Top conductor's ‘symphony orchestras will be gone in 30 years’ claim stirs debate

18 August 2014, 17:19 | Updated: 19 August 2014, 16:52

Conductor Iván Fischer has claimed that the symphony orchestra in general will cease to exist inside the next 30 years, prompting strong debate from the classical music world.

Fischer, founder and conductor of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, made the comments in an interview with The Times last week, claiming that symphony orchestras "in their present form have only a few more decades left, at most."

Citing financial restrictions as the main reason that symphony orchestras will be under threat, he continued: "Their financing is already a vulnerability. Will American-style civic pride or the goodwill of European politicians really be enough to feed these large beasts that are basically the same now as they were a century ago?"

"I would welcome a more flexible musical family that could adapt its size and resources to what different composers and audiences required."

The controversial comments have been met with opposition by other members of the classical community. Mark Pemberton, director of the Association of British Orchestras, told Classic FM that Fischer's criticisms don't apply to British orchestras.

"[Fischer's] target seems to be the statist and corporatist orchestras of Continental Europe and the USA. Whereas here in the UK we have a mixed economy model which runs on lean management, sees positive collaboration between managers and musicians, and offers the flexibility he cites as necessary for survival."

Pemberton continued: "There is also a bit of local politics inherent in Fischer’s accusation, to do with rivalry between the Budapest Festival Orchestra and the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra."

The Music Director designate of Royal Northern Sinfonia, Lars Vogt, told Classic FM that musicians can change the model of modern symphony orchestras by ushering in "a kind of musicianship both from orchestra musicians and conductors that is 'at the edge of the seat' and far away from ever falling into a boring routine, constantly ready to explore and unveil new exciting aspects of music."

He continued: "We need musicians that are indeed flexible and willing to engage in education projects of all kinds. We have to tell the story of how exciting our music is, we have a lot to speak about!"

Chief executive of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Michael Eakin echoed the positives about the current state of orchestras in the UK: "The orchestral sector [is] as  exciting and progressive as any creative sector in the country at the moment, and our audiences, our sponsors, our donors and our funders recognise it – with the result that we are also maximising our income from a range of sources."

"There are challenges of course, but, far from being on the way out, I think this is an incredibly exciting time for orchestras in the UK  in which we can continue to place ourselves at the heart of the cultural life of our communities, and the country as a whole."

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra principal conductor Kirill Karabits added a note of caution, though, telling Classic FM that orchestras do require forward-thinking, community-focused attitudes to survive: "Symphony orchestras nowadays should, as never before, be aiming to serve all parts of their society and constantly thinking about reaching new audiences within their cities and regions," he said.

"This is not only key to fulfilling their mission, but also because no orchestra today will be able to survive performing in empty, and even half empty, concert halls."

What do you think about Iván Fischer's comments? Does the orchestra need to adapt to survive, or is it simply going to die in the next 30 years, like Fischer suggests? Have your say in the comments below.