(James Levin/The Diamondback)

Published on November 7, 2014

Strike in San Francisco. Moratorium in Minneapolis. Hiatus in Honolulu and financial struggle in Philadelphia.

Coverage of the 2008 economic collapse reiterated again and again how the decline shook the housing and stock markets, and yet, behind the curtain of plummeting charts and pallid predictions, another group also faced the ominous music: orchestras.

ABOVE: Edward Maclary, a music professor, conducts the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra during a rehearsal.

With the economy on the upswing, professional symphonies and ensembles are looking for relevance in a country that has, in many respects, moved on from the stiff grandeur of the concert hall.

The solution, however, may be hiding behind the closed doors and sheltered spaces of higher education.

Nestled in the campus radio station, WMUC, gathered below the majestic Memorial Chapel ceiling and packed into the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center’s Orchestral Rehearsal Room, bows raise, fingers tense, lips purse, and after a brief moment of seemingly unbreakable silence, music rushes forth.

In groups small and large, in places magnificent and modest, the various orchestras at this university are defining the future of classical performance and what exactly it means to be an orchestra in a post-recession era.

(James Levin/The Diamondback)

It’s not surprising that orchestras are on the decline in the United States. Since the Great Recession, orchestras in some of the country’s most prominent cities have crumbled under the pressure of work stoppage and financial instability. Even before the collapse, orchestras were a dying institution. The San Jose Symphony, for instance, shut down in 2003 and hasn’t performed since.

ABOVE: Students in the Gamer Symphony Orchestra at the University of Maryland practices a song in a rehearsal at the Memorial Chapel.

According to the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, a study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Census Bureau, adults between 34 and 64 years of age reduced their attendance of classical music performances from 2008 to 2012. For 2012, only 6.6 percent of adults ages 18 to 24 attended these types of performances.

“We’ve seen a tremendous diversification of people’s tastes,” said James Undercofler, this university’s National Orchestral Institute’s artistic director.

“You have the emergence of something called the cultural omnivore. There was a time that people who loved classical music only went to classical music,” Undercofler said. “What we saw happen was, as the number of organizations increased, people started going to three or four different kinds of performances; they went to four plays and a couple of ballets a couple times of year.”

In 1993, when this shift started sending tremors through the orchestral community, the League of American Orchestras released a report titled “Americanizing the American Orchestra.” The community reacted violently, but for all their vitriol, complied rather docilely with the document’s main tenet: that the orchestra serve as a community center rather than an art museum.


(James Levin/The Diamondback)

At least locally, that model seems to be working pretty well.

ABOVE: Maclary signals for a section of the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra to play louder during a rehearsal in The Clarice.

“We recognize that society is changing and people’s interest is changing and the state of art education in schools is changing,” said Paul Meecham, president and CEO of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. “We can’t afford to be complacent, but I think there’s a lot of energy across the field in how do we go about making the product engaging for and relevant to next generations.”

The BSO is offering its services to the larger community through OrchKids, a year-round program that provides music education to young students from Baltimore, and BSO Academy Week, which offers adults a chance to reconnect with their musical backgrounds.

“Orchestras are starting to look at what the needs of the communities are and amending their mission to meet those needs,” Meecham said. “That makes the orchestra more relevant … and it gives a different spin on what an orchestra means to its community in the 21st century.”

The National Orchestral Institute at this university follows a similar motto. According to Undercofler, it is not only a teaching institution for young musicians across the country, but also a community institution that provides weekly performances for the general public.

“Orchestral musicians today are called on to do all sorts of things they weren’t called on to do 25 years ago. They’re expected to do concerts for people of all ages, and they need to make those concerts engaging and meaningful,” Undercofler said. “They need to interact with their audiences.”

Outside of this university, classical music groups struggle to retain strong social grounding, but this university’s orchestras have a consistent and dedicated following.

What are the differentiating factors? A creative spirit, enterprising will and The Clarice.

Housed in The Clarice, this university’s symphony and repertoire orchestras benefit from the center’s advertising prowess. Both orchestras are composed of students, both undergraduate and graduate, though UMSO is reserved for students seeking music degrees.

According to James Ross, conducting professor and director of orchestral activity, inner university marketing is often “strange,” and it’s difficult to gauge the percentage of students who attend orchestral performances. Even so, The Clarice reaches beyond the campus borders to seat a wide array of music lovers within its various performance spaces.

“You don’t hear people going down I-95 blasting some Beethoven.”

— Marcus Moody, senior sociology major

“Their marketing is almost more targeted to people outside the university than it is toward students themselves,” Ross said.

The audiences, however, are usually different depending on the type of performance and the orchestra. While music school students tend to attract other music school students to the UMSO performances, the UMRO draws a multidepartmental audience.

“All the people who are different majors bring in groups of people that aren’t often musicians, so the audience for that orchestra tends to be very diverse,” Ross said.

Senior music major and UMSO member Livy Amoruso has seen the group transition through four years.

“We’ve definitely done things to increase turnout,” she said.

In 2009, the music school launched the New Lights Initiative, a collaborative program designed to incorporate different artistic media with classical orchestral music and in turn, generate an engaging product for modern audiences. Think Shostakovich preluded by a poem. Bartok narrated by illustrative projection. Debussy denoted by dance.

“It’s basically a way to make the orchestra concerts more relevant and modern. We’ll do different things for each concert,” Amoruso said. “Our biggest project last spring was where we performed a piece with choreographed movement.”

In May, UMSO took to the stage but never sat down. Dressed not in traditional, conservative black, but comfortable blues, beiges and browns, the musicians moved, leapt and swelled with the sounds of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.

The piece sought to reincorporate movement into musical performance. Renowned choreographer and university alumna Liz Lerman, who worked with UMSO in 2012 on a similar project, worked closely with UMSO to produce a performance that The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette called “powerfully, viscerally emotional.”

ABOVE: Members of the Hip-Hop Orchestra perform “Nightmare” during practice in the WMUC radio station. (Melissa Seitz/The Diamondback)

On this campus, innovative niche groups are especially popular. The Gamer Symphony Orchestra, Hip-Hop Orchestra and Film Symphony Orchestra are just a few of the many groups working to redefine the traditional boundaries of classically produced music on the campus.

Both the Gamer Symphony Orchestra and Hip-Hop Orchestra have garnered serious attention as of late. While one focuses on popular video gaming music and the other on hip hop-style beats, both perform student-arranged music for a student-focused audience.

“We have an orchestra of like-minded people who want to spend their Sundays preparing a free concert for everyone to come see and enjoy,” said Kellie Tappan, a junior criminology and criminal justice major and Gamer Symphony Orchestra’s public relations representative. Instituted in 2005, the orchestra now thrives off a very strong, very social following.

ABOVE: The Gamer Symphony Orchestra practices in Memorial Chapel. (Melissa Seitz/The Diamondback)

“The audience for the GSO is hilarious; it’s really fun,” Ross said. The GSO performs one free concert a semester and last semester sold out Dekelboum Concert Hall’s 970 seats. The group has a running waitlist of students who want to join.

The relatively new Hip-Hop Orchestra hasn’t reached GSO’s level of acclaim just yet, but is steadily garnering attention for its seemingly paradoxical premise.

“It’s more relevant to the times,” said Marcus Moody, the group’s founder. “You don’t hear people going down I-95 blasting some Beethoven.”

The Hip-Hop Orchestra’s mission is to bring the sound of real instruments and the feel of a live band back to a genre that’s slowly fading into a mirthless cacophony of synthesized explosions, Moody said. The artists don’t focus, however, on being perfect, according to Moody.

“That just sucks the fun out of everything,” he said. “If you don’t have fun with it, you don’t want to play it, and no one’s going to want to hear it. [Orchestral music] is not a matter of competence, it’s a matter of having connectivity to what you’re playing.”

(James Levin/The Diamondback)

Out-of-the-box, innovative craftsmanship is saving this university’s orchestral groups from oblivion. Rather than working to prop up the wavering barrier that keeps classical music traditional but anachronistic, orchestras at this university are reaching out to their audiences, adapting to changing times and coming out better for it.

ABOVE: Hip-Hop Orchestra member and freshman letters and sciences major Charlotte Li perform “Nightmare” in WMUC radio station.

Here, orchestras are no longer dusty terracotta armies, protecting a beautiful history but stuck in their original mold. They are vibrant, changing and willing to challenge archaic convention.

What does the future hold for orchestras? Are they vital institutions worthy of preserving? There’s no easy answer. But if the passionate students on this campus are any indication, college students will pack concert halls far after their undergraduate careers are through.

To contact the author, please email


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