The Issue with the Cookie Cutter Orchestra

The Memphis Symphony Orchestra (MSO) recently announced that they are in a financial pit, and they can’t dig themselves out of it without some extreme help. I read the MSO’s press release, which might be easier for some of you to read if you don’t have a subscription to the Commercial Appeal.  The press release mentions that the current model for the orchestra is no longer viable, so I’d like to comment on that as it applies to all American symphonies.

I believe the structure of the American Symphony is failing because the orchestras have made the fatal mistake of copying others and promoting a “Cookie Cutter” model. Standard orchestras have a classical series, a pops series, and some sort of alternative series. They often have themed concerts and play from the same orchestral canon. Our orchestras largely follow the format of Overture — Guest Artist — Intermission — Symphony.

Don’t get me wrong — some orchestras might be doing splendidly with this model, and I couldn’t be more pleased for them. But often I have found that the existing format is not viable because it was never meant to be used as the standard for every orchestra and every city. American cities have different personalities, demands, and interests. Cities and communities are unique; why do we market the same thing over and over again? Musicians in their various cities specialize in unique genres and offer up varying talents. Why do we never showcase those talents?

Why? Because we have convinced ourselves that “the patrons” demand it. And yet, we recognize our patrons are dwindling.

Is there any other business in the world that allows their clientele to so thoroughly frighten them? I’ve heard that CEO’s sometimes find their hands tied because the one patron who offers up the biggest donation every year threatens to pull their funding if the orchestra changes the way they do things. Are we still living in a society where the artistry of the musicians is dictated by their overlord patron?

I remember when the Memphis Symphony performed Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring with the Chicago Symphony’s Beyond the Score® production. The backlash on that performance was astounding! So many regular patrons sent in angry emails telling the staff how much they hated that the music was disrupted by a video. We got almost an equal amount of positive responses from new patrons saying they loved how accessible the Symphony was, and the video was engaging and complemented the music well. Who’s right? I would argue no one is right; we have two clear types of patrons, and the symphony ought to cater to both of them.

So let’s brainstorm a bit, together, on how we can help orchestras like the Memphis Symphony and many others reallocate their efforts so they can maximize their reach to patrons and hopefully find a way out of their financial hole. How can they adapt so that they are not alienating existing patrons, but not boring those who adjusted the way they enjoy classical music?

Ideas for Financially Failing Symphonies

Be unique to your community. Focus on putting out the best musical product you can, in whatever format suits your musicians best, and then market that. People will go where the quality is good and the prices are reasonable. By this point many orchestras have caught on that they are not resigned to the traditional Overture-Soloist-Symphony format. Continue to shake it up a bit, do something atypical for one concert.

I would love to see a chamber ensemble formed out of your talented symphony musicians. The musicians could perform Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time instead of hiring a soloist. Have your concertmaster and a cello professor at your local music conservatory perform Bach’s Double Concerto. If some of your musicians can play the fiddle, highlight that; if you have musicians who can improvise, show that off. The Memphis Symphony has collaborated with rapper Al Kapone for one of their Opus One concerts. Weirder things have happened. (And for the record, it was a huge hit with the right audience in the right venue.)

If your consumers have changed the way they enjoy music, then figure out what the change is and cater to it. Listeners these days are used to Pandora and Spotify. The new consumer rarely listens to a full symphony in one sitting. I am not suggesting we should never play a full symphony ever again, but I do think it would be interesting to try out a “casual classical series” where orchestras play 10-15 shorter pieces (mostly movements from bigger pieces) instead of 3 large pieces. It is a bit short-sighted to assume that patrons want to sit still and concentrate on listening for a 45 minute piece when they rarely do this in the comfort of their own homes.

People multi-task at home; we should allow them to multi-task at the symphony in these casual concerts. Patrons can come in jeans without getting the stink-eye, they can read or knit while they listen, and interact with symphony staff in a seating section dedicated for Tweet Seats. Try performing in a venue that allows people to eat and drink while they watch. Have seats available on stage during the performance so those who want to get up close and personal can be absorbed by the sheer magic of a working symphony. We’ve already discussed what we can do to attract parents of young kids in my last post. Don’t let the nay-sayers scare you from finding alternative ways to put on a show. Since most orchestras put on the same show twice, cater one to traditionalists and one to contemporaries. Make sure your patrons know ahead of time which one suits their preferences.

Allow the patrons to occasionally weigh in a program they want to hear. What if symphonies experimented with one concert a year that acted like a “Kickstarter” project? Say they want to put on a Mahler Symphony but can’t afford to — they can market this to the community and ask for people to make donations toward the Mahler Symphony concert. Once they raise the proper amount of money, they can proceed with planning the performance.

It would be fun to have patrons vote for pieces they want to hear live on one particular concert. The artistic administrator and music director could pick out 5-10 or so “approved” pieces that they can afford and feasibly rehearse. The voting could be tied in with a particular special subscription package, or even a certain donor amount. (I would urge orchestras to make sure they do not alienate those in the lower to middle class by making the donation “requirement” to vote too high.)

Be Proactive

My friends, I don’t have all the answers. In fact, some of my proposed solutions have probably been implemented at several orchestras long before I thought of these ideas. I am offering up suggestions because I see my local symphony is hurting and I do not want this situation to occur at any other orchestra. Since this crisis is affecting all modern day symphonies, please don’t let this take yours by surprise. Be proactive and adapt to the times so that you do not face this crisis when you are weakest.

I have hope for the Memphis Symphony. The community recognizes their impact, Mayer A. C. Wharton publicly supports them, and they have a resourceful group of administrators, musicians, and board members. The orchestra has made huge artistic strides in the past few years under the leadership of Maestro Mei-Ann Chen. They might be down for the count, but they won’t stay down long.

A note from the authorPlease consider following my blog by entering your email address where it says “Follow Blog via Email” in the sidebar. As always, thank you for reading. If you have any ideas about how to revitalize your local orchestra or keep it from falling into a similar state, please comment below.

If you are so inclined, you can make a donation to the Memphis Symphony by calling 901-537-2525 or by visiting their website at

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