Commentary
10:34 am
Tue April 5, 2011

The History Behind the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

While historians debate just when and why Detroit began to decline, it’s much easier to say what its high point was: July 28, 1951. That was the official 250th anniversary of Detroit’s founding, and the city was at its peak.

Detroit had nearly two million people. It was rich, vibrant and strong. President Harry Truman came all the way from Washington to speak - a rare occurrence then - and the city then celebrated with a five-hour long parade. And there was other good news, too.

"The Detroit Symphony Orchestra was being revived. Founded when the city had less than two hundred thousand people, it had been disbanded during the Great Depression. But now it was back, and on October 18th, it thrilled fans with its first concert."

Everybody knew then that to be a truly world-class city, you had to have a world-class symphony orchestra.

Back in the jazz age, Detroit had one of the nation’s best orchestras. They had been the first orchestra to have a concert broadcast on the radio. They were regulars at Carnegie Hall. And for eight years, they were broadcast regularly to a nationwide audience.

Then hard times came, and people forgot how important a symphony is for a while. Some people evidently lost sight of that again last year, when the symphony’s season was destroyed by a six-month long strike caused by money problems.

The symphony has huge debts, big deficits, and a shrinking donor base. Everyone agreed the musicians had to take a massive pay cut, but the question was, how massive?

While I am not an expert on cultural economics, it is clear that neither side did much to help their public image during the work stoppage, and management’s handling of public relations was especially bad, as one board member admitted to me.

The trick now is to not only bring the patrons back, but increase and enlarge the base. The orchestra now probably will be able to make a deal with the banks to whom it owes $54 million in real estate loans. But that’s a temporary solution. What the symphony really needs to do is convince the public to begin coming to their concerts and donating to keep this cultural resource.  Anne Parsons, the president of the symphony, thinks the only way to do that is through community outreach. It’s hard to disagree. These days, three-quarters of the metropolitan area’s population and ninety percent of the money is outside the city limits.

My guess is that the symphony’s future involves realizing that the modern definition of Detroit is not the city limits, but the four million people who live in the metro area. They may also need to broaden their idea of programming.

Purists may like to think that it is all about traditional classical music. But that music itself was avant-garde once upon a time. There’s an old saying that the railroads lost their way when they forgot that they were really in the transportation business, and couldn’t afford to be tied to a nostalgic model. 

If the Detroit Symphony Orchestra takes that to heart, the odds will increase that it will revive, and hopefully, in the long-term, thrive.