Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Symphonic Orchestras: It Takes a Village


When Winston Churchill was asked to cut arts funding
in favor of the war effort, he simply replied
“then what are we fighting for?”

One of the “rules” I use to assess where I am moving to is whether it has a symphonic orchestra or not. In absence of economic indices and survey results for “the most livable cities”, etc., a quick check to see if the city has a professional orchestra or not tells me what I need to know:

  1. Does it appreciate a musical art form?
  2. Does the community have a network of ardent supporters for the arts?
  3. Are there well-established foundations and businesses that are engaged in the community?
  4. Is it big (enough)?
  5. Does it have sufficient infrastructure? (e.g., concert hall)

I initially decided Honolulu, Hawaii was a good fit for me to move to, partly because it had the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra. It continued to face financial and operational challenges until it couldn’t take anymore and it was disbanded. By then many of my friends have moved onto other careers or other communities. Something in me broke. I was then asked at work if I were going to stay put in Honolulu because he remembered in my job interview that I mentioned the existence of a professional orchestra reflected positively about innovation and economic development, that I probably would not have moved to Honolulu if it didn’t have an orchestra. While inertia kept me happily employed in Hawaii, I observed some community members attempt to establish the orchestra again, this time as the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra.

With competition for our leisure time, even well-regarded orchestras are struggling to operate in the black, attract the younger generation while keeping true to its craft. I was hopeful but also concerned about its reboot attempt. The jury is still out (though other orchestra has come and gone) on the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra, if it would truly be a phoenix that rose from the ashes or not.

Here are three questions that came to mind about maintaining a symphonic orchestra:

  1. Could there be sustainable growth?
    • I read somewhere that sustainable growth is characterized by one simple rule: new customers come from the actions of past customers (e.g., word of mouth advertising, as a side effect of product usage, through funded ads, repeat purchases)
  2. What is the nature of the challenges orchestras face?
    • Is it a predicament or a problem? A problem is something we can solve, but a predicament is something intrinsic that something fundamental has to be changed to address it (if you can address it at all). This distinction comes up in solving global issues such as climate change: the sea level is rising whether you believe the human race caused it or not (a predicament), and it has risen sufficiently that even if we could reverse the process, we still have the problem of dealing with the elevated level today and for the foreseeable future.
  3. What do we say to people who say “$50 for a symphony concert? I can buy a CD by a world famous orchestra for less than half the price, and I can listen to it again and again”?

I can get my head around the first two. The third is a value proposition and a question of relevance, and it takes the whole community coming to the table together to address it.

Photo: A Motherwell art exhibition in Cheyenne, Wyoming, an unexpected treat in the middle of our US road trip.

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This entry was posted on May 24, 2015 by in Culture, Management, Quotes and tagged , , , , .
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