How today's orchestras succeed

Earth to Philadelphia Orchestra: It's the Internet, stupid

Tilson Thomas with Renee Fleming: He learned from a master.
Tilson Thomas with Renee Fleming: He learned from a master.

The Philadelphia Orchestra's recent bankruptcy petition would seem at first glance to raise a larger question: How can major symphony orchestras survive in troubled economic times? Yet in fact many major orchestras around the world, from Berlin to San Francisco, are not contemplating bankruptcy at all.

These "21st-Century orchestras," as I call them, survive by retailing their own recordings for download. They have brought their presence into as many homes as possible through self-produced audio and video devices made available over the Internet 24/7. These orchestras perceive that young professionals and the youth of today increasingly shop and buy from their homes. 21st-Century orchestras understand that the consumer possesses the power to scan the information superhighway and can view— live or virtually— an almost infinite variety of entertainment. They know that with such Internet competition, even the greatest orchestras must capture the interest of such scanners with the most attractive and informative websites they can imagine. Connecting with viewers this way has become their number one priority.

This approach can be very effective at enticing audiences. The more those who love certain orchestral pieces can learn about them through the Internet, the more they enjoy those pieces and want to familiarize themselves further. This process ultimately attracts them to live performances in the concert hall itself.

Timid online approach

The Philadelphia Orchestra's website currently provides standard definition and high-definition downloads through an online retailer called Specticast. For a fee, the site also provides broadcasts of live concerts for viewing at private venues around the world. For example, it offers viewing experiences specifically for retirement communities, community centers and schools and colleges.

All well and good— but not enough. By contrast, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the London Symphony currently offer audio and video recordings as well as downloads for everyone to enjoy. It's their answer to the financial and public relations disasters they suffered when they lost their recording and radio contracts. In effect these orchestras have entered a do-it-yourself era, utilizing the World Wide Web to make their own recordings without middlemen.

A one-year pass

Some orchestras are actually giving samples of their coming seasons by providing audio CDs or audio/visual excerpts over the Internet. Last year, for the price of a $150 iTunes pass, the New York Philharmonic offered movements that it planned to performer that season. The pass also included up to 50 works/30 hours of recording time— that is, a reasonable price of about $5 per hour of music. This music has been accompanied by a comprehensive program booklet, which the old traditional CDs often failed to include.

The Berlin Philharmonic offers live streaming of high-definition audio and video of its concerts through what it calls a "digital concert hall" on its website. For 149 euros per year (about $210), the listener gains unlimited access to the Berlin Philharmonic's live performances, as well as that season's concert archive. A 29-euro payment (about $42) provides you a 30-day subscription. For 10 euros (about $14), a listener can hear and see one live concert or an archived concert for two days.

Leonard Bernstein's lesson

Educational programs about symphonic music are again attracting large audiences"“ as Leonard Bernstein did when he led the New York Philharmonic in his "Young People's Concerts" from Carnegie Hall (1958) and then from Lincoln Center (1962-72). Bernstein seized the audio and visual technology of TV to maximize his ability to teach music. Through the TV medium he connected with American families in all their diversity right in their own homes. In the process of introducing Americans to symphonic music, he became a superstar to young and old alike.

Michael Tilson Thomas, a guest conductor during those "Young People's Concerts" of the Bernstein era, has evolved this approach into a site that he calls "Keeping Score" as conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. "Keeping Score" can be accessed on PBS television, FM Radio and the Internet.

This richly interactive site enables users to follow scores for Beethoven's Eroica Symphony and Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, as explanatory text and graphics unfold timed with the music. Exercises and games shown on the site enable visitors to work with melody, balance and other basic musical elements of a particular selection.

In another feature on that site, Tilson Thomas leads a simple conducting game to music by Stravinsky— another device that personally connects with the viewer. An in-depth historical timeline takes users into the composer's political, social and cultural worlds. "Keeping Score" also provides free resources for teachers, including free downloadable lesson plans.

Sadly, most of my examples here were gleaned from a New York Times article that appeared on April 1, 2010— more than a year before the Philadelphia Orchestra sought bankruptcy protection. Exciting ideas for running a flourishing orchestra in the 21st Century have been available for the taking all along. It's not too late to hope that the Philadelphia Orchestra's board will try some of them, even now.♦


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