On the Future of Classical Music

May 2011

Good afternoon. My name is Brinton Smith and it's been my privilege to be the principal cellist of your orchestra for the past 6 seasons. On behalf of the my fellow musicians, I'm happy to give the musician’s report. For me, this past season has been the most artistically exciting since I joined the orchestra. At the beginning of the season, after an extensive search, we welcomed internationally renowned violinist Frank Huang as our new concertmaster. Frank brings both impeccable virtuosity and great ensemble and personal skills to the Symphony, and with Frank joining Eric Halen as our leadership team, I believe we are already building on our string sound. A very knowledgeable friend told me that he had been coming to concerts since 1961 and had never heard the symphony's strings sound as good as they are now sounding.

We were also happy to reach a 4 year agreement with the Society ahead of schedule last Fall. We were particularly grateful that the Society understood the toll that a decade of difficult times had taken on the orchestra, and wanted to commit to a forward looking contract that would address concerns about retaining players and the reputation of our orchestra, while jointly sharing the unknown risks of future health care costs. The aura of mutual respect, and the board and management's willingness to value and support the musicians, are deeply appreciated, and we stand ready to work with you in every way to achieve the goals you have set. Many, if not most of the musicians have already contributed to this year's annual fund and we are ready to perform in any venue to help further our organization’s mission.

Another artistic milestone was the orchestra's October UK tour. While the travel was grueling at times, the tour challenged the orchestra to play at their top level each night in new halls and new cities. Touring helps build an orchestra's consistency and unity, as well as their reputation, and we were very proud to act as ambassadors for our city. I will never forget the concert goers I met in Birmingham- a city that is justifiably proud of it own renowned orchestra. “That was incredible- You guys are fantastic!” they raved and then added “Houston... huh?” slowly absorbing the idea that there is more in this Texas city than just cowboys and oil!

This year the Musicians of the Houston Symphony also began a self managed chamber music series on the observation level of the Chase Tower. Musicians donated their performances in order to build connections with current and potential audiences, allowing them to get to know music and the musicians in an intimate setting, and another three concerts are planned for next year

As we enter Hans Graf's penultimate season, it is not too early to begin surveying the work he has done here. Hit in his first years by Enron's collapse, catastrophic floods, 9/11, a strike and near bankruptcy, Hans did not walk away to protect his own reputation, as many would have. Instead, he redoubled his contributions of time, energy, artistry and even his own money, determined that we would not fail. His work here has been an act of true artistic devotion, and all that comes in our future will owe its existence to the work he has done. On behalf of all of us, Thank you. This Spring we also mark the retirement of two key musicians in our organization. Charles Tabony, our associate principal 2nd violin, grew up in Houston and then went to Juilliard and earned his place in the world, before returning to serve his hometown for the next 34 years. Robert Atherholt has been our principal oboe and one of our most important artists for the past 27 years. We will deeply miss having them onstage with us and we want to thank them publicly for all their years of great artistry.

Last week we hired two new wonderful violinists and we will soon have auditions for a new principal oboe, but financial pressures have also forced us to leave some other positions unfilled for many years, including at least one vacancy in every string section. These vacancies impact both the sound heard in the audience and the health of the remaining players, who must make up the difference. We all understand that we are not in the position to fill these vacancies at this moment, but we also firmly believe that if we want to commit to greatness- if we want this orchestra to grow with our city- then we must ultimately devise a plan to fill these positions.

I don't choose the words 'commit to greatness' lightly. You may have heard some of the grim headlines in the orchestral world this year. A six month strike in Detroit, bankruptcies in New Mexico, Syracuse and Louisville and even the legendary Philadelphia orchestra opting for re-organizational bankruptcy protection. It is easy to read the headlines and assume that classical music is dying. Let me read a quote from Time magazine: “As a group, the symphony orchestras of the U.S. are unsurpassed in quality by those of any other nation in the world. Yet today they are in loud, unavoidable, cymbal-crashing financial trouble. In Buffalo and Rochester, the two Philharmonics are so pressed for funds that they are talking merger; so are the Cincinnati and Indianapolis orchestras. The Detroit Symphony, which has just emerged from a musicians' strike, is in such economic straits that it may have to disband. An expert in orchestral finances predicts "we stand a very good chance of losing at least one-third, if not half of our major symphony orchestras." Rocketing costs have not been met by a similar gain in income. So large are the deficits that orchestras have been forced to dip into endowments to survive. In Cleveland, the orchestra is about to tap its endowment fund and if the same thing happens next year the orchestra built by George Szell into one of the world's finest may have to go into bankruptcy. “

The date of that article was June...1969! Since it was written, there has been an incredible expansion in the size, number and quality of American orchestras. It's not surprising that when the economy falters, the most vulnerable orchestras are quickly in trouble. But every time this happens, we see the same articles, once again predicting the death of classical music. I don't want to trivialize the immense challenges facing US orchestras at the moment, but the counterbalancing good news is never reported. Here's what you won't read in your paper. Classical music is exploding in Asia. In Korea, classical music sales nearly equal pop sales. In China almost 100 million people are studying classical instruments. In South America, classical music is expanding rapidly and the Venezuelan El Sistema program has rescued children off the streets and produced world class musicians. In Europe, classical music sustains itself despite considerable saturation: London has 5 major orchestras, Berlin has 8. Far from being in decline, there are more people playing and listening to classical music today than at any time in history!

So are the problems simply in the US then? It's rarely reported that the Los Angeles Philharmonic has capitalized on their new hall and new music director for a string of banner years with 95% season attendance and are flush with money. Or that, even in a weak economy, the NY Philharmonic recently raised nearly double their 50 million dollar endowment campaign goal, or that attendance is up substantially in Colorado and St. Louis. Closer to home, Dallas raised 20 million dollars in 60 days in pursuit of their 'great orchestra' campaign. I could list more examples, but you get the idea. Why then are some orchestras surviving, or even thriving, while others seem to be sinking?

Many of you here are very savvy businessmen and women and I'm sure you wouldn't expect a company that did business exactly the same way for 100 years to survive in changing times. Even in the non-profit sector, the odds will always favor institutions that are innovative, adaptable and forward looking, and when orchestras do this, they too can thrive. Michael Kaiser, the head of the Kennedy Center and noted turnaround specialist, makes the point that the more pressing the immediate challenges, the more important it is to make artistically ambitious long term plans. Supporting an organization just to 'keep it alive' is tiring, no matter how much one believes in the cause. But supporting an organization that has meaningful and ambitious plans for the future is exciting and infectious. Obviously, ambition can't be blind to financial realities, but again Kaiser's tested advice is that the only the two areas you should never cut are the quality of your artistic product and your aggressive marketing of it. We're happy to see the Houston Symphony embracing innovative ways to present great music to new audiences with our Sound+Vision series, Access concerts, our Planets trilogy and our new Sugar Land series.

Rather than the ups and downs of economic cycles, I believe the greatest challenge our institution and our art faces in America is the lack of music education in schools- and this is not a crisis merely for our own sake. A growing body of evidence shows that studying music greatly improves all manner of core academic subjects as well as self confidence and self expression. That is a strong argument for music education even before you consider the cultural value. The mission of a symphony association, unlike most other arts organizations, is not just to present visiting artists, but to search the globe for great musicians and bring them to live permanently as a part of our community. It seems inevitable that the 21st century symphony is going to have to find a way to fill this educational void, and I believe we should prioritize plans to increase and expand our future educational offerings for all- of any age- that want to learn.

As passionate advocates for your symphony, I'm sure some of you are occasionally questioned by doubters. Some might ask whether classical music is still relevant or if it is being replaced by other forms of 'entertainment?' Can you imagine anyone asking the same question about classic literature or artwork? Most of us enjoy rock music, but for their most profound moments brides and grooms choose Bach, not the Beatles,. We love opera, but when the Berlin wall fell, we played Beethoven's 9th, not Tosca. And what words could express the heartbreak of the shuttle Columbia mourners as the Houston Symphony did, playing Barber's Adagio? Classical music is the only form of communication that crosses all boundaries of language, age, culture and even time to communicate from one human soul to another.

Some might argue that if an orchestra cannot earn its way from ticket revenues then it is no longer relevant. But one of the main purposes of the support from enlightened benefactors like you is to keep ticket prices affordable for the general public. What would the tuition be at a university that had to cover its entire budget from the students? What would the admission price be for an art museum that tried to fund all its acquisitions from entry fees? You should be very proud that you donate money in order to make great music affordable for others, and I would even suggest that if we truly want to increase our reach into the community, we should seek further grants to help make tickets even more affordable for young families.

Some philanthropists, who generously support very worthy medical and humanitarian causes, may fear that supporting the arts seems elitist. But I believe we can make a very strong case that in this time of unprecedented health, comfort and longevity, we also need the arts- more than ever. Does it matter if you live to be 100 if you miss the chance to experience a piece of art changing your life and connecting your soul to the immortal? Perhaps we should invite potential donors to sit onstage among the orchestra while we rehearse, to help them feel the power of this music to reach our truest selves.

Ladies and gentlemen, your cause is noble. Live performances build community and great music can change lives. We are at a crucial moment, facing very significant challenges but also great opportunities. If we wish to commit to greatness and leave this organization as a legacy for the next generation, then in the coming years, we will have to work together not just to stabilize our finances, but also to build our endowment, attract new audiences and find new ways to interact with the community, to change or improve our hall to make concerts a more intimate experience and to do more to replace the void in music education. This is a lot to undertake. But we also enter our 98th season in a growing city with a great orchestra, a strong board, perhaps the best management staff–from top to bottom–we've ever had, a passionately devoted music director, our centennial season just around the corner and an exciting search underway for the one who can follow and build on Maestro Graf's successes. We face stiff challenges, but also exciting opportunities, and your dreams of what you want this institution to be for our city will inspire others.

With your indulgence, I'll end with a story of how I first realized the power of music to connect people. As a student at Juilliard, I had never really given much thought to orchestral playing. Truthfully, most of us at Juilliard never really thought about anything except ourselves and practicing – it was like high school with violins! But I vividly remember performing Tchaikovsky's Pathetique symphony. After a triumphant, noisy march in the third movement, the symphony suddenly ends with a slow movement of incredible, tragic beauty. It is the most personal imaginable outpouring of pain from Tchaikovsky's difficult life, which would end soon after this was written. No words can capture the intensity of emotion in this movement. And as we played, I saw an elderly man sitting in the second row. His face showed all the marks of a hard life and he sat there listening, transfixed, with tears streaming down his cheeks. I never spoke a word to him, but at that moment, I understood him, and I realized that all of us on that stage and in the audience were connecting with each other and with something greater than any of us–transcending our personal struggles and in that moment being rawly, unguardedly, alive. I never saw that man again, but I won't forget him for the rest of my days on earth. It's not an experience that could ever be had through a stereo or a computer.

My friends, I believe our mutual mission here matters more than we imagine. Together, we can build our community and touch peoples' souls in a way that nothing else can. This is much more than a job for your musicians, and we could never do what we do without all of your support. We are grateful for your vision and your leadership and thank you for standing shoulder to shoulder with us in pursuit of our common mission. We look forward to working together with all of you to continue to expand our reach, for the sake of our city, our art, and our common humanity. Thank you