League Of American Orchestras CEO Discusses The Challenges And Opportunities Facing The Field | Nashville Public Radio

League Of American Orchestras CEO Discusses The Challenges And Opportunities Facing The Field

Jun 3, 2019

As the city prepares for CMA Fest later this week, a different group of music lovers will gather in downtown Nashville. For the first time since 2007, the League of American Orchestras National Conference will be hosted by Music City. 

Thousands of instrumentalists, conductors, composers, administrators and industry leaders will meet over the next three days to discuss issues pertaining to the overall goal of the league: to "lead, support and champion America's orchestras and the vitality of the music they perform." 

It's no small task, and conference sessions are scheduled to address a wide array of topics, including practices around audience engagement, issues of diversity and inclusion, and how new technology can enhance the orchestral experience. 

With the Nashville Symphony hosting this year's conference, attendees will also have the chance to take in some of the local classical scene, with conference-featured performances of Carmina Burana from the Nashville Symphony and Nashville Ballet, as well as a performance of Hannibal Lokumbe's Crucifixion Resurrection: Nine Souls a-Traveling by Intersection. 

Ahead of this year's conference, 91Classical spoke with League of American Orchestras CEO Jesse Rosen about the conference, as well as some of the opportunities and challenges that orchestras currently face. 

Money, Money, Money 

Rosen says that overall, the health of the American orchestral scene is "doing really well," despite orchestras being up against some big changes. One of those changes is happening with audiences and the decreasing appetite for subscription concerts. "That was kind of a staple of orchestra marketing and an underlying piece of the business model throughout the 1970s, '80s, '90s ... now audiences are not so ready to commit themselves that far in advance, you know, to spend six Thursdays at the symphony," Rosen explains.

And because selling a single ticket requires much more lift than selling a subscription, Rosen says that many orchestras are finding that, in addition to ticket sales, philanthropic giving is becoming a bigger slice of the financial pie. But in communities like Nashville with diverse and abundant arts organizations, philanthropic landscapes can get pretty competitive.

Still, even with the fiscal health of the field generally improving, orchestras can find themselves struggling. Since the last time the league hosted its national conference in Nashville, the Nashville Symphony was threatened with forclosure on the Schermerhorn Symphony Center following millions of dollars in flood damage and financial troubles. Just last week, the Baltimore Symphony announced a fiscal reform that included the unexpected cancellation of its summer season. 

Rosen admits that in the past, orchestras have been slow to roll with these punches. "We were not really in the vanguard of big change and innovation," he explains. "But those days are gone, and I think now we're in a period of a lot more experimentation across all aspects of how orchestras work, from marketing and packaging, to what happens on stage, to the manner of concert presentation." 

Diversity And The Concept Of "Artistic Excellence" 

When asked what he finds most exciting about the current orchestral scene, Rosen comes back to the music. "I think that orchestral composition has reached the moment of extraordinary diversity and range and variety and interest ... that's not always been the case," he says. "You know, it's taken a while to find a hospitable home [for this music] in orchestras and in orchestra audiences." 

According to data collected by the Institute for Composer Diversity, whether or not orchestras take advantage of that wealth of diverse programming is an ongoing issue.

From a list of 120 orchestras, here's who came out ahead in terms of the diversity of the 2019-2020 mainstage season.

Percentage of works by women composers:

  • Albany Symphony 32%
  • Chicago Sinfonietta & Rockford Symphony Orchestra, both with 26%
  • York Symphony 25%

Percentage of works by composers from underrepresented racial, ethnic and cultural heritages

  • Chicago Sinfonietta 58%
  • Augusta Symphony 28%
  • Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the National Philharmonic, both with 25%

Nashville's numbers are more reflective of the national average and in line with orchestras with similar operational budgets: 

  • 7% works by women composers (a conscious increase from last season)
  • 5% works by underrepresented heritages

It's a tricky balance when considering audience demographics, Rosen said, which often are split between a core older audience that prefers established traditions and well-loved music, and younger audiences who are more likely to seek out music that is off the beaten path and more informal experiences. 

Rosen believes orchestras can have both: "This is nothing against Beethoven and Brahms and Mozart. We will always love them and play them a lot, but there's so much opportunity in the music of our time and orchestras are incresingly finding that and seizing it." 

A large part of this year's league conference is dedicated to issues around equity, diversity and inclusion, which also speaks to the fact that variety of programming is just one piece of the diversity issue. Orchestras are also having conversations about what inclusvity means in terms of orchestra makeup, leadership positions and audience accessibility. 

But Rosen notes that there has been some pushback, both from audiences and within orchestral organizations, over diversity initiatives. During the conference, Rosen will participate in a moderated debate that gets at the heart of the issue: is a commitment to diversity and a commitment to artistic excellence in opposition to each other? 

While Rosen will be assigned his stance during the conference debate, he's clear on where he stands personally. "I presume what people mean [by "artistic excellence"] is a level of execution where you have musicians who are highly trained, playing on suberb instruments, in an acoustically strong and vibrant concert hall, led by conductors of great international acclaim. It's a very narrow way of thinking about how we achieve the most out of orchestral performances and audience satisfaction and enjoyment. You bring up diversity and they say, 'Oh, well that's going to mean the quality is going to go down.' And there are a lot of assumptions in that, right? That non-white musicians are somehow not as good, or that by the process changing you're going to lower the standards of who gets in. And neither of those assumptions are well-founded or well-supported." 

The best approach to issues like these, according to Rosen (and what a conference like this one aims to achieve, in part) is for organizations to continue having difficult conversations that foster authentic and meaningful change within orchestras.

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