These are unusual times for orchestras, and many of them are responding in unusual ways.
Last week, the New York Philharmonic announced its next season, which will include a piece where players scatter throughout Avery Fisher Hall while clanging junk-metal percussion instruments.
Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Orchestra, which is on the verge of bankruptcy as it searches for a new music director, is rolling out an outreach campaign that's as bizarre as it is desperate. Tag lines include "The Philadelphia Orchestra: Unexpect Yourself," "We don't smash instruments, just expectations," and "Odds are you'll sit next to someone who went to Woodstock."
Fortunately, the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, which is conducting its own music director search (see "New blood," below), has managed to rise above such scenarios.
"I think orchestras at that level are having an especially hard time," says Philharmonic president/CEO Nathan Newbrough. "Over the last, let's say, 20 years, those orchestras have grown at rates that are far beyond their abilities to sustain themselves in this kind of market. And so when times are good, they're doing very well. And when times are rocky economically, they find the business model starts to break down, which is really unfortunate."
While institutions once considered too big to fail suddenly find themselves in freefall, their more modest counterparts may in fact be better positioned. Having itself risen from the ashes of a bankrupt Colorado Springs Symphony in 2003, the Colorado Springs Philharmonic is well acquainted with the skills of survival.
And for Newbrough, moving forward doesn't necessarily mean smashing expectations with marching metal percussion players or even programs dominated by newer American composers like John Adams, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. In fact, half of the repertoire in the upcoming Vanguard Performances series is devoted to Beethoven and Berlioz compositions, which Newbrough says were as cutting-edge in their time as the 20th-century Arvo Pärt and William Bolcom pieces they're paired with. (The same goes for this season's coupling of Beethoven's "Third" with Elliot Carter's Variations for Orchestra, which will be performed together May 15.)
In fact, one of the most adventurous offerings of the new season is part of the main Masterworks series, which Newbrough describes as "a tour of the Romantic Era masters." Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life), which will be conducted Sept. 25 and 26 by outgoing music director Lawrence Leighton Smith, is a 50-minute through-composed tone poem that's lost none of its challenge or impact with the passage of time.
"This is something our music director has wanted to do ever since he arrived," says Newbrough, noting that the work will involve extra rehearsal time plus five additional French horns. "One of the things about tone poems that does make it a challenge for the orchestra is that it's not like any other kind of work; there are textures and colors in the music that are hard to achieve. But it's also great fun to attempt this kind of work."
Other Masterworks performances include works by Strauss, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Saint-Saëns, Bruch, Liszt, Shostakovich, Bruckner and Tchaikovsky. The Philharmonic Pops series will also return, with evenings devoted to Billy Joel and Andrew Lloyd Webber, plus a Halloween season screening of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho with live accompaniment.
Newbrough sees the new season as evidence of the Philharmonic's ability to navigate its way through current economic and artistic challenges: "Orchestras are under pressure because we are expected to carry the flag on the romantic masterworks.
"[But] we need to be able to lead tastes, not just follow tastes."
After Lawrence Leighton Smith conducts his last performance as the Colorado Springs Philharmonic's music director in May 2011, the 73-year-old legend will be replaced by one of five highly credentialed conductors, all of whom will be guest conducting the orchestra during the upcoming season.
Following a six-month search, the Philharmonic announced the five finalists on Saturday: Leif Bjaland (music director of the Sarasota Orchestra and Waterbury Symphony Orchestra); Shizuo Kuwahara (music director of Symphony Orchestra Augusta); Viswa Subbaraman (founder and artistic director of Houston's Opera Vista); Ward Stare (resident conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and music director of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra); and Kynan Johns (director of orchestras for Rutgers University).
The finalists represent a diverse array of backgrounds and experience. They're also all male, even though Marin Alsop broke the glass ceiling by becoming the first woman to lead a major American orchestra in 2007.
"I think out of the 250, we probably had 10 female applicants," says Philharmonic president/CEO Nathan Newbrough. "There was one woman in the pool until the very end, when the decision came down to incremental differences."
Those differences will be further explored during the next season, with musicians evaluating "everything from demeanor to stick technique." (Actually, Kuwahara doesn't use a baton, but you get the idea.)
Audiences will also fill out surveys, although the search committee will make the final decision.
"There's not a voting process per se," says Newbrough. "It's not American Idol."