Many musicians are tenacious creatures who'll see a project through, no matter what. I'm reminded of the small orchestra on the Titanic. Its members died playing music to calm terrified passengers as the ship sank in 1912.
So when headlines appear about orchestras filing for bankruptcy, wrangling over collective bargaining agreements, or shutting down, as the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra will at the end of the 2014-15 season, I still believe most orchestras will survive this time of financial upheaval.
Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, also believes in the future of American orchestras.
"We are experiencing a confluence of changes in cultural and civic priorities, philanthropy, audience preferences and technology," Rosen says. "The combination of all of these factors poses challenges for orchestras, but also opportunities. Many orchestras today are adapting by...experimenting in pricing, concert formats, audience retention strategies, and in artistic and creative innovation."
Despite this optimism from the League, Wisconsin orchestras are vigilant in the wake of the Green Bay Symphony's news. Ensembles in Madison, Milwaukee and beyond face steep challenges, and they know it.
The Madison Symphony Orchestra performs eight programs per season in Overture Hall, and it's helmed by veterans: Rick Mackie just entered his 16th year as executive director, and John DeMain has served as music director for 21 years.
Mackie says his time at the MSO has been wonderful, noting that some executive officers aren't so lucky.
"The stress involved in running a symphony orchestra causes a high turnover rate among executive directors," he says. "The structure of the orchestra itself also sets up potential tension. We have the orchestra of about 100 musicians. We have a staff, a board and two affiliate organizations, the Madison Symphony Orchestra League and the Friends of the Overture Concert Organ. There are lots of moving parts and a lot of people to get on the same page."
Mackie oversees the MSO's income from ticket sales, donor contributions and investments. He keeps the orchestra within its $4 million operating budget and maintains its $1 million cash reserve.
Keeping the orchestra healthy doesn't simply mean watching the bottom line. Having the right podium presence is crucial. DeMain's name recognition is a huge asset for the group, but his leadership skills are valuable as well, Mackie says.
"Because John [DeMain] is a conductor who behaves appropriately and professionally with the musicians, the relationship is warm and respectful. We all get along," Mackie says.
DeMain gained international fame in 1976 for his award-winning recording of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Despite his background in the opulent world of opera, his approach to programming for the symphony is prudent.
"Every artistic decision is a financial one," he says.
While orchestras at every level can have disagreements, full-time orchestras may be more prone to them, DeMain argues.
"The major orchestras have one of the lowest job satisfaction rates among musicians," he says. "The day-in, day-out routine can also be artistically numbing."
MSO players are part time, so problems like these aren't as intense, the organization's leaders contend.
"We're a model orchestra," DeMain says. "Other orchestras should study us."
Saving Milwaukee's symphony
Meanwhile Wisconsin's full-time, tier-one ensemble, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, must deal with contract issues, musician burnout and more while performing about 135 programs a year.
Edo de Waart joined the Milwaukee orchestra as principal conductor and music director in 2009. Mark Niehaus, principal trumpet for the orchestra since 1998, set his instrument aside to become the orchestra's president and executive director in 2012.
Niehaus is passionate about his job and upbeat about the orchestra scene in general.
"It's myopic to think that because a few orchestras are having problems all orchestras are failing," he says. "The industry is just resetting the types of community partnerships needed for orchestras to exist."
He also takes exception to news articles in which Peter Gelb of the Metropolitan Opera and some leaders of the Green Bay Symphony contend that the audience for grand opera and classical music is dwindling.
"If you don't believe in the art form and you're not willing to work your ass off for it, then get out," Niehaus says.
Niehaus works nonstop to keep his orchestra moving in a positive financial direction, which hasn't been easy. Last November the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the orchestra posted a $1.8 million deficit at the end of its fiscal year, noting that some top donors had declined to give.
Unwilling to let the orchestra flounder, Niehaus came up with a solution.
"We let the community know that we had to raise a certain amount of money or we would have to shut down, and we were able to raise $5 million in an emergency fund to keep our doors open," he says.
Asking the community for $5 million takes courage.
"It's like asking someone if they love you. You have to be prepared for the answer," Niehaus says.
Of course, the Milwaukee Symphony is still working to secure its position for long-term success. It's an uphill battle as many American orchestras have less funding and more competition for philanthropy than in years past.
It's clear that leaders like Niehaus will do just about anything for classical music, but what about the audience? As Slate put it recently, "classical music has been circling the drain for years," in part because its fan base is aging rapidly. The median age of a concertgoer hovers around 50, according to reports by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Mackie and DeMain agree that the survival of American orchestras depends on music education, especially among young people.
"It's been proven that if children are not exposed to classical music by age 14, it will never be a part of their lives," Mackie says. That's one reason the MSO operates an extensive music education program.
That's all fine and good, but where does it leave the MSO on the brink of 2015? Mackie says the orchestra is "in an extraordinarily fine financial position." Although the orchestra had to scale back to eight concerts per season when the recession hit, it is trying to get the ninth concert back.
Breaking down barriers
The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra points to another barrier to audience growth: elitism.
"The main reason for any orchestra to exist is to build a better community," says Mark Cantrell, the WCO's executive director. "If the organization truly understands why it exists and [knows] its values, it gives a strong, enduring foundation to build upon."
So far, Cantrell's vision has led to a successful collective bargaining agreement for the WCO. In fact, he says the ensemble "is in the strongest position it has seen in a long time," despite the impact of the recession. Achieving harmony and financial health is not an easy task, if headlines from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and other Midwestern ensembles are any indication.
The WCO also plans to broaden its community outreach to include Marshfield, Merrill, Baraboo, Stoughton and Spring Green. It's part of the group's mission to serve music lovers who aren't necessarily wealthy or urban.
"Orchestras have long struggled with aging audiences and lack of socioeconomic diversity," Cantrell says. "It's part of what has contributed to the elitist atmosphere present in many concert halls today."
In that regard, Cantrell and Andrew Sewell, the WCO's conductor and music director, are a good match. Both believe that music should never be stuffy or snobby.
Sewell, who marks his 15th year with the WCO this season, creates a relaxed, upbeat energy in his concerts whether they are traditional classical performances in Overture Center's Capitol Theater or populist outdoor Concerts on the Square. He adds a surprise now and then, too. Those who attended a WCO Masterworks concert in Capitol Theater a few seasons ago may remember when a WCO violinist walked out of the orchestra and joined guest artists Time for Three in a bluegrass-classical hybrid number.
The Rock River Philharmonic, formerly the Beloit Janesville Symphony Orchestra, is also taking creative measures to reverse the effects of falling ticket sales and contributions. Its name change, announced in April, is designed to break down geographic barriers.
Britney McKay, its marketing and outreach director, says "[T]he way people consume music has changed, and classical music organizations are working to keep up with it. We have to consider what listeners have in mind when they come to a concert and what they listen to when they're not at a concert."
With that in mind, the RRP has redesigned its programming to include a classical series, a family pops series and the brand-new explorer series. McKay describes the explorer series as nontraditional and interactive, a program that tries to involve all the senses. She has entertained the idea of a concert hall scented with the smell of baking cookies to create a homey atmosphere.
The RRP will introduce audiences to its new programming format when the season begins in January, under the direction of longtime conductor Robert Tomaro.
Violinist Tim Kamps plays in several other regional ensembles, including the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the La Crosse and Dubuque symphonies, but the MSO might well be his favorite. He just began his 13th year there and says it's excellent.
"We play the greatest music in the world in a world-class venue, with great musicians, a wonderful, versatile conductor and world-renowned guest artists," he says.
On the business side, he serves as president of the MSO Players' Committee, which represents the musicians in dealings with management and the union (AFM Local 166), and in contract negotiations. He also serves on the MSO board of directors in an ex-officio capacity.
Audience-building skills and self-promotion are more important than ever, even for a relatively successful group like the MSO, he notes. After all, there's little public funding to be had for arts groups.
Of course, it's hard to promote a product to an audience that doesn't see its value. Luckily, the commodity in question is music, and music's emotional impact is second to none. Niehaus is banking on this fact as he looks to the Milwaukee Symphony's future.
"The music of Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Haydn has stood the test of time," he says. "Live performances of it will continue long after we're gone."