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Something About Florida

Last week, Michigan Radio, an NPR affiliate, asked to interview me briefly about the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s just-announced tour of Florida in 2010. (I have come up with three possible reasons why they called me: 1. Detroit is the new home of former NSO music director Leonard Slatkin; 2. I am newly authoritative on the subject of orchestral tours, having just returned from China with the NSO; 3. I happened to be the first live critic who responded to a query sent out on the Fourth of July holiday.)

In the course of a five-minute conversation, I hypothesized that, as orchestras search for new audiences, they look for places where those audiences might be found. One is Asia. And if the classical music audience is aging, and Florida is known for a large population of retirees, Florida might conceivably be another. (The Cleveland Orchestra, for one, has established an annual residency there.) This thought originally made it onto the air waves as “Anne Midgette…says Florida has become the great white hope of orchestras.” (Michigan Radio very kindly changed the piece yesterday at my request.)
(read more after the jump)

Here are the facts. Orchestras are not touring in America as much as they used to, just as they aren’t selling CDs as much as they used to. (By couching this observation in the soothingly anodyne terms of factual journalism, I am committing a considerable feat of understatement.) But both tours and CDs, even if they no longer make sound economic sense, are still ways to build your brand and give the impression, both within and outside your immediate market, that you have something going on. I think orchestras have found that without touring and recording, they start to slide off the map. But where is Detroit to go with a limited tour budget (the Florida tour will cost $580,000)? Vero Beach, of course.

Lawrence A. Johnson, former music critic of the Miami Herald, now founder of the South Florida Classical Review and the Chicago Classical Review (sites that are, incidentally, showing a way for the future of arts journalism in a world without newspapers), was able to summarize the situation with more authority, since he has, unlike me, actually covered the music scene in Florida. In a phone call, he outlined three main factors: a solid (though aging) audience in places like the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach; a dearth of top-tier local orchestras; and geographical proximity of population centers, which cuts down on travel costs. "Rather than go from Kravis to Atlanta to Dallas," he said, "which would cost an inordinate amount of money, you can do Florida very cheaply." (The DSO will play six concerts in six nights.)

That's how you get a schedule like that of the Budapest Festival Orchestra's US tour earlier this season: of their six concerts, one was in New York, and four were in Florida. I remain frustrated that they didn't come through Washington, where, after all, Fischer (the principal conductor of the NSO) could be presumed to have an audience. But Florida was surely cheaper.

By Anne Midgette  |  July 8, 2009; 6:42 AM ET
Categories:  national , news  
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Great orchestras and classical music will always have an audience. They cannot, however, bank on the support of an aging population to support them forever or their concerts will take place in every assisted living facility in the country. The size and proximity of the interested patrons is becoming the geatest challenge to the economics of the art.

Since we Americans have so many ways to spend our time and money, the pool of available supporters is thinning (not just in the area of our hair). All of the performing arts are experiencing the same problem. Just ask the artistic director of any local professional theatre. At some point this will force consolidation of resources to survive. Basic economics. This will result in fewer orhcestras and fewer venues in which to experience them. How to expand and increase the audience? Appeal to a wider audience with more relevant music. How? Challenge them with new notions of what classical music can be. New, young composers composing music with appeal.

Our young people are remarkably open to new ideas if presented to them in the right way. There are limitations however. The audience will not show up without a compelling reason to do so. Talented young star personalities doing exciting work with young orchestras that perform music interesting to a younger audience will help. The answer is not to retire to Florida, but to light up the art form.

Posted by: whiterhino | July 8, 2009 1:09 PM | Report abuse

My local San Francisco Symphony seems to be seeking out all parts of the age spectrum on American tours, going to college towns, older communities, and urban centers. Seems to make sense.

But I'd caution the DSO about just targeting older demographics. If you don't have a brand that appeals to a younger concert-goer, you won't have a brand for very long.

I know I'd love to hear the DSO if it toured here to the West Coast.

Posted by: knightstale | July 8, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

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