Amid the ongoing tales of economic woe, the plight of symphony orchestras is striking a particularly resonant discord among music lovers. Historically, the institution of the orchestra stands near the heart of American cultural sensibilities. When the first great American orchestras were established as ongoing, financially viable entities during the 19th century — the New York Philharmonic in 1842, the Boston Symphony in 1881 — they were applauded as symbols of outstanding civic attainment. A great city deserved a great orchestra; indeed, it required one, no less than it required a fine museum to display the physical treasures it had accumulated or a well-stocked library to serve as a repository of the world’s knowledge. The symphony orchestra gave voice to what were accepted as the most elevated expressions of tone. Opera had a whiff of “mere entertainment” about it, choruses invited amateurism, and chamber music demanded intimacy in its presentation, thereby reducing its possibilities for populist celebration. But a symphony orchestra supported multiple imperatives of 19th-century American optimism. For the “cultural elite” an orchestra fed intellectual aspirations; for the man in the street, it could not fail to provide “improvement.” As a business, an orchestra could prove unwieldy and expensive to maintain, but our ancestors never doubted that it was worth it.
As I write these words, some 900 miles to the west-northwest of Santa Fe, the sound of the San Francisco Symphony wafts through a rehearsal monitor. The group is gearing up to celebrate its centennial next season, and it effectively owes that milestone to the fact that the city was demolished by the earthquake of 1906. The city was rebuilt with unimaginable alacrity, or so it seems by current standards of urban redevelopment. From our perspective a hundred years later, it may seem astonishing that, of all the things that needed to be done at that moment, founding a symphony orchestra should have been among the priorities. To our ancestors, however, it was a challenge that needed to be met. That a symphony orchestra should rise out of the smoking rubble served notice to the world that San Francisco was not merely returning but that its return was crowned by greatness.
We move ahead a century and find that orchestras are much changed. Surely they sound incalculably better, and the musicians who constitute them work in a carefully regulated environment that does not allow the exploitation, abuse, and uncertainty that many of their instrumental forebears had to endure. Powerful unions negotiate and enforce the musicians’ byzantine work agreements, and professional administrations have grown up to support the activities — skilled specialists who tend to marketing, fundraising, community activities, communications, and the logistics of programming and operations at home and on tour. Notwithstanding all this organization, the orchestras are showing signs of severest strain, one after another.
In December, the Honolulu Symphony Society turned off its lights. After hovering for more than a year in “Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization” status, it gave up the ghost and filed for liquidation. Thus ended the oldest symphony orchestra in the American West, an ensemble that had been founded in 1900. Thus, too, did the list of endangered orchestras grow shorter by one. Others, however, wait nervously for the possibilities that their tumbrels may be already on the way. The Louisville Orchestra, extolled as a daring laboratory for
New Mexico Symphony Orchestra