July 31, 2011 5:59 pm

US orchestras must evolve to survive

Pinch: Leonard Slatkin has taken a pay cut as music director of the DSO

Pinch: Leonard Slatkin has taken a pay cut as music director of the DSO

Mario di Fiore played the cello in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for half a century. His father was an Italian immigrant, who arrived in America in 1922, and secured work at US Rubber, making tyres for the rapidly expanding motor industry. “I saw a golden age,” says Di Fiore, who retired last month. “It’s very painful to see what Detroit has gone through. I feel a sense of mourning for what the city and the orchestra used to be.”

As Henry Ford changed American life with his Model T, Detroit grew, its population reaching nearly 2m. Automobile money built ornately finished skyscrapers, supported gentlemen’s clubs and vast department stores, and helped fund great cultural institutions, such as the orchestra. Now the city’s industrial decline makes it a benchmark for US urban failure, its population almost halved in a decade, whole streets of houses standing empty and abandoned.

Yet Detroit’s public school system was once highly respected. “I could study musical theory and harmony, there were ensemble classes, two school orchestras,” says Di Fiore. At the age of 21 he secured a job with the DSO, then conducted by Paul Paray. Under Paray’s leadership, it came to be regarded as the best French orchestra outside Europe. “It was a world-class institution then, not a stepping stone orchestra but a destination orchestra, a place where every player wanted to be,” says Di Fiore.

In the past few years, however, the stock market collapse reduced the value of the DSO’s $60m endowment fund by two-thirds; falling ticket sales have seen it accumulate a deficit of $19m, and the orchestra still owes the banks $54m after an ambitious extension of its concert hall a decade ago. The orchestra’s management had no choice but to make swingeing cuts. Di Fiore says it was the desire to remain at the top of the game that led to a bitter six-month strike, which left Detroit’s Orchestra Hall silent for most of last season. It only ended when the players agreed, in April, to a 23 per cent pay cut, reducing their base salary from $104,000 to $79,000. Even after the cuts, it’s still far from clear if the DSO has a viable future.

And Detroit is not alone. Many American orchestras are in trouble, most working with financial deficits. Honolulu, New Mexico and Syracuse have all lost their orchestras, and in April the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. A combination of donor fatigue, rising costs and ageing audiences has come together in a perfect storm. At the League of American Orchestras conference in Minneapolis in June, Jesse Rosen, its president, pointed out that performance excellence was no longer enough. “A world-class ranking is no guarantee of a vital and secure future,” he told his audience of orchestra managers.

Nonetheless, there are plenty in Detroit who are optimistic about the future. A new light rail network is planned and $500m has been invested in opening up the shoreline of the Detroit River, the boundary between the US and Canada. Even Whole Foods Market, urban middle-class America’s favourite store, is rumoured to be planning a branch in the city.

Matt Cullen is one of the drivers of Detroit’s reinvention, and he is determined the orchestra should play a key role. A veteran of 30 years at General Motors, he was brought in by the DSO board to resolve the strike. He says the orchestra has gone through a “near-death experience”, not dissimilar to what Ford and GM went through, and argues that the old model of straight orchestra concerts is no longer self-sustaining. “The product has to evolve,” he says. “It’s a bit like the folks at GM when they had a Buick whose average customer age was 65 – it’s not a path to success. You have to find a way to be different, find different entrées to potential markets, and then pull them back to the orchestra.”

Di Fiore laughs grimly when I tell him of my meeting with Cullen, and jokes about players being rented out piecemeal for weddings and bar mitzvahs. “That’s why I retired. These are tough times,” he admits. “Everybody was in tune with having to make monetary sacrifices, but somebody got an idea that they want to change the whole landscape of what an American orchestra is. We are the test case.”

Listening to the DSO play Dvorak’s New World Symphony under music director Leonard Slatkin, it would be easy to allow the rich, lush string sound, and the decadent elegance of Orchestra Hall to protect one from the chill winds blowing outside. But the reality is that the era of guaranteed audiences and easy-to-seduce, high-spending donors will never return, even if Detroit itself makes an economic turnround. The population is now more than 80 per cent African-American, yet the DSO has just four black players. Its remaining subscribers live out of the city, in the rich, comfortable suburbs that surround it. One of the results of the strike settlement is a series of concerts in community halls, churches and synagogues in cities such as Grosse Pointe and Dearborn, which the orchestra’s management hopes will engage new audiences.

It’s in Mark Stryker’s interest that the DSO survives. As classical music critic of the Detroit Free Press, his job depends on it. He’s realistic about the problems ahead, the fact that average household incomes in Michigan have dropped $10,000 in the past decade, and that two or three generations have gone without music education in the cities schools. For him, the very survival of the DSO after the long strike is cause for hope. “If the DSO had gone under, it would have been seen as another fatal arrow into the heart of Detroit. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so critical the symphony right itself. The sound of the orchestra is its history. You can’t just open another DSO the way you can open another Starbucks.”

Petroc Trelawny presents ‘A Symphony for Detroit’ on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday August 7

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