Shanghaied by Asian Orchestras

by Ken Smith

I’d just landed in Shanghai last Saturday, getting ready to compare the Shanghai Opera House’s production of Il trittico with the Il trittico I’d seen the night before in Macau, when I stumbled upon the Alliance of Asia/Pacific Region Orchestras, which was having its annual conference a few blocks away from where I was staying.

A conference session on orchestra development and fundraising normally wouldn’t generate many sparks, but given the recent “financial tsunami” it was the hot topic of the day. No matter the organization’s funding structure – and there was a tremendous array given the geographical and social-political range of the attendees, from New Zealand to Vietnam – people wanted to know how to keep those dollars – and yen, and won – flowing.

Interestingly enough, orchestras that are exclusively state-funded were talking the same language as those cultivating private donations. Both sides concluded that guanxi only gets your foot in the door; from there, organizations need to identify and evaluate their own goals and priorities.

As Hong Kong Philharmonic chief executive Timothy Calnin pointed out, it’s no longer enough that board members (or their spouses) personally like music and want to be a part of it. “Continued success depends on finding ways to make your objectives consistent with the goals of your funding partners,” Calnin said. “That’s the only way to maintain your alliances long term.”

It’s a valid point whether your money comes from an investment bank or from a line item in the public budget. It should go without saying in developed countries, although I can think of a rather prominent American orchestra whose recent sojourn in North Korea garnered absolutely no new business for its tour sponsor. In China, where the government has been itching to get out of the culture business, and where any calamity from blizzards to earthquakes has been used as an excuse to divert money away from the arts, this is a crucial strategy for the future.


Neither Deborah Borda nor Tan Dun, both of whom were on the preliminary schedule, spoke at last weekend’s Shanghai summit (Tan, for one, was in Amsterdam rehearsing a new production of Marco Polo) but Norman Lebrecht was on hand to rehash themes from his recent book The Life and Death of Classical Music, complete with a coda on its coming resurrection in the post-CD age.

The short answer? Youtube.

In researching a recent talk, Lebrecht had gone to the video-sharing website in search of the theme from Brahms’s First Symphony. All he could find, he lamented, was one posting by a regional orchestra in California. Why, he asked, didn’t more musicians and music lovers use the site?

Well, I’m not sure exactly when Lebrecht last logged on, but I went home and searched for Brahms’s First. After hearing Bernstein, Karajan, Giulini, De Sabata and Kleiber, I figured I’d had enough Brahms for the time being.  And these were only the commercial recordings.

Think of the time in the very near future – and this rate, probably tomorrow morning – when musicians of all talent levels won’t even have to show up to audition in person. Youtube, as Lebrecht indicated, may well replace the recording as the musician’s business card. 

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