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Punctuated Evolution or Extinction

I think a lot about the symphony orchestra and its place in our society. What purpose does it serve today?  How should it connect with its community? What values does it represent? How should it perform and what should it perform?  Is there even a place for the symphony orchestra today, or is it, as many have claimed, a dying and virtually obsolete institution?

People are increasingly looking for more meaningful experiences. They are hungry for interesting things, for something that makes them feel that their life is worthwhile, that their life has purpose and that their little corner of the world is connected to all the other little corners of the world.

Increasing numbers, in a search of authenticity, are reconsidering what constitutes relaxation time and entertainment; there is a steady rise in interest for products that are ethical, green and local. More people are buying quality over quantity. Sure, everyone loves a bargain but increasingly North Americans are willing to pay that little bit extra to know that their decaf, 2%, skinny latte was made with coffee beans that were purchased ethically from a farmer who grew his crop organically. Today’s success comes from adding quality to a product; micro beers, organic wine, free-range eggs, bottled water, locally produced organic vegetables, the slow food movement, the 100-mile diet etc.

We live at a time of increasing anti-consumerism, yet an economy needs both manufacturing and consumption. The answer is not an end to consumerism but rather to radically change what we consume from unrecyclable, non-ecological, landfill-filling, ozone destroying ‘stuff’ to the consumption of renewable, socially-enhancing, life-affirming ‘experiences’; in other words spending less on ‘possessing’ and more on ‘doing’. This ‘cultural economy’ would see GDPs thriving on attendance at cultural events (concerts, theatres, ballet, sporting events) and the ancillary expenditure associated with these events (clothes, dining out, travelling,  staying in hotels).  In the case of technology (TVs, computers, mp3 players, cell phones) the cultural economy makes it essential to build longevity into devices and shift the focus towards the production of content.

Our challenge is to convert passivity into activity, and the time is ripe to do so. Over the past generation, millions have been weaned off TV and lured into multiplex cinemas. And although there has been a dip in attendance at theatres for movies since the beginning of the recent recession, a remarkable revolution has taken place in the cinema; the rise of the special event, a phenomenon lead by Peter Gelb and The Metropolitan Opera. The Met opera’s Live in HD has brought live performances of grand opera to movie theatres all over the world. In only four years these Saturday performances are now seen in sold out theatres by over 15 million people. These broadcasts have resulted in local opera companies seeing a rise in attendance for an art form that was already experiencing a renaissance.

For the symphony orchestra, however the biggest hurdle is the lack of a ‘stage act’ which is unappealing to a society that is fixated by anything sensory or sensational. Younger audiences show great discrimination in what they want to hear and their tastes are extremely broad. The ‘iPod generations’ have incredibly eclectic playlists on their mp3 players, Indie, Hip Hop, Punk, Glam, Goth, House, Techno, Acid, NewWave are mixed in with movie soundtracks and classical music. There is a demand for new live music events and for an orchestra willing to revolutionize the concert experience the potential is prodigious.

I believe that in its present form the orchestra is most certainly in crisis and that without some form of punctuated evolution it will become extinct. However, it is not dead yet and there is so much potential for orchestras who break with tradition and look to re-creating their identity and relationships with society.

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