Pity the struggling American orchestra. As attendance shrinks, orchestras understand the importance of reaching new audiences and broadening the donor base. Yet particularly novel ideas—say, modernizing the repertoire—arouse the ire of purists who argue that catering to the masses debases the very idea of an orchestra. It's a Catch-22 situation if there ever was one.
Fortunately, the League of American Orchestras understands that there's more than one way to skin a cat. And more often than not, their efforts have been met with the financial approval of foundations committed to building audiences for classical music.
The league has been at the forefront in boosting gender equity amongst the composer ranks—an effort funded by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. It's also launched an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded program called New Partnerships that pairs young composers with orchestras. Both efforts are based on a deceptively simple premise. If an element of an orchestra—whether its players, the composer, or the conductor—reflects the traits of a previously under-engaged demographic, that demographic may be more inclined to participate and stay engaged.
To that end, the league also understands the importance or reaching out to the community at large. And so the League of American Orchestras has launched the Ford Musician Awards for Excellence in Community Service, a new program supporting orchestra musicians and the work they do in their communities. The program is made possible by the Ford Motor Company Fund.
This community work is defined as "meaningful service through music: education and community engagement programs at schools, hospitals, retirement homes, community and social service centers, places of worship, and wherever people gather for civic, cultural and social engagement." Those served may include low-income/at-risk populations, homebound elderly, immigrants, veterans, prisoners, and students of all ages, as well as members of the general public who may not otherwise have access to or are not traditionally served by orchestras.
Five orchestra musicians will be selected through a competitive nomination process to receive the awards, which will include a $2,500 grant to each musician, as well as an additional $2,500 grant to their home orchestras to support "professional development focused on community service and engagement for its musicians." The musician nomination deadline is February 9, 2016. Guidelines can be found here.
This "musicians in the field" ethos mirrors that of the Chamber Music of America's residency partnership program, which aims to grow audiences through performances in libraries, hospitals, senior centers, social service organizations, and youth clubs.
And why not? What better way to shed the genre's (unfair) stereotypes as elitist and impenetrable than by having musicians serve previously untapped segments of the community? If the League of American Orchestra's new effort teaches us anything, it's that foundations like Toulmin, Mellon, and the Ford Motor Company Fund (among others) wholeheartedly agree with this premise. And they are more than happy to help foot the bill.