About Declining Symphony Orchestra Attendance

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

In response to the question about declining symphony orchestra attendance, as a music professional and long time Philadelphia Orchestra listener, subscriber, and supporter I would initially submit the following factors:

1. Less than exciting and passionate, “Ho-Hum” concerts

  1. Some orchestra members may adopt a “DO NO HARM” attitude while aspiring to the technically “perfect” performances demanded by many current conductors. This attitude is hardly conducive to “inspired” music making!
  2. Long performing seasons may also have an effect: Some key players, especially in the winds and brass, may feel the need to play less than “full out” and to “pace” themselves in order to maintain a high performing standard. In the string section, pervasive use of “subs” may address performance tedium but certainly does not enhance orchestral cohesion and unity. This begs the question: “Does a less demanding schedule allow for more optimum performance conditions?” Then, If so, would it follow that declining attendance and revenues would, ironically, create better performing conditions, i.e., fewer concerts?
  3. Today’s audiences have lost touch with what great music and what its performance is all about. I would advise reviewing audio and video recordings of the great orchestras and great conductors of the past. While not always up to today’s technical standards, the sheer life, energy, and passion in many of these older recordings are much more stimulating to  perceptive audiences than today’s more polished, but often lifeless performance practices.
  4. The net result of the previous (ABOVE) seems to be a condition I would call the “General Motors effect.”

Q: How do we sell more cars? (concert tickets)

A: Make better cars! (better, more inspiring concerts)

2. Questionable management decisions 

For instance, how has the continuous parade of conductors the Philadelphia Orchestra had in the last 25 years–after Ormandy and Stokowski—affected the ensemble? And why is this condition allowed to persist, especially when we have seen the positive results of a superior permanent conductor? Also, conductors should be willing to demand not only technical perfection, but also some exciting, risk taking raw emotion. To be fair, however, it should be acknowledged that, more recently, the orchestra has given more stimulating and exciting concerts. Hopefully, Yannick will have staying power and help turn the tide of the orchestra’s fortunes. Perhaps management can demand that a music director/conductor be not so profligate and commit to our orchestra.

3. Lack of education about, and exposure to classical music 


  1. We have today, in general, a less musically educated audience. Today’s younger listeners are largely unable or unwilling to understand or perceive the great beauty and emotional depth of the great classic works. One is competing with computers, cell phones, and hand held devices which give immediate, but not substantive gratification.
  2. Of course, this problem extends to educators, as well. Some K-12 school principals, University presidents, deans, etc. are either clueless or have a superficial understanding about the residual effects, nature, and value of participating in or learning about classical music and the other fine and performing arts. Many schools have dropped music education (as well as the other arts) from their curriculum, pulling away from the holistic, Humanities approach, refusing to see the value of, and need for the integration of the Arts, Humanities, and Sciences for a ‘complete’ individual. What is the message we convey to our next generations of performers/listeners when music/arts education is dropped or marginalized from the curriculum, or constantly made to seem expendable?
  3. Rebuild our young audiences with a “hip” Young Audience membership: There needs to be more effort to make classical music a more integral part of the culture of more youthful audience. There was a time when it was considered the “thing to do” to go to a Philadelphia Orchestra concert.

4. New Music Quandary: Lack of emotional depth or maturity in contemporary classical music

While some progress is evident, many contemporary composers are too often concerned with current stylistic trends or techniques. While I would never argue the need for musical innovation or exploration, composers seem not to have been taught that the main goal is the mature expression of emotion and meaning through the true integration of stylistic, formal, and technical musical elements. Though not to suggest that all new music is devoid of meaningful content, I would broadly catagorize much of what I’ve heard in recent years in the following terms:

  1. Noisemakers –  Such music may be energetic, but somewhat like a jet engine: all the parts are moving simultaneously creating a visceral excitement…but does one really want to stand in front listening?
  2. Alms for the Poor –  This music may offer “slivers” or “snippets” of melody or meaning which musically deprived audiences may gratefully hang onto and devour like starving prisoners grasping at crumbs.
  3. Minimal Music: Minimal Effort – Music that constantly repeats the same patterns over and over again until these patterns are literally imprinted on the audience’s minds, a la Pavlov. The audience, then, responds by “liking” this music, whether they like it or not!

2 Comments  |  Permalink


  1. David Newman  |  January 17th, 2015

    I love your insights and I want to hear more of your thoughts. I want to help build a younger audience for classical music.

  2. David Michaels  |  January 12th, 2016

    I think the issue is much simpler than you make it. I think classical music is simply not relevant to people today. Do you honestly believe that high school kids, college kids, people with families, are not attending symphony orchestra concerts because they find the performances uninspired? And are such people going to seek out great symphony orchestra recordings of the past in order to get in touch with “what great performance is all about”? I also have to question your claim that people today don’t recognize great performance; I think they absolutely do. I think the content of what they consider great differs from what you consider great, but not necessarily in quality. The content reaches them in ways they can relate to, ways that are relevant to their life experiences. I believe people can be just as moved by a popular song as by a symphonic piece, and I say this as a classically trained musician, multi-instrumentalist, music educator for 25 years. Time changes, but music and musicians of each genre want time to stand still, so they can continue to be relevant; but that isn’t how the world works. Classical musicians want people to listen to classical music. Jazz musicians want people to listen to jazz. I recently read an article where a rock musician of the 70’s was lamenting the passing of “real rock ‘n roll”. Rock & roll musicians want people to listen to rock & roll. All think there music is valuable, none like to see it fall out of popularity. The age of classical music has come and gone, and as tragic as that may seem, I really don’t think it will make a resurgence.

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