El Sistema: A Cure for the Symphonic Crisis?by Jonathan Govias
/ June 13, 2011
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We keep hearing from orchestras how their
industry is in crisis, but 2011 might be the year they really mean it.
The Detroit Symphony just endured a very ugly labour dispute in its
efforts to adjust to a new market reality, the orchestras of Philadelphia
and Louisville are restructuring under the protection of the courts,
and the Syracuse, Honolulu and New Mexico Symphonies are in liquidation.
Even if the music stands and pianos aren’t auctioned off, the survivors’
outcome is almost certainly assured: musicians will take massive pay
cuts, and administrators will promise to do everything they were doing
before to generate revenue, only better, and with fewer staff.
There are plenty of reasons on
offer for the situation, all of which translate to the same thing: times
are tough and orchestras are low on the list of things to care about.
It’s not hard to see why. When orchestras aren’t defending their
existence through abstractions or intangibles, such as “improving
the quality of life,” they usually talk about their larger economic
impact—a position that can be largely self-defeating when advocating
the meaning and relevance of art. As for relevance, it’s a word orchestras
typically define within the narrow confines of programming, playing
music that has some tenuous, artificial correlation with current events,
or the use of technology in the concert hall.
In summary, the current relationship
between audiences and orchestras is transactional. One pays, one plays,
and as a result audiences are no more emotionally invested in orchestras
than they are in their grocers. But viable alternative models for community
engagement do exist. Thirty-five years ago, Venezuela boasted two professional
orchestras, neither worthy of any international attention. There are
now over thirty active professional ensembles in a nation whose population
and GDP are smaller than Canada’s. This professional industry was
born and grew to maturity under the leadership of El Sistema,
and graduated to full autonomy about 20 years ago. Today it continues
to benefit from the highly educated, appreciative audience that its
parent continues to develop. This is not surprising: the primary indicator
of whether a person will come to a symphony concert is not whether the
local orchestra showed up once a year at her school to perform—it’s
whether she played an instrument herself.
In Venezuela orchestras are relevant
beyond the intrinsic value of their art because their performances represent
human and social achievements of an immediate, visible and deeply personal
nature to musicians and audiences alike. It is a relevance desperately
needed by symphonies in North America. Orchestras should be leading
the el Sistema movement, as much for their own benefit as for
that of their communities. A symphony as centrepiece, as focal point,
as catalyst for a larger participatory community in music is
a far more compelling and viable vision for the future than a tailcoat
under the auctioneer’s hammer.
Jonathan Govias is a distinguished
conductor, consultant and educator for el Sistema programs on four continents.
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