Have times changed in the US symphony scene?

A very interesting perspective on the orchestral scene in the USA published in the New York Times… and they say the UK suffers from a ‘class system!’

The Big Five Orchestras No Longer Add Up

Clockwise from top right: Gustavo Dudamel leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic 1n 2010; the violinist Isaac Stern, left, with George Szell, conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, in 1962; Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic in 1969; Eugene Ormandy of the Philadelphia Orchestra in the 1940s; and Riccardo Muti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last year.
Published: June 14, 2013

It was like clockwork. Someone writing in The New York Times would refer to the Big Five American orchestras: the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra. And within hours, Peter Pastreich, the respected executive director of the San Francisco Symphony from 1978 to 1999, would beard The Times’s overseer of classical music — at the time, me — by telephone or e-mail, complaining that the term Big Five had long since outlived whatever usefulness it may once have had.

The Times was by no means alone in using it. At least by the mid-1960s, soon after I had started to follow classical music, the term had become common coin in discussions of the American orchestral scene. And it proved remarkably persistent, even as the mighty handful started to suffer setbacks and other orchestras grew in budget and artistic stature, notably the St. Louis Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony.

Ernest Fleischmann, executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1969 to 1998, argued for recognition of a big six. And the San Francisco Symphony, celebrating its centennial in the 2011-12 season under Mr. Pastreich’s successor, Brent Assink, found a creative way to imply the existence of a big seven if not proclaim it, presenting each of the Big Five and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in brief residencies at its home, Davies Symphony Hall.

Plausible notions both, though neither caught on. Yet it is true that while the idea of the Big Five may still exist in the public imagination, you no longer hear talk of it in the profession except from Big Five members, when, occasionally, they find it useful.

A century or so ago, when classical music thrived in a nation of immigrants, orchestras were a powerful force, flagship institutions that helped to put American cities on the cultural map. And the Big Five, when it coalesced, helped, with its cumulative weight, to put American orchestras firmly on the international map. No other country could boast of such a constellation.

But this landscape has changed greatly over the last half-century, much as the country’s economic, demographic and cultural landscape has, and in many of the same ways. The economic fortunes of the flagship ensembles have changed with the fortunes of their cities.

“The notion of the Big Five just doesn’t exist today,” Thomas W. Morris, the chief executive and artistic director of Spring for Music, a festival of North American orchestras at Carnegie Hall, says in a video on the festival’s Web site.

The idea of the Big Five was largely created and popularized by journalists, although the member executives started to hold their own meetings. The concept was certified, in a way, by 1969 and 1972 analyses commissioned by, er, the Big Five suggesting that perhaps only the Big Five would survive.

“There is a natural tendency in any field to want to identify and celebrate the best,” said Jesse Rosen, president and chief executive of the League of American Orchestras, a service organization, whose annual conference opens Tuesday in St. Louis.

The problem is establishing criteria. In sports, the best can usually be identified by hard and fast quantities: timings, distances, scores, percentages. In music, as in other arts, the issue is quality, and that is not so easily determined or compared.

In fact, the criteria of membership in the Big Five, never firmly established, began with quantities. They included size of budget, number of recordings, amount of touring (especially stops in New York), presence on radio and television, and number of year-round musicians. Quality, it was more or less assumed, would follow the numbers, with more-prosperous orchestras able to attract better players, conductors and guest artists.

But those quantities were always squishy, and the balances shifted. The Cleveland Orchestra, for example, with the smallest budget by far, got its foot in the door of what some thought of as a Big Four Plus One mainly on the strength of its artistic achievement under George Szell, its music director from 1946 to 1970, before gaining full recognition.

Vague though it was, the notion of a Big Five carried real meaning and impact for a time. “If you go far enough back, 30 to 40 years,” said Gary Hanson, the Cleveland Orchestra’s executive director, “the defining element of success had a lot more to do with an institution’s ability to compete for talent than anything else. In that competitive environment, there was a direct relationship between reputation and quality.”

The major orchestras competed for recording contracts, players, major conductors. Today, with recording contracts rare, more orchestras employing their players year-round and geographical mobility a way of life, the market is more diffuse. Climate and cost of living are as likely to figure in a musician’s choice of employer as an orchestra’s historic renown.

Mr. Hanson acknowledged that the Big Five orchestras benefit slightly from a “residual reputational momentum.”

“But today,” he added, “the ability to maintain a viable orchestra and pursue greater quality depends almost entirely on philanthropy. It depends on the ability of the local community to fund its orchestra.”

Cleveland is a particularly difficult case, with so many corporations having fled the city. But with Franz Welser-Möst as music director, the Cleveland Orchestra has retained its lofty artistic profile while relying on major gifts and on residencies in Miami, Vienna and elsewhere.

In another stressed city, the Philadelphia Orchestra filed for bankruptcy in 2011. But it, too, seems to have weathered the storm in fine artistic fettle, thanks to the interim efforts of Charles Dutoit as principal conductor and Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s arrival last year as music director.

Yet, in the words of Deborah Borda, executive director of the New York Philharmonic from 1991 to 1999 and now president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, “the great western migration continues.” She was referring to both geophysical and cultural trends.

Ms. Borda’s orchestra — first under Esa-Pekka Salonen as music director, and now under Gustavo Dudamel — is flourishing as never before, artistically as well as financially. Its programming is easily the most adventurous of any major American orchestra. And the San Francisco Symphony continues to thrive under its longtime music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, notwithstanding the bump of a 17-day players’ strike in March that wiped out a scheduled East Coast tour, including two concerts at Carnegie Hall.

Mr. Pastreich, the former San Francisco Symphony director, recently examined the budgets for the major American ensembles listed by the League of American Orchestras and found Los Angeles (with the Hollywood Bowl) at the top, followed by Boston (with the Boston Pops and Tanglewood), Chicago, San Francisco, New York and Philadelphia. Cleveland, which didn’t report, is no doubt some lengths behind.

Deborah F. Rutter, the president of the Chicago Symphony, echoed Mr. Hanson of Cleveland in noting a shift in priorities toward local concerns.

“The personality of the Chicago Symphony is based on the personality of Chicago,” she said. “If we focus on how we rank rather than how we are doing in our own market, we won’t succeed. We don’t want to be fantastic in Tokyo and less than great in Chicago.”

Other orchestras, too, are trying to integrate themselves more deeply into the culture of their cities and develop new, younger audiences and new sources of financing.

“Success today is not limited to the quality of execution,” said Mr. Rosen of the orchestra league. “The things that represent quality today are much more varied, more democratic, more inclusive. Orchestras have to be more innovative, experimental and creative, more advanced in the ways they use technology.”

But in quality of execution, another leveling factor among American orchestras has been the astonishing degree of talent among young musicians who keep pouring out of conservatories. “The general level of playing has never been higher,” said Mr. Morris of Spring for Music.

As artistic director of that festival and the person who selects orchestras for Carnegie Hall appearances with an eye toward adventurous programming, Mr. Morris gets to hear a lot of them, and as a former general manager of the Boston Symphony and executive director of the Cleveland Orchestra, he knows what life used to be like at the top. He is quick to point out that with a heightened technical level and versatility has come a certain loss of character, style and individual point of view among orchestras.

It used to be that an experienced ear, listening blind to a recording or a radio broadcast, could quickly tell one ensemble from another: Szell’s Cleveland Orchestra by its transparency, precision and sheer virtuosity; the Philadelphia Orchestra by its warmth, with a lush, enveloping string sound cultivated by Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy and mostly maintained by Riccardo Muti; the Chicago Symphony (Mr. Muti’s new orchestra) by its power, with a machine-tooled brass core energized by Fritz Reiner and almost turned into caricature by Georg Solti; the Boston Symphony by a slightly febrile, penetrating quality suited to the French music it performed under Charles Munch and Pierre Monteux; Leonard Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic by its attitude, with a rough and ready edge.

Alas, this loss has been international, with Russian brass players having lost their nasal swagger and German oboists no longer sounding like ducks. It is inevitable at a time when star conductors jet around the globe, often juggling multiple music directorships and imposing internationalist standards, and when players are more mobile geographically and upwardly.

Though no one would like to admit it, interchangeability — again, at the highest of levels — is in danger of becoming the norm. Then again, these may all seem fine points in view of the air of crisis that hangs over the whole American orchestral enterprise at the moment. Hardly a week goes by without a report of a pending bankruptcy, a threatened strike, a lockout, a cut in personnel or a slashing of budgets. Every orchestra, you could believe, is suffering, each in its own way.

Once again, Mr. Pastreich, formerly of San Francisco, takes issue with the way things are reported in the press.

“If I dropped in on the United States from Mars and heard, ‘What a disaster!,’ what would I see?” he asked. “Every little town has an orchestra. The Bay Area has dozens of them, some of very high quality. There are so many places with really dynamic stuff going on. The trouble does not reflect itself in the concert hall. This is an amazingly vibrant musical life.”

Granted. But financial problems are indeed widespread. And the death of, say, the Minnesota Orchestra, which has already lost a season to a lockout just as it seemed on the verge of drawing near the top of the Big Whatever, would be mourned far beyond Minneapolis.

So in this burbling stew of toil, trouble and occasional triumph, does the passing of the Big Five represent loss or gain?

Mark Volpe, the managing director of the Boston Symphony, said the designation was now irrelevant, even though it had yielded some benefits. “It was not objectionable,” he added, “and it cut through the noise of the marketplace and got us attention. So in that sense it was positive.”

You wanted to think, too, that the concept of a Big Five retained a certain aspirational quality for other orchestras. But it is clear after half a century that all the aspiration in the world was not enough for others to break into its ranks, and their aspirations now rightly lie elsewhere.

Mr. Morris of Spring for Music spoke for many in the business when he said: “The Big Five was kind of a false god. It’s good that it doesn’t exist anymore.”


About brendanball

Professional Trumpeter: Soloist, Orchestra Player, Chamber Music, Contemporary Music & Education.
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