The Detroit Symphony Orchestra: a Substantial Revival

John Robert Brown

The Detroit Symphony had a two million dollar deficit in 2003. The orchestra was in good company. Three-quarters of American orchestras reported a deficit that year. Across North America, in the decade between 1993 and 2003, total attendance at symphony concerts dropped by a tenth.

Now, in an amazingly rapid change of fortune, the Detroit Orchestra is running a modest surplus. 'Classical product revenue for 2005-06 was up $100,000 over the previous year, and single ticket revenue was up 22%; single ticket attendance was up 20%,' says Jill Woodward, Director of Public relations for the Orchestra. In a city beset by poverty, notorious for its crime rate, and in a state with an unemployment rate of more than seven per cent, this is a staggering improvement.

In a recent National Public Radio interview, Executive Director Ann Parsons explained that the orchestra accomplished this by becoming part of Detroit's business community. 'First of all, the orchestra has recognised that standing still was moving backwards. We decided that we wanted to be a motivator of economic development in our area,' she said. 'So we took on the entire four-block radius, decided what we thought it ought to be, and made it happen.'

As a result, the DSO now owns a large office building and a new 125 million dollar state-of-the-art performing arts complex. But more importantly, the orchestra has led a 220-million dollar urban renewal project in the city, bringing in new developers to build condominiums across the street, thus transforming the surrounding area. Now, even the online encyclopedia Wikipedia carries news of the 2004 opening of Detroit's Compuware Center, which gives central Detroit its first significant new office building in a decade. The city hosted Super Bowl XL this year, and saw the arrival of many improvements to the downtown area. Additionally, the first portions of the Detroit River Walk were begun. This summer, announcements came about the redevelopment of the abandoned Fort Shelby and Book-Cadillac Hotels.

In and around this, the orchestra is developing the traditional classical concert season by offering free concerts, performing at local festivals and in public parks. The Detroit Symphony has gone beyond the usual children's concerts, and has joined forces with the city to create the Detroit School of the Arts. It opened in 2005 on land adjacent to the concert hall, and donated by the Symphony. Musicians from the Orchestra are participating in classes on a regular basis. New Jersey Symphony conductor JoAnn Falletta says Detroit musicians are doing what musicians across the country must do - they must take over the role of music educator. 'When we lost a lot of music education in the schools, that was a tragedy, and we didn't do anything about it. We let it happen,' she says. 'We've lost maybe a generation of young people, who are very well educated except that they have no arts background at all.'

Aaron Dworkin is the President of the Detroit-based Sphinx Organisation. Sphinx is dedicated to increasing the participation of young Blacks and Latinos in classical music. Dworkin believes that educational programmes are essential. "But perhaps the reason more young people don't attend classical concerts is because they don't recognise themselves in the players on stage. American society is increasingly diverse," he says, 'And orchestras are not.'

'We're behind everyone. We're behind sports, we're behind academia, we're behind business, in terms of trying to address this issue. And I think that while there is an understanding that there is this incredible lack of diversity, there is not the understanding of the connection to the bottom line of an orchestra.' Dworkin says that this is maybe one of the reasons why the DSO appeals to a broader audience. The DSO staff is extremely diverse, and it's the only orchestra in the USA that still has a minority fellowship programme. There used to be dozens across the country. What's more, three of the musicians in the DSO are from minorities, a high number for American orchestras. Though Music Director Emeritus of the DSO is Neeme Järvi, and Principal Guest Conductor is Peter Oundjian, the resident conductor Thomas Wilkins is African American. He's something of a star in Detroit, and a champion of American - and especially African-American - composers.

Other American orchestras are trying new things to entice audience members, but most are marketing strategies - like salsa lessons, and speed dating before concerts. One orchestra even has a concert series that includes a free buffet dinner. But Henry Fogel, President and CEO of the American Symphony Orchestra League, says that the Detroit Symphony's investment in its community is more substantial than this. 'I don't think that you can fix a problem - when there's an orchestra with a problem - with a slick marketing campaign,' says Fogel. 'That can be an ingredient. But you have to find a way to have the orchestra mean something to the community beyond those people who come to subscription concerts.' One of the many ways this has been done was apparent at the beginning of October this year, when the DSO announced that through the support of General Motors, it will continue its long-time presence on American airwaves this season. For the second year in a row, the DSO will be heard nationally on XM Satellite Radio which is available in more than 50 GM vehicle models. It's a neat way to link art and commerce, and that - allied to a dozen more such initiatives - may explain why the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has seen a major rise in donations, and a record year in single ticket sales, surpassing all projections. Is there something here for all of us to learn?

First published in Classical Music magazine, January 20th 2007. Reproduced by kind permission.
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