Jeff Melanson, Reflecting on the Current State of U.S. Symphonies

During my time at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, we explored remaking the orchestra’s mandate to reflect the need for increased inclusivity and diversity. This is an important priority everywhere, but absolutely necessary in Toronto, the world's most ethnically diverse city.

The experience and approach we took is at the top of mind as I hear more about how America’s orchestras are struggling with finances, aging audiences and a lack diversity.

A recent Associated Press story highlights the financial challenges of orchestras that have not survived or remain in operation as much smaller versions of their former selves.

The lengthy list of struggling cities in which such operations face serious ongoing issues includes New Orleans, Denver, Honolulu, and San Jose.

Close observers of America’s cultural affairs are troubled by recent strikes by musicians in the Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestras.

The problems and challenges are only exacerbated by the negative perceptions in the public created when orchestras go out of commission even for a short time as was the case In Philadelphia.

Recently we’ve heard from well-intentioned champions of cultural renewal in the United States calling for government money to be directed toward bolstering symphonies with an aim toward reviving once proud institutions.

They make the case, and justifiably so, that the benefits of such renewal are not only cultural, they are economic with millions of dollars in positive spin offs accruing to related industries like restaurants, hotels and a host of others. The prestige and pride that a city benefits from its symphonies are global calling cards that serve to boost tourism and serve as magnets for artists and consumers the world over.

These are all worthy arguments that should be given careful consideration by all stakeholders.

As part of those discussions, I would certainly encourage an examination of what we were able to try at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

No one should be under any illusions that there’s a one-size- fits-all fix for what ails America’s symphony orchestras. That said, it could be helpful to apply some of the lessons learned at the TSO toward the creation of an overarching strategy aimed at revitalization.

The hiring of a diversity consultant was key, but it was just as important to allow that individual the flexibility and freedom to examine all kinds of ways to meet the tenets of our new mission statement, while introducing the
orchestra to a wider audience. This includes a firm commitment to diversity and inclusivity in all aspects of the
organization – board, staff, musicians, audience, community engagement and the content on stage

One may well ask whether taking such steps in U.S. cities might go a long way toward encouraging Americans who have never been to the symphony, to attend.

As I stated during interviews then and feel just as strongly now, Toronto and Canada “is full of diverse artists, creators and musicians who are eager to share their passion with the country and the rest of the world. It’s time that the arts and culture leaders across the country recognize and celebrate this with inclusivity and opportunity.”

I would make that case that whether governments are open to playing a greater financial role in the renewal of orchestras in future or not, it is critically important to create and engender a welcoming environment in which inclusivity is a priority.

We must break down barriers and eliminate stereotypical views of symphonies as bastions of stuffy elitism.

It’s no easy feat but that is the work ahead!