It is a subject debated with predictable regularity, for we still do not know the answer: will the symphony orchestra as we know it survive?
With a very human wish for the ability to predict what might happen next, we look at what is going on at the moment and attempt to detect a trend. We tell ourselves that the direction that has been followed up until now will continue, as the evidence appears to point that way — or, we suspect that everything will shortly take an opposite turn, in the time-honored manner of the pendulum that must swing back. In-depth studies of what has gone before are parsed for clues as to what might be; current events are taken as a sign that nothing will be as it was. Who can say if the symphony orchestra is an institution that will survive?
The symphony orchestra has been in existence for the proverbial blink of an eye in the history of mankind
This is, of course, a purely personal bit of rumination. One can gather so-called evidence endlessly and still know nothing. It is mainly the wish for some sort of grip on things, I believe, that can convince us so forcefully of our ability to peer into the future, and we use whatever tools we have at hand, however misguidedly or accurately, as the case may be; we will only find out later if our hunches were correct. A symphony orchestra is most assuredly a phenomenon in a category of its own. Having come onto the scene relatively recently in the course of music history, it has not undergone a great deal of change from its original formation, but that does not really tell us if it is now an anachronism. That conclusion cannot be drawn until we are looking back at the epoch in which we are presently residing.
Cultural wasteland or renewed symphony orchestra cultivation?
We shall see; we shall hear. Symphony orchestra musicians in days of yore were at the mercy of their patrons. In more recent times, some symphonic ensembles began to find greater stability through guarantees of government funding and labor organization, but some degree of dependence has always remained, tied directly to need and the desires of one type of audience or another. Widespread availability of recordings might have been thought to presage the demise of classical concert-going, but it would seem that perhaps the opposite effect has occurred: hearing a recorded performance often fuels the wish to experience the music while it is being played in the concert hall.
As an orchestra musician with far, far fewer upcoming concerts on the roster than I have been privileged to play over the years, I catch myself heaving a sigh of relief now and then in the belief that I will be exiting life in a symphony orchestra while conditions were still favorable. Some days it feels as if I have ridden the most marvelous wave of good fortune and am heading for the shore in the nick of time. Other days I tell myself the little story with which I began this piece, that we cannot truly know what is going to happen even judging by what seems to be taking place. That funds are scarce, that jobs are being cut, that priorities shift (or become more visible) in times of trouble — we have seen it before. That entities, once destroyed, are impossible to rebuild: perhaps, but new, even improved entities can be and have been built in their stead. That a parched landscape can yet bring forth and sustain life-giving forms of cultural refreshment: we have seen that, too, and may see it again soon.