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There cannot have been many more uncomfortable reads in recent years than this snapshot and analysis of the economic challenges facing symphony orchestras in what continues to be perilous trading conditions.

Although the focus is largely on American orchestras, it also provides a crucial discussion of international models of financing and supporting orchestras, drawing vital comparisons between America’s preference for private philanthropy and the state-funded models elsewhere.

Operating on seemingly perpetual structural budget deficits, since the boom years of the early 1990s, American orchestras have become increasingly vulnerable to economic instability in a business world steadily becoming less generous towards the arts. Since then, a dozen orchestras have declared bankruptcy, with the pace accelerating in recent years. That the most recent, in April 2011, was the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra, one of America’s major ensembles, grimly underlines the timeliness of this book.

No less chastening for British orchestras, at a time when government funding of the arts is on a downward trend, has been the 20% fall in business support for the arts at home over the past five years.

There is much to be gleaned here in a vital analysis that unpicks the conundrum of maintaining a 1reasing non-performance income.

A Stanford Graduate School of Business professor of economics and labour analysis, Flanagan delivers informed commentary on the challenges facing labour-intensive, productivity-limited symphony orchestras with a straightforward 19th-century institution in a 21st-century economy with unflinching clarity. In acknowledging the intrinsic fiscal fragility of symphony orchestras – which ‘cannot survive as private profit-seeking business organizations. Self-supporting status is an elusive goal’ – he also identifies an unholy trinity of strategies crucial to providing its economic security, namely: the raising of performance revenues, slowing the growth of performance expenses, and incard directness and his wide-ranging number-crunching (detailed appendices aside) is happily, largely jargon-free. In all, it is a fascinating and insightful, if also an unsettling, book, and required reading, surely, for anyone interested in the continuing health of symphony orchestras.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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