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Are Orchestras in Crisis?

In his article America's Orchestras are in Crisis,  Philip Kennicott raises a number of valid issues in his critique of programming by American orchestras and others. He argues that the attempt to make the 21st century orchestra “relevant” by downplaying the importance of attentive listening in concert halls is damaging the very institution they hope to save. He also contends that orchestras assume there are only two kinds of listeners: younger ones who will listen to anything, and older ones for whom there can never be too much Beethoven. He argues persuasively that programming under this assumption will ultimately fail to attract either group. The results of radical changes in CBC Radio Two’s music programming since 2007 are living proof of just how easily one can alienate nearly everyone, let alone two mythical groups.

It is a cliché to say that the truth is in the middle, but not a cliché that we consistently underestimate our audience’s ability to recognize excellence and respond to aural challenges. We have developed so much terminology around music: new, contemporary, classical, accessible, difficult, or whatever – that we have completely lost sight of the fact that it is the context that determines the meaning of those terms. Programming that fails to create a context for the music being performed will inevitably alienate its audiences no matter when it was written. Lazy programmers fall back on the red herring of old vs. new music because it simplifies their job, but in all the wrong ways. There is good music, bad music and a lot that’s in between. After that, it’s up to artistic directors, conductors and producers to create programming that is so compelling that audiences will sit up and listen. If we do it, they will come.

Lawrence Cherney, Artistic Director, Soundstreams

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