Audience at American Orchestra Summit
Glenn Watkins and Pierre BoulezJoseph Horowitz,keynote speakerPierre Boulez answers questionsBrainstorming SessionAaron Dworkin, Head of Sphinx OrganizationPaul Austin, VP, Regional Orchestra Players' Association

Re-imagining the American Orchestra:
Two-Day Summit Draws Orchestra Reps to Rethink the Symphony's Future

By Mark Clague and Michael Mauskapf, Summit Co-Organizers

Over three days in late January, representatives from orchestras around the country came to the University of Michigan for the American Orchestra Summit, an open-ended discussion on how to address what many orchestra leaders are calling dire financial challenges that call into question their very survival and require a rethinking of their fundamental mission.

The impetus for the Summit sprouted from a serendipitous conversation with Joseph Horowitz, author and thinker at the forefront of classical music in America, who was the Summit’s keynote speaker. The idea—jumpstarting a dialogue between orchestra scholars and administrators—picked up steam, and by the end of the year, more than thirty speakers had volunteered to take part: administrators, scholars, student musicians, union leaders, conductors, composers, grant officers, and board members.

So why now? And why U-M? As scholars with deep personal and professional connections to the orchestra industry, we found it strange that partnerships between orchestras and universities were so rare. Hosting a dialogue at Michigan seemed imperative, considering the University trains future orchestral musicians. The University also offers a fresh environment which we hoped might serve as the foundation for lasting partnerships between orchestras and the academy.

And with a first-rate arts presenter on campus in the University Musical Society, we were able to schedule the Summit to coincide with a concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in celebration of the 85th birthday of Pierre Boulez, who spoke at the Summit’s final event.

Over the course of three days, six panels, four breakout sessions, and two concerts, some 200 people filled a small amphitheatre for an open conversation about the state of their orchestras, creating a collective snapshot of the industry and offering up possible solutions to the difficulties so many face.

Conversations were organized around two themes:  how organizational structures and strategies have aided or hindered the orchestra’s success and the symbiotic and multifaceted relationship between an orchestra and its community.

Several themes and innovative ideas emerged. One of the most cited—the income gap between ticket revenue and expenses—received renewed scrutiny from a number of angles. Scholars and arts leaders explored the historical underpinnings of that income gap, citing the 19th-century organizational choices that led to the corporate orchestral model while distancing the industry from its audience.

Much of the conversation, though, looked forward instead of back. A panel, “Reconceptualizing the Symphony” asked:  What might the symphony orchestra look like in 25 years? Who is its audience? What is its structure? What is its relationship to its community?

For many, the answer lies in deepening community connections. Robert Birman, executive director of the Louisville Orchestra, argued that one key to success is a comprehensive business model that creates new “entry points” to engage community members of every age, not only in performances but by teaching, advocacy, and collaboration.

If orchestras are to survive and thrive in their communities, they will have to matter to people who never go to subscription concerts. Ryan Fleur, CEO of the Memphis Symphony, pointed out that, while some of the innovations he has implemented in Memphis are community-specific, others are broadly applicable: “We play the great works, but also mentor in inner cities. We’ve developed a leadership training program with Fortune 500 companies in Memphis and we’re working with a children’s hospital on music therapy programs.”

The orchestra’s capacity to educate community members of all ages was a recurring theme. Drawing on his experience as a music director, U-M’s director of orchestras Kenneth Kiesler voiced an impassioned call for an integrated emphasis on education, providing every student and adult the opportunity to experience live orchestral music.

Paul Austin, VP for the Regional Orchestra Players Association and member of the Grand Rapids Symphony, suggested that new board members receive training about the particular needs of orchestras as distinct from entertainment businesses. Teaching and advocacy must permeate the work of musicians, managers, and board members alike. Universities are one potential collaborator, but there are others, including senior centers, secondary schools, and community centers.

Ayden Adler, director of education at the Philadelphia Orchestra, described her vision of the orchestra as a community educator with a “horizontal spectrum” to address any number of educational needs through music. Rather than putting the orchestra at the top of a cultural hierarchy, classical music must be integrated across the community.

CEO Tim Young and music director Laura Jackson (DMA ’05) of the Reno Philharmonic described their success in building community ties. Their orchestra, which remains in the black and continues to expand despite Nevada’s dire economy, has increased community investment by an active online dialogue with its audience. Reno just founded a third youth symphony and included over 400 community musicians in its recent “Spirit of the Season” holiday concert.

Central to both community engagement and education is partnership, which served as a unifying theme for the Summit’s final panel. According to Russell Willis Taylor, president of National Arts Strategies in Washington, D.C., partnerships must be undertaken strategically and in a spirit of true collaboration. Each partner organization must align its goals, focusing on both the “give” and the “get” in order to implement a successful and sustainable collaboration.

As a musician and administrator who has instigated a number of successful partnerships over the last decade, Aaron Dworkin (MM ’98), founder and president of the Sphinx Organization, warned that organizations must “trust but verify” when exploring potential partners. Many on the panel suggested that being selective in identifying partners and integrating these relationships deeply into an organization’s activities is more effective than creating a number of superficial associations.

One concept that gathered particular momentum is service exchange. Introduced by Ryan Fleur, service exchange refers to the hiring of musicians for services outside of rehearsals and concerts—teaching, mentoring, even running a local radio show. This model can help an orchestra balance its budget and increase its connections to the community, while providing musicians additional paid work in a challenging economic environment.

Joseph Horowitz felt service exchange addressed “an oversupply of orchestra concerts nationally,” and many suggested that if orchestras could behave more like educational institutions and less narrowly as purveyors of concerts, their presence in and value to their communities might increase significantly.

At the end of the Summit, Pierre Boulez, who was in Ann Arbor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, spoke with emeritus musicology professor Glenn Watkins before some 200 students, faculty, and community members who listened intently as they discussed everything from Boulez’s development as a composer to his programming preferences as former music director of the New York Philharmonic.

Throughout the conversation, Boulez drew laughs and applause with his disarming charm. Mr. Boulez was gracious enough to accept questions from the audience, offering them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pick the brain of one of classical music’s most distinguished luminaries.

The Summit has come and gone, and while the circle has been symbolically and literally enlarged, our goal was to instigate action. Arts consultant and industry blogger Drew McManus organized an official Summit Blog on, allowing over 1,500 people to experience the Summit online, in real time. These have been archived and are linked to the Summit Web site.

Several notable projects have arisen from the Summit’s efforts, including AE Central Consulting, a community consulting service provided by MBA and other university students through Arts Enterprise, a national initiative linking the arts and business education; Sounds of Success invites orchestras running success­ful programs to share their ideas with the industry as a whole.

The Ann Arbor Symphony has been especially proactive, jumpstarting an Ann Arbor Listens project—a community-wide initiative inspired by the one-book, one-community reading programs started by the Seattle Public Library and popular in Ann Arbor since 2003. One thing the Summit made clear was that fruitful conversations happen when they include all invested parties and are held at a time and place safely removed from a budget crisis or strike. What made the Summit most exciting, however, was the inclusion of the next generation of musicians and arts leaders: students. One issue addressed was the tight job market, and the need to prepare today’s students—tomorrow’s professional musicians—for a more diverse workday.

“More people graduate from music schools per year than we have positions in the top 51 orchestras,” said Brian Rood (BM ’86, trumpet), president of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. “It’s important to have back-up plans, but it’s also an impetus to give it all you can because there are surprisingly few jobs out there.”

Nathan Platte—a recent musicology Ph.D. from UM—remained hopeful, writing in a blog post: “More and more students want to invest their lives in music. If these students are taught to approach music-making as a means to an end [e.g., as a community service] and encouraged to develop skills in organizing and sustaining new musical initiatives, the future of American orchestras may be bright indeed.”

If you are interested in taking part in one of the projects mentioned above, please email For more on the Summit, including a full schedule, list of partici­pants, and a video archive of the panels, please visit: http://


One Student’s Take on the American Orchestra Summit

By Patrick Carter, BM ’10 (oboe)

It is no secret that American orchestras and arts organizations in general are facing unprecedented financial and structural struggles. Everything from the Cleveland Orchestra’s brief but revealing strike in January to the high-profile layoffs in mid-February at the Kimmel Center, home of the Philadelphia Orchestra, paints a bleak picture of the current state and near future of an institution so central to American culture.

These increasingly public troubles were the catalyst for the University of Michigan’s revolutionary American Orchestras Summit held at Rackham Auditorium over two days in January. After hearing a myriad of viewpoints, I could have left feeling discouraged, wondering whether it’s worth it to explore a career of my own with an American orchestra. Another part of me considered leaving in a resolute state of denial, choosing to ignore the troubles and preserve the idealistic view I have supported and admired since childhood.

Instead I chose to leave the Summit dressed in optimism. It is often just such times of crisis that require institutions to take a step back, reestablish their mission, and begin to work toward dynamic new opportunities. American orchestras are beginning to do just that, from the introduction of vibrant new music directors like Gustavo Dudamel in Los Angeles and Alan Gilbert in New York, to new approaches to programming like “Under the Big Top”, the Baltimore Symphony’s recent—and well received—run of circus-themed performances.

The common thread of the Summit is exactly the spirit upon which the event was based. The conference subtitle was “Englarging the Circle: Creating Partnerships in Research and Performance,” with partnerships the salient point of view. What made the Summit such a milestone was that orchestras from across the country came together, leaving behind any notions of status or competition, to rethink the future of the field.

It seems that orchestras need to adopt this collaborative attitude, both within their organizations and across the communities that support them, if there is hope for a productive future. Creating partnerships—with educational establishments and cultural organizations in its community—can only strengthen the orchestra’s position. Breaking down barriers between an orchestra’s musicians and administration through a mutual understanding of each other’s concerns and priorities will create a harmonious (pun intended) cultural body whose mission is clear and more easily advanced.

It seems that collaboration is essential to every meaningful venture, be it artistic, economic, educational, or political. In January, I saw the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Puccini’s Turandot and was blown away not just by the elaborate set and costumes, lush orchestral sound, and energetic performers on stage, but by the sheer force of passion brought forth by all of these elements combined. The annual Collage Concert at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance embodies this collaborative spirit, as it joins the School’s diverse disciplines on the stage of Hill Auditorium for a one-night celebration of the performing arts. Even the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games were ultimately less about individual performances than about fostering international cooperation in uncertain diplomatic times.

Ultimately, the American Orchestras Summit was inspirational because it addressed the most important question: why do orchestras matter in the first place? The Summit was able to take place, and American orchestras can begin to look forward to a hopeful future, because of the understanding that the orchestra, and all of the individuals it involves, is merely an agent at the service of the unifying splendor of art.