10:09am

Fri November 18, 2011
Kentucky Arts and Culture

Measuring the Benefits of an Orchestra

Music makes a city. Yes, that’s the name of a documentary about the orchestra, but it’s also a sort of unofficial catchphrase in Louisville. It’s what players, managers and supporters say when the orchestra is in danger. The Louisville Orchestra contract negotiations have reached yet another impasse. Members of the management say they’re done making offers to the musicians. The mayor says he’s done what he can to broker a deal. And it’s just a matter of time before the fans are done following the saga—if they haven’t already.

The argument for an orchestra is that it improves a city in three ways. One is education. Orchestra members play for schools, teach students and provide all the inspiration and ancillary benefits of a life with music. Another is culture. A city with an orchestra has a cachet that others don’t. The orchestra completes a larger arts picture. That ties in with the third benefit…money. A strong cultural scene can lure in high-paid workers and improve economic development. And an orchestra is part of that.

“The data is more than likely anecdotal,” says Frank Hefner,  director of the office of economic analysis at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.

Charleston has had a number of canceled concerts and orchestra woes, and Hefner says it’s impossible to measure what effect, if any, that’s had on the city’s well-being.

“A lot of high growth cities are also high amenity-based,” he says. “But then you run into the problem of, did they grow because they the amenities, or, in the process of growing, were they able to provide the amenities?”

Hefner says culture is valuable, but no city is going to shut down if the symphony moves or the museum closes. Art is still subject to market forces. Cities that have orchestras are usually cities that can support orchestras. That’s what the Louisville Orchestra’s managers have been saying as they attempt to cut the ensemble to 55 players, which they say is sustainable in a city the size of Louisville.

But while they’ve made some concessions on size, the musicians have typically wanted more players.

“I think an orchestra should actually be 100 people, because that’s an experience that you cannot duplicate,” says Marian Tanau, who plays in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and has been tapped to lead the New Mexico Philharmonic, which has formed in the wake of the collapse of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra in Albuquerque.

“A city without a good orchestra is like a ghost town,” he says.

Tanau believes a city will support an orchestra if it’s good. And to be good, he says it almost has to be big. But it also has to be able to compete with other forms of entertainment and a downed economy.

“I believe if you have a good management team, you can succeed and make good things happen despite hardships and a bad economy,” he says.

Tanau says a good orchestra should be a source of pride for a community. It should record and tour and help build the city’s name, thereby increasing its own demand back home.

People in Albuquerque must want symphonic music, because Tanau is leading a new ensemble that formed to fill the void left by another’s collapse. So while it’s impossible to determine how much Louisville needs the orchestra, we may know soon how much the city wants one.