Does a mid-sized city like Charlotte even NEED a professional Symphony Orchestra?


As this Observer article explains, the Charlotte Symphony is in serious financial trouble:

Clearly the community cannot financially sustain a professional symphony orchestra. Does it need to? Ought it? Nope.

Certainly we need to save the great institutions – New York, Chicago, LA, even Cleveland, Detroit, and perhaps Cincinnati – the ones with a long, distinguished recorded legacy and clear areas of excellence (Chicago brass, LA’s commitment to new music, etc.). But mid-sized cities don’t need a professional symphony orchestra just for the sake of having one.

The Symphony Orchestra is a dead artform. It doesn’t have anything new to say, and hasn’t had anything new to say for over 100 years (it was 1908 when Schoenberg “emancipated the dissonance” and declared tonality dead). The public’s lack of interest in symphony orchestras as anything other than cultural relics or fetishized commodities is evidence enough of this.

Symphonies are relics of 18th-century aristocracy and 19th-century bourgeois industrialism. They’re super-big, and super-expensive; they need to be subsudized by someone, either an aristocrat, industrialist philanthropists, or the civic government. They were never designed to be self-supporting. If we think the record industry’s economic model is incompatible with the post-industrial information economy, the symphony’s economic model is two or three “economies” out of synch.

Mid-sized cities like Charlotte don’t need professional symphony orchestras, nor do they have an obligation to subsidize one. We have at least one university symphony (and wind ensemble!) where patrons can go for high-quality performances of the symphonic repertoire. There are amateur and para-professional groups in town, too. We should educate ourselves and our students about the history of Western art music, and these institutions – as well as the vast recorded ouevres of veritable genius conductors and performers – suffice for this. Honestly, I would rather listen to Bernstein or Boulez on my ipod than go to a passable CSO performance. Moreover, the symphony is not a locus/site of musical innovation: having a professional symphony orchestra will not bring “new” music to town, nor will it be an innovation engine. For that, you need smaller, “new” art music ensembles. You also need support for more “popular” musics.

So no, you will not see me at the rally for the CSO, even though I’m a huge supporter of music, music education, and the arts generally. Spend the money teaching CMS students how to use Protools and Ableton.