Systems mapping excellence

How symphony orchestras can fight a crisis of legitimacy

Philippe Vandenbroeck
7 min readJul 27, 2021
Julia Fischer (violin) & Daniel Müller-Schott (cello), and the Bavarian State Orchestra with their conductor Kirill Petrenko, seconds before giving the downbeat to Brahms’ Double Concerto Op. 102, Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 28 March 2018 (Photo: Philippe Vandenbroeck)

A symphony orchestra, silently seated on a brightly lit stage in a darkened concert hall filled with an audience buzzing with anticipation, is a beautiful sight to behold. And when the first sounds emerge from this resplendent instrument one is filled with feelings of awe and gratitude for this beautiful legacy of 19th century bourgeois society.

Patrons of one the oldest orchestras in the world, the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, Germany, used to enter the hall beneath a stern expression of the Roman philosopher Seneca: Res severa est verum gaudium, or: True pleasure is serious business. That is even more the case today as behind the splendid facade hides a fragile institution that is fighting for its survival.

An institution in hot water

Indeed, symphony orchestras are expensive structures that almost always need significant external funding, either from the public purse or from donors, in order to function at all. A premier North American orchestra needs an operating budget of anything between $50M and $125M per year. A second-tier body will burn around 10M per annum. Not a single orchestra is able to make money. They all run a deficit, as their expenses are not covered by self-generated income from tickets or recording fees.

The future of the orchestra is looking increasingly bleak in a world where audiences shrink and age and citizens are able to choose from an ever-growing range of leisure activities. Classical music itself has trouble attracting younger listeners. And the overwhelming racial and even gender uniformity of orchestras around the world sits uneasily with the current zeitgeist. Last but not least, the public purse is under strain. In many European countries, cultural subsidies have been significantly cut back in recent years. In Germany — a country in which the orchestra scene has been recognised as UNESCO Intangible Heritage —the number of orchestras has shrunk by more than 20% in three decades. The number of jobs for musicians has fallen in sync. The situation in Germany is typical of the context in other countries where the symphony orchestra traditionally occupied a solid place in cultural life.

The world around the symphony orchestra is changing, but the institution has trouble adjusting to that new environment. This lack of agility can be explained. The enormous weight of tradition and a shell of rigid labour regulations have sedimented around the orchestra. And a score being what it is you have to have, say, 90 expert performers on stage to bring to life a Tchaikovsky ‘Pathétique’. There can be no cutting corners here. As a result of this increasing tension between the orchestra and its environment, insiders such as the conductor Ivan Fischer do not hesitate to proclaim that the traditional, structurally financed symphony orchestra has therefore reached its sell-by date.

Mapping excellence

In 2015 I was invited by Koen Vandyck, an organisational coach with a track record as an orchestra manager, to join him in tackling a study commissioned by the Flemish Ministry of Culture, Youth and Media. The study was broadly framed as an exploration of the future for the three state-funded orchestras in the region. We dived into the literature, interviewed people all over the place, and led a series of focus groups with sector experts and orchestra musicians. Gradually we started to piece together a systems map — more precisely: a causal loop diagram — that provided insight into what drives orchestra excellence.

A systems map of orchestra excellence

The map represents a symphony orchestra’s engine of success. It shows the many factors that play into the drive to excellence. The overall thrust of the map is, therefore, aspirational. It helps funders and orchestra managers and boards to think holistically about their strategy.

How to read this map? The map consists of factors that are causally linked. An upstream factor drives downstream factors. All the factors included in the map have been conceptualised as ‘variables’. That means that they can go up or down, and by doing so will have an effect on the downstream variables. The blue arrows indicate that an increase of a tail variable (say, ‘ticket sale income’) will lead to an increase of the head variable (‘revenue’; vice versa in case of a decrease). The red arrows indicate that the relationship is the reverse, meaning that an increase of tail variable will lead to a decrease of the head variable and vice versa (an increase in ‘ticket price’ leads to a decrease in the ‘attractiveness of live concert experience’).

The structure of the map

The central variable is ‘artistic quality’. There is a broad consensus that this determines the viability and fundability of any artistic project. It reflects the level at which an individual artist, project or organisation excels in its genre, organisational form or function.

The system map underlines that as far as an orchestra is concerned artistic quality is not the only determinant of success. It is a crucial element, but cannot be seen separately from at least four other key factors:

- the public’s interest in attending concerts,
- the societal support for classical music,
- the orchestra musicians’ job satisfaction, and
- the quality of the artistic and business management.

As a whole, the system map is therefore built around five key factors — artistic quality supplemented by the four factors just mentioned.

These five key factors are linked by four reinforcing feedback loops. These are sequences of causal links that lead to self-reinforcing dynamics that support the engine of success of an orchestra. We have referred to these feedbacks or ‘loops’ as:

  • a ‘revenue and investment loop’: this revolves around the key factor ‘interest in attending concerts’. If this interest is broadly present in the community in which the orchestra is active, it will, provided the right framework is in place, lead to concert attendance. This in turn leads to various income streams, from ticket sales, but also from subsidies, donations and sponsoring. If the financial resources are judiciously invested in the artistic and business support of the orchestra, this leads to higher artistic quality. This quality is an important condition for effective audience interaction, which in turn can stimulate interest in attending concerts. If all these variables interact without restriction, nothing stands in the way of constant growth in concert attendance, income, investment, quality and audience effect.
  • a ‘job satisfaction’ loop: this simply revolves around two key factors: artistic quality contributes significantly to musicians’ job satisfaction. And conversely, musicians’ job satisfaction is an important element in the realisation of artistic quality.
  • a ‘public support loop’: a large support base leads to continuity in income flows and encourages governments, civil society organisations and parents to invest in musical education. This then leads to greater musical literacy, which in turn will fuel interest in going to concerts. The system map also formulates the hypothesis that a large social basis offers a stimulus for experiment and innovation. This is the basis for a continuous renewal of presentation formats and repertoire, which in turn can ensure that the concert scene remains attractive to a large audience. A greater interest in concert attendance then feeds the dynamics of income and investment mentioned earlier.
  • an ‘efficiency loop’: relates specifically to how the operational efficiency of an orchestra can be managed. This is an intricate challenge that hinges on the interplay of several factors: the impact of a constantly changing repertoire on the composition of the orchestra and workload of the musicians, the available effective number of musicians and their distribution over the orchestra groups, and the constraints associated to labour regulations.

Together these interacting loops provide a blueprint for the engine of success of an orchestra.

Fighting a crisis of legitimacy

The value of this map, in our opinion, is that it puts a dose of realism into the perennial debate about the future of this venerable institution. Orchestras should quit their hackneyed discourse on their ‘civilisational mission’. They should stop nagging funders by default for more money and more fixed contract musicians. Not every orchestra should aspire to emulate the Berlin Philharmonic. The systems map provides a basis for a broader array of game plans. A clever mix of strategic choices may lead to excellence, even in challenging conditions.

One of our favourite case studies in the study is the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. This body of musicians, based in a Finnish industrial town, has an excellent international reputation. Nevertheless it employs only a small core of 67 permanent musicians (at the time of writing our report). The orchestra has created flexibility for itself by limiting the concert calendar to about 60 concerts a year and by giving all members (except the concert masters) the same pay regardless of the concrete number of hours worked per month. Also, the new Sibelius Hall was conceived in such a way that a relatively compact orchestra wouldn’t look puny on the stage. These are just a few ingredients of a successful recipe that has allowed the Sinfonia Lahti to cultivate a strong presence over a longer period of time. The systems map gives funders and orchestra leaders an opportunity to engage in transparent and constructive debate about strategies pursued and resources needed.

Postscript: the reception of our report

Reactions to our study were mixed. Our government sponsor was very pleased and hailed the report as a landmark study. We also received kudos from insiders who know the sector well. However, the orchestras themselves campaigned vigorously against the insights from our report. They refused to enter into nuanced debate about it. For Koen and myself, both staunch supporters of the institution, this was a disappointment. The reaction seemed to betray a false sense of entitlement and union-led intransigence. As far as we are concerned, the gravest threat to a viable future for the symphony orchestra is not a changing world, but the strategic myopia of what risks to become a cultural dinosaur.



Philippe Vandenbroeck

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?