Home     Content     Articles      La Scena Musicale     Search   

La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 9

El Sistema: A Cure for the Symphonic Crisis?

by Jonathan Govias / June 13, 2011

Flash version here

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. For enhanced content, please visit www.jonathangovias.com

(c) La Scena Musicale