training, curriculum materials, and a visit by each of the students to hear a concert performed by the full orchestra in Davies Symphony Hall.  This type of exposure gave these students a desire to make music, not only listen to it.  Because they saw real live musicians on stage and in their classrooms, they began to imagine that they, too, could be musicians.  Well over 70% of American orchestral audiences played a musical instrument or sang in a choir in their youth.  So providing opportunities for instrumental instruction means not only that we are being good citizens, it also means that we are helping to build the pipeline for future audiences.  We leave instrumental instruction to the schools or to the home at our long-term peril.  It’s important to note that this desire for participation doesn’t suddenly magically end when you finish school.  So a number of orchestras have started providing adult musical participation activities.  In 2010, the Symphony launched a program called “Community of Music-Makers,” giving those adult amateur musicians a chance to play on our stage and be coached by members of our orchestras.  We have evenings for strings, for winds and brass, for percussion, and for singers.  They fill up as soon as they are announced.

3. MY MEANING IS VARIETY.  Many of our audience members are still completely comfortable showing up at the appointed hour, usually 8 p.m., hearing repertoire selected by others within a total window of time of about 2 hours; sitting in seats they have occupied for many years and occasionally reflecting on how their many, many years of subscribing to symphony concerts has affected them, enriched them, broadened their appreciation for music, for beauty, for all of the arts.  We LOVE these people, in part because they are perfectly aligned with our delivery mechanism.  These are the people who are served through the construction of our collective bargaining agreements and around which our weekly schedules are built.  Our institutions are well-oiled machines to deliver top-notch performances in two-hour chunks several times a week.  But for many people, this predictability does not have musical meaning.  They are interested in shorter, more varied programs—perhaps less formal, perhaps even with some say in what is played.  They’re not interested in paying the same price for that shorter concert as they would for a full two-hour concert; they want to hear this music at different times and to encounter it even during the day.  They don’t care if they’re hearing a full orchestra, a small orchestra, a chamber group, or a percussion group.  They find meaningful experiences in unpredictability and variety.

4. MY MEANING = SOCIAL MEDIA.  I recall a number of years ago how scandalized many in our audience were when one of their fellow audience members made an outgoing phone call during a concert, and said into the phone:  “You gotta hear this,” and held out the phone for the person on the other end to experience what she was hearing in the hall.  This was a sign of things to come.  Our daughter takes a photo of what we’re eating in a restaurant in Spokane, Washington, and instantly transmits it to her friends here in Sydney so they can share in our experience while it is happening thousands of miles away.  Telling our audiences to shut down electronically for two hours is giving some of them withdrawal anxiety.  We now have Board members from Facebook and Twitter, and they can hardly wait until intermission so they can see what they’ve missed in other people’s lives.  I make no value judgments right now, for fear of sounding like a member of the Baby Boom generation (which I am).  For purposes of this discussion today, though, we need to be attuned to the fact that experiences like the ones we provide are increasingly meant to be shared.  Instantly.   That Beethoven Fifth Symphony was awesome, they say; I want a link to that performance so I can send others to it and let them know I heard it live.   This sounds like pretty good viral marketing to me.  Another aspect of the growth in social media is emerging in the San Francisco Bay Area.  According to some reports, people who work in social media look at that work as bringing fulfillment and meaning into people’s lives.  Their efforts to connect us, to make our lives “frictionless” is a way that applies technological advances to give us meaning, usurping—perhaps—the historical role of religion or the arts as a way of building community.   In a May 27 New Yorker article, George Packer quotes a young entrepreneur:  “Many see their social responsibility fulfilled by their businesses, not by social or political action.”  This, if true, has enormous implications for us in the philanthropic sector in the US.  If someone who believes he is “doing good” in his work (i.e., solving social problems) that person is much less likely to use his most precious commodity—time—to serve on the Board of an organization that might also be “doing good.”  This attitude clearly colors attitudes for philanthropy as well.

It seems to me there are least three implications for us as social media becomes an ever more pervasive aspect of our work in orchestras:

  1. Individual and organizational reputations are built or diminished instantly and constantly, even during our concerts (no more news cycles);
  2. Technology as the great “gatherer” can be viewed as a replacement to the live experience or anything else that gathers communities together;
  3. These communities information streams are becoming more decentralized—“friend” or “unfriend,” opt-in or opt-out, and impacts your organizations directly

While the future of social media is difficult to predict, it is comparatively easy to understand why those who live their lives “in this space” might build in different ways a sense of loyalty and longstanding commitment to our orchestral institutions.

5. MY MEANING = KNOWING AND BEING KNOWN.   Our community increasingly values a much more in-depth knowledge and relationship with what’s going on behind the scenes.  Who are those musicians anyway?  What are their individual stories?  Would they talk with me?  How long have they played their instruments?  What is their favorite piece of music and why?  But our musicians arrive and leave by a door on one side of the building; the audience comes in another.  For two hours, they interact in a most profound way with each other—playing and receiving the most sublime music ever written.  Afterwards, they go their separate ways—audiences discuss the concerts with other audience members, and musicians discuss the performance, the conductor, with each other.  They rarely reflect on the experience together.  Our communities would value more of that.  And many of our musicians would too.  But in order to provide that, we need to change our physical plant a bit, and again modify the concert ritual.

6. MY MEANING IS VALUE.    If our audience is paying $100 for a ticket, they place high expectations on the overall experience.   This audience has less tolerance for any aspect of the concert experience that does not meet their expectations—parking, food service, wine (quality, quantity, and price), seat locations—all work together to help our communities decide if the experience is worth the price.  But this is also a bit more complicated.  When you buy something in the store for $100, you have a pretty good idea if it is good quality and if it does what it was designed to do.  Our communities increasingly have a hard time distinguishing high quality as opposed to a more mediocre level performance.  And, to many of them, value means a recognized work, performed by a recognized name.  What WE place value on,  high artistic quality, for example, is not necessarily where our community places value.  If they heard the best performance of a Bruckner Symphony imaginable, but thought the wine before the concert was second-rate, we are going to have to work that much harder to get them back.  In other words, magnificent Bruckner isn’t going to be enough to tip the scales if the rest of the experience wasn’t completely perfect.

7. MY MEANING IS A RICH CIVIC LIFE.  Our communities may bring less background, exposure and knowledge to our concerts, but many of them still have a sense that a night at the Symphony is something that an informed and engaged citizen should “do.”  Learning how to play a musical instrument is perceived as a lofty and beneficial goal.  Donors recognize the value proposition of their philanthropic support; politicians view orchestras as contributing to the common good of a civil society; business leaders recognize the importance that orchestras bring in economic benefits, attractiveness to potential employees of their companies, education to their children.  For this community, simply knowing that their town has an orchestra adds meaning.  In 1989, San Francisco was severely damaged and traumatized by the Loma Prieta earthquake.  A few days afterwards, the Symphony performed a free performance of Beethoven Nine in Golden Gate Park to draw the community together;   we also performed for thousands on the one-year anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy.  Communities around the world look to their orchestras to build community during a time of sadness and tragedy or a time of celebration.  Or…they look to their orchestras to provide services like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra offers through their “Citizen Musician” program—music in assisted living facilities or hospitals.

8. And, finally, MY MEANING IS MY MUSIC.  Our communities are becoming increasingly diverse ethnically.  The Hispanic population is the fastest growing ethnic group in the Bay Area by far.  The Asian community is so large and so engaged in musical life in the Bay Area that our Youth Orchestra is predominantly Asian; diversity in this case might mean bringing in more Caucasians.  This incredible mixture of backgrounds and ethnicities adds to the complexities and opportunities facing our orchestras.  Over 10 years ago, the Symphony started a Chinese New Year concert, drawing on the rich musical tradition of China and mixing in the Western instruments.  This event has grown to the point where it is our second-largest fundraiser of the year and is THE event of that time period for many in the San Francisco Chinese community.  The Symphony helps provide meaning to this community as they gather to celebrate a family tradition.  Five years ago, we started a similar program called “Day of the Dead” to celebrate the musical heritage of the Hispanic community around this big holiday in that community.  The orchestral tradition in the Hispanic community is rich and programming these concerts is a real joy. 

So…we have Choice, Participation, Variety, Social Media, Knowing and Being Known, Value, Civic Life, My Music.  If you agree that our communities seek to engage in meaningful musical experiences through one or more of these doorways, it doesn’t take a decades-long career in orchestra management to conclude that we face challenges.  We are just not set up to provide those experiences very often or effectively.  I really believe that orchestras ARE at a crossroads today—we can hang onto the pattern of fixed subscription concerts that appeal to the segment of our communities that subscribe and renew year after year.  And let’s be honest with each other:  there is enormous pressure to continue on exactly that path.  Let’s look at a few reasons why we stay on this course:

  1.  Economic.  Since 1992, the San Francisco Symphony has performed 106 subscription concerts per season.  Our net contribution to fixed costs for each one of those concerts has ranged from between $85,000 and $100,000.  By contrast, the holiday concerts, or summer concerts, or presentations may struggle to net $30,000.  Why would I, as Executive Director, reduce the service allocation from something that nets this well towards something that might net only a fraction…even while I see the attendance at these subscription concerts gradually diminish year over year?
  2. Personal Love.  I started in this field in 1980.  Subscription concerts are  what I love—I love hearing the orchestra playing the same repertoire several times a week and hearing how they settle into it, how they take different chances musically at each concert; how each performance is slightly different.
  3. MusicianInterests .  Generally speaking, our musicians love to play concerts of the standard repertoire for which they feel they have had adequate rehearsal.  This is what they were trained to do.  Add the challenges of a collective bargaining agreement that in most of our orchestras limits scheduling flexibility, there is much work to be done to address the issues of choice, participation, variety, social media, value, and civic life.

You have probably heard the saying: “When the tide goes out, you find out who hasn’t been wearing swim suits.”  While some of our orchestras have been in various stages of undress for many years, I submit to you that, especially since the dramatic economic downturn of 2008, the outgoing tide has ripped off much of the attire that many of us were wearing and that we thought was securely fastened about us.  I hope we learned a lesson:  the time to be sure we are wearing swim suits is when the tide is in because it most definitely WILL go out again…and it might never come back.

So are we as orchestras going to take the safe route—maintaining the status quo that many of us love and offering the occasional education programs or other programs at the fringe?  Or are we going to engage in serious self-examination about how we relate to our communities’ quest for meaning and be prepared for that rapid or gradual reduction in the tidewater level around us? Let me suggest five steps to take that should send us at least partway down the more dangerous , and ultimately more rewarding, road:

  1. All real or virtual barriers to getting our music widely disseminated digitally simply must be removed.  The casual curious music-lover can fall in love with, say, the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra if given a chance.  But how or when is this person ever going to have a chance encounter with this music?  It’s not on the radio anymore, they don’t stumble on it in record stores, and they never check it out on iTunes or YouTube.  We need to turn our audiences into viral marketers and give them all the tools to do so. 
  2. All musicians coming into conservatories today need to assume they will be educators, community engagement professionals, and local celebrities in addition to great orchestral musicians.  And they need to be given the training to do so.  Education is, and will be, everyone’s responsibility.  Further, our musicians need to be THE superstars, the household names, and freely provide us with the tools to get their stories told.  I was so impressed by the brochures of your orchestras—almost all of them not only showcased the members of the orchestra, but also listed them by name.  While this might introduce a level of discomfort in some of our musicians, added variety in their responsibilities can and should be enormously enriching.
  3. Our orchestras as organizations need to be fully present in the lives of our communities.  We cannot only show up for 1000 or 1500 people 3 or 4 nights a week, playing repertoire that we select at a time and for a duration that fit well with people’s schedules a generation ago.  We still need to do that, but we also need to provide different encounters.  I’m referring to carefully planned musical encounters by the orchestra such that the community is caught up each week by the music and the great value of having these musicians in their communities.  This will likely engender much more variety in the musicians’ schedules in the future.
  4. We need to be unified organizations in addressing these challenges.  We need to work together to be sure that our boards and donors are reminded what a great gift our orchestras are to our communities and the amazing talent that is rolled up into the musicians of our orchestras.  Our boards need to know that this music and the community service that our musicians provide is a cause worthy of their best thinking at board meetings, of their personal philanthropic support, and of their willingness to ask friends and colleagues to support this cause.  Likewise, our musicians need to acknowledge the incredible pressures that boards and staffs are under—brought on by these changes in audience expectations, by rapidly rising health care and pension costs, by weak economic activity.  Musicians need to thank their audiences and donors like never before.  And internally, we all need each other.  Just as our staff members recognize that we need the best musicians possible, our musicians need to recognize that they need THE best chief financial officer, or general manager possible.
  5. Finally, we need to be true to who we are.   We are orchestras, specifically designed and created to perform symphonic repertoire.  No other entity is made to do that, and we can easily abandon our responsibilities when we only REACT to how our communities seek meaning in their musical experiences.  We also need to mold and direct them.  I’m happy that the San Francisco Symphony’s mission statement intentionally calls for us to “shape the Bay Area culture.”  We need to be the Steve Jobs or Henry Fords of our art form—giving people something they never knew they needed.   We have to be willing to lead.  By doing so, we will only become more meaningful to our communities and will have enriched countless lives of millions of people around us.

So this brings us back to Bruckner.  Keep programming and playing his music.  But do so within the quest for meaning that our communities seek.  Give him context—get your trombone players talking about why they love to play Bruckner or your strings talking about why they don’t; get your social media sphere debating about why Bruckner speaks today, or doesn’t; give your audience links to the performance when they leave.

You see, the richness of Bruckner is that he didn’t write the same symphony nine times.  He wrote works of endless variety and power that reward inquisitiveness and open-hearted listening.  We can scrape away the encrustations around our concert delivery systems to connect Bruckner and others to the meaning that our communities seek.  It requires hard work, creativity, risk-taking, unity, and great ingenuity.  I wish you all great success as you continue to chart the path forward for your orchestras.

Thank you for the opportunity to be with you today.


Brent Assink,
Executive Director, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra

Keynote address
Symphony Services International Orchestral Summit
Sydney, Australia

August 15, 2013