How to reinvent an orchestra

The Israel Chamber Orchestra hits all the right notes as it overcomes challenges and wins new audiences.

Ariel Zuckermann, the ICO’s new conductor and musical director (photo credit: FELIX BROEDE)
Ariel Zuckermann, the ICO’s new conductor and musical director
(photo credit: FELIX BROEDE)
Amazon’s hit series Mozart in the Jungle has a simple enough premise: the New York Symphony, one of the country’s leading (fictional) orchestras, is in trouble. The crowds are getting older, the money’s not rushing in like it used to. Enter the savior, the young and charismatic maestro Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal). He’s on a quest to reinvigorate and reinvent the Symphony – heck, maybe even classical music itself – and, using hard work, ambition and faith, return it to its former glory.
Those viewers who know a thing or two about the (non-fictional) world of classical music will notice that the show is not always quite on the mark.
Open auditions you can just rush into, last-minute? A spontaneous concert with expensive and delicate instruments in some random alley? Seems unlikely.
But looking beyond professional inaccuracies, the show does hit on one note very close to home: the state of classical music orchestras in the 21st century.
Rodrigo’s narrative is charming, no doubt, and one that many viewers subscribe to (quite literally). It describes an underdog team composed of people trying to do their best and live their passion against all odds. By the end of the season(s), they will all have learned a valuable lesson about music, life and overcoming obstacles.
REALITY, UNFORTUNATELY, is a bit more complicated – as evidenced by one real-life Mozart scenario, not in New York City, but in Tel Aviv. Far less glamorous, certainly less Hollywood- star-studded, is the story of the Israel Chamber Orchestra (ICO). It, too, has its shrinking audience, its uncertain future, its ambitious young players and, of course, its very own Rodrigo, sweeping in to try and bring in some new blood and a happy ending. So far, it’s working. The orchestra has grown its audience base by more than 40% in the past year. Whether it can reach fairytale proportions remains to be seen.
The ICO’s new conductor and musical director Ariel Zuckermann, 42, had his work cut out for him. He was appointed in preparation for the orchestra’s 2015- 16 season – its 50th – and in the middle of a long and exhausting battle for survival.
He, too, was hired to try and save the day. Of course, one important distinction between the real Israel Chamber Orchestra and the fictional New York Symphony is that in real life we have no choice but to ask: how did we find ourselves in this situation to begin with?
From riches to rags, ad infinitum
The Israel Chamber Orchestra was founded in 1965 by Gary Bertini, a famed musician, conductor and composer originally from Bessarabia. Over the next few decades the orchestra worked with some of the biggest names in the field, including Isaac Stern and Itzhak Perlman. It performed around the country and abroad, making a name for itself as one of the finest in Israel.
The turn of the century, alas, was not quite as kind to it. What exactly went wrong is anyone’s guess, but it appears to have been some kind of combination between severe mismanagement and power struggles on the inside, and a harsh environment on the outside – ever-dwindling audiences meant making money was becoming more and more difficult.
The Israel Chamber Orchestara (photo credit: ASAF KLIGER)The Israel Chamber Orchestara (photo credit: ASAF KLIGER)
One particular reason for that was simply competition.
“Over the years, several quality orchestras joined the scene which are in direct competition over the ICO’s audience,” explains Omer Shomrony, a classical music critic for The Jerusalem Post and Opus Magazine and a lecturer at Tel Aviv University. “In the past 20 years, these new orchestras, such as the Israel Camerata Jerusalem and the Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra, have managed to make a name for themselves and steal away the clientele.”
But not only the clientele shrinks as more players enter the market – so does government funding, says Shomrony.
It’s a small enough cake to begin with, and the more slices you try and cut from it, the smaller each slice becomes.
Which is to say: perhaps the Israeli classical music scene’s real problem is that there are simply too many organizations around. Naturally, no one wants to be the one that shuts down for the benefit of the others.
Still, some do have it harder than others. A chamber orchestra (such as the ICO, and as opposed to symphonic orchestras like the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which are several times larger) has a bigger challenge when it comes to finance, he explains.
“The larger and richer an orchestra is, the greater its chances are to host world-renowned soloists and conductors.
These guests are one of the main criteria for success, and they in turn draw in more listeners, which brings in more money, and so on.”
Given this set of circumstances, it is no wonder that the ICO’s problems turned into a major fall. The orchestra’s deficit kept growing until it reached a critical mass of nearly NIS 5 million in 2003. The ICO needed to start over, and in a sense, it did. The general manager quit, as did many members of the board of directors, and the musicians took over.
VIOLINIST ARIE Bar-Droma took on managing the orchestra, financial professionals were consulted, and a severe recovery plan was put into action with a clear mantra: perform wherever possible, increase income and fast, and, inevitably, cut costs. The ones who felt it most were the musicians themselves, whose paycheck grew ever thinner.
For a while, this actually seemed to work. The state allowed for a trial period before closing the ICO as a nonprofit organization, and the orchestra, slowly but surely, got back on its feet. But as it turned out, they were too quick to declare success. The debts remained and the orchestra went through several more years of uncertainty and one recovery plan after another.
In 2013 yet another recovery plan was issued, and though the orchestra followed it and was indeed showing some signs of recovery, these did not suffice. It failed to return in full the NIS 2m. loan it had received from the state and pay back its debts. In the summer of 2015, with over NIS 4m. of debt and weeks from opening its festive 50th season, ICO musicians found themselves standing outside the Tel Aviv District Court, playing for passersby and asking the judge to rule in their favor.
She did. Judge Iris Lushi-Abudi extended the orchestra’s stay of proceedings in order to give their recovery another chance, and demanded the government pay the orchestra another NIS 1.1m. immediately, which amounts to about half of their promised annual support.
The season opened (even if at a slight delay), as did the 2016-17 season last month.
The ICO is now bound by a strict recovery plan: it is slowly repaying its debts and trying to reach its earning goals. If all goes well, the plan should take about seven years to complete, after which the orchestra will be once again independent. And herein lies another major difference between TV and real life: the ICO’s success or failure to dig itself out of the mud will have a very tangible effect on a few dozen lives and careers.
Episode IV: A New Hope
The Israel Chamber Orchestra’s shiny new future relies heavily on its aforementioned leader and new musical director, Ariel Zuckermann, and on management in general. Rinat Avisar, who was appointed as the ICO’s general manager about a year ago, openly acknowledges the challenges the orchestra is facing these days. It needs to find a way to draw back past audiences it has lost; bring in new audiences to keep it alive; shake things up while keeping its musical integrity in check; and do all of that with a fairly limited budget and in accordance with the terms of its recovery plan.
This daunting task requires a lot to succeed; for starters, it requires a leader everyone can get behind.
The Israel Chamber Orchestara  (photo credit: MAXIM REIDER)The Israel Chamber Orchestara (photo credit: MAXIM REIDER)
“An amazing thing is happening right now,” says Avisar. “Thanks to Zuckermann, we have excellent musicians joining us from across the country and from abroad. People are willing to take a pay cut, to leave other orchestras and their home countries, and it’s all for him.”
Indeed, the musicians, after all, are the beating heart of the story – and of the orchestra.
THE ICO is as young as it has ever been: over the last couple of years almost 10 older musicians retired. Others quit following the most recent crisis, and the current age range is an unusual one – 24 to 45.
Perhaps it is their relatively young age – and certainly a sincere commitment to the cause – that helps them deal with the biggest challenge of the job: money, or lack thereof. Though paychecks do range a bit according to seniority and first chairs and depending on the orchestra, the gaps are not wide. Classical musicians working in Israel make little over minimum wage. Across the country, men and women train for years, often under the tutelage and batons of some of the most respected names in the field, only to find themselves struggling to make ends meet.
The possibility of promotion is similarly limited, as most orchestras – with the exception of the Israel Philharmonic, perhaps – face the same problem.
Add to that the high cost of actually maintaining a musical career. Musicians need expensive instruments (tens if not hundreds of thousands of shekels), which in turn require constant attention, which can also amount to anywhere between hundreds to thousands of shekels a year. In other words, money is not a motivation to join the field. Not here, at least.
This fact hurts not only the musicians directly but their orchestras, too.
If an orchestra lacks the money to pay its musicians proper living wages, says Shomrony, then those musicians have no choice but to supplement their income elsewhere. Teaching and playing one-off concerts in other ensembles all take from precious practice time, and their own level of commitment to their home orchestra takes a hit.
This is assuming they even stay in Israel: there is a large community of top Israeli musicians working abroad – in Berlin, New York and elsewhere – where they can make a proper living from their chosen vocation.
AND YET – returning again to the ICO – here they are, musicians and other staff members, all doing their best to help their orchestra to survive and even flourish.
As far as Avisar is concerned, one way to reach that goal is to innovate.
“Every morning I wake up and my first thought is: what else can we do different?” “Different” means reaching out to new audiences and finding them where they are, rather than waiting for them to come to the orchestra. Considering the overall lack of serious musical education in Israeli schools and the general preference for light and easy-to-digest culture, this is no easy task.
“Many young people are intimidated by this idea of going to a concert, walking into a hall. It all feels too far removed from their own lives. But when they do find themselves in a situation where they hear us play, they absolutely connect. They’re amazed by how well they connect. We just have to create these situations for them.”
At the same time, she carefully emphasizes the importance of not going too far. It’s a balancing act between integrity and popularity. The grander projects, those involving less easy-listening and more high-brow compositions, are equally important for the orchestra’s image and for die-hard fans.
“It’s not one or the other, but both,” says Avisar. “Lighter, more popular concerts compensate financially for the more ambitious ones on the program.”
Another way to help the crowds grow is simply to make good music and trust the audience to recognize the results.
That indeed seems to be the case, as evidenced by a great 2015-16 concert season and a promising 2016-17 program, a mix of light and heavy, from Beethoven’s “Pastoral” to Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony, a piece containing some of the composer’s darker moments. It’s an intriguing program, and as long as the ICO delivers – no problem. Sounds intimidating? Depends on who you ask.
“It’s a big responsibility,” admits Zuckermann, “but we’re already seeing amazing progress, so we must be doing something right.”
Though he does take pride in recruiting (and retaining) the best people to help fulfill his goal, he sees his leadership as secondary to the commitment and teamwork of everyone involved.
“Without an orchestra, the musical director and the management are meaningless. We are there for them. And the great thing is that we’ve made all these personnel changes in the orchestra and in management and right now we have an ideal situation, where everyone – the musicians, the management, the director – they all want the same thing and are working towards the same shared objective. No personal interests, no major disputes; it’s a group of idealistic people who are willing to work hard to see things through, and you can feel it in the atmosphere in rehearsals and in the final result.”
And one for all
Zuckermann is painfully aware of the environment in which he works and how difficult it can make things: the state doesn’t give enough; the public sees artists as freeloaders. One of his stated goals is to change this perception, and make people realize that music is a profession like any other. It’s a profession that brings a lot of joy to people, and musicians should be able to make a living from it. (And indeed, raising his musicians’ payroll is high up on the to-do list.) The path toward this change runs through reinstating the Israel Chamber Orchestra as the symbol it used to be.
“When I was chosen for this role, I didn’t know just how bad things were at the orchestra. I knew its reputation – as a child I used to go to their concerts all the time – but only when I got there did I realize how deep the problems run.
And these were problems that no one had any idea how to solve: not management, not the musicians. And not only financial problems or managerial problems – people on the outside didn’t want to have anything to do with the orchestra.
But what gave me the strength to keep going was the potential I saw in the orchestra from day one, a certain creative and artistic quality, and right away I knew this orchestra was capable of great things.”
Zuckermann is reluctant to present himself as the savior others see in him, but his outlook spells it out all the same.
“I think what really helped throughout the earlier struggles, and even now that we’re stable and doing the work, is that I never lost my sense of optimism.
Everyone else seemed to, but I rejected all talk of shutting down. I wouldn’t even let them say those words. If we’re going to take this on, we have to give it all we have – and we did. We still do.
“I myself have plenty of other projects. I spend a lot of time abroad in concerts. And yet, for all that work, I still wake up in the morning feeling like the ICO is one of the most meaningful things I have in my life. It’s an important struggle for the orchestra and for society, and it’s much more real for me than traveling the world and playing in this or that venue. It’s very fulfilling to see that our efforts are making an impact. More audience, more invitations to play, more interested soloists. I guess when you do the right thing, things work out.”