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Orchestras Per Capita: How Does Bloomington Stack Up?

The Bloomington Symphony Orchestra.

The Bloomington Symphony Orchestra will celebrate its 50th birthday next spring. (WTIU/WFIU News File)

Bloomington resident Paul Smedberg is proud of the amount of orchestra music available in Bloomington, and he wonders how the community would stack up in the world of symphonies and philharmonics – whether this city has more orchestras per person than anywhere else.

“Well I always think of Bloomington as being special, and how does that get quantified?” he asks City Limits. “I guess we’re about the size Florence was during the Renaissance and what can a small community do or is doing (in the arts) so I was really curious whether we would have the highest per capita symphony orchestras.”

City Limits couldn’t find a definitive answer to Smedberg’s question. But neither could we find a reason to believe Smedberg was not on to something.

Data kept on orchestras is complicated.

Bloomington doesn’t show up well on national or international lists kept by major players such as the Musical International Directory of Performing Arts published by Musical America, which is based in New Jersey. That list says Bloomington has only two orchestras, the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra and the Indiana University Philharmonic.

The Orchestra Statistical Report released by the League of American Orchestras of New York City doesn’t list any from Bloomington. A spokesman for the League says its data would not pertain to a per capita question.

Where else do you go in 2019 to research such things? Wikipedia, of course. That less-than-definitive-site lists five orchestras in Indiana, but none in Bloomington.

That’s not right.

Susan Elliott is editor for news and special reports for Musical America, which publishes the Musical America International Directory. She said multiple issues make this a hard question to answer.

First, she said, you have to determine what kind of musicians you’re counting. Are these full-time orchestra performers, union orchestras, freelance players? Are they all professionals or are you counting amateur performers? Are you counting major universities communities and their students in the mix?

“Do you mean a symphony orchestra which is a prescribed number of instruments per section and so forth,” she added in a phone interview from her New York office. “Do you mean a band that has a lot of symphonic orchestral instruments complementing it, do you mean a string orchestra, do you mean a chamber orchestra? …There are so many variables.”

The answer to this question may be impossible to determine in anything less than a doctoral dissertation. But there are signs that Bloomington could have a legitimate claim to the distinction of Per Capita Capital of Orchestras.

Depending on your definition, it can be argued there are at least a dozen orchestras in Bloomington, a city of about 85,000 people. Cities such as Boston, New York and Philadelphia certainly have more orchestras, but because their populations dwarf Bloomington’s it’s far less than likely they have more orchestras per person than Bloomington

The presence of the Jacobs School of Music is the major reason Bloomington can claim 12 or more orchestras. A Jacobs spokesman says the school has eight orchestras: Philharmonic, Chamber, Concert, Symphony, University, Baroque, New Music Ensemble, and All-Campus Orchestra for Non-Majors.

But IU’s not the only game in town. The Bloomington Symphony Orchestra will celebrate its 50th birthday next spring. Ed Greenebaum is an emeritus professor of law at IU who has played double bass in the orchestra since it was founded.

He says having a community orchestra in addition to all the orchestras the Jacobs School has to offer is good in a couple of ways.

“I think it’s important to have a place for people like me to play,” Greenebaum says. “It makes it a better community for non-music school people. …From the audience perspective there are a lot of people who aren’t all that comfortable coming to the university…so having an orchestra that can reach out to the community as a whole and build audience and music appreciation is a good thing for the community.”

He also says he understands how difficult it is to determine Bloomington’s place per capita in the orchestra world.

“You have to decide whether or not to count the university as Bloomington then you have to decide what qualifies as an orchestra from smaller ensembles up to full symphony,” he says.

This is where younger musicians can add to the numbers. Bloomington school orchestras date back to the 1920s. In 1986 students from Bloomington High Schools North and South orchestras combined for a third orchestra – the Hoosier Youth Philharmonic. The group’s booster club president Deborah Deliyannis says 170 students played in the orchestra last year.

“The combined HYP is so big they barely fit on the stage,” she says. “It’s enormous but they don’t turn anybody away.”

In recent years the all-strings Hoosier Youth Philharmonic has played on the stages of New York City’s Carnegie Hall and Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center. It has also played Rocky Top in Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium. Yet it doesn’t make the lists of youth orchestras published on either on Wikipedia or a website called Musical Chairs.

In posing his question Smedberg wondered if Rochester, New York, might compete with Bloomington for the per capita title. The famed Eastman School of Music is located there, and the Musical America International Directory lists three orchestras in Rochester compared to its listing of two for Bloomington. The city also is home to the David Hochstein Memorial Music School, which operates four orchestras.

But with a population more than twice that of Bloomington, Rochester would have to have more than twice the number of orchestras to match it per capita. That, too, is a longshot.

Beyond the U.S., Vienna has at least a dozen professional orchestras and who-knows-how-many youth and amateur ensembles. But the city has nearly 2 million people as well, making a positive per capita comparison dubious at best.

Whatever the case, Bloomington is well positioned for orchestral longevity. Orchestra classes start in Bloomington’s elementary schools and continue with orchestras forming in junior high.

Hoosier Youth Philharmonic’s Deliyannis says: “The amazing thing about the school orchestra is that it involves so many kids from so many different backgrounds … and in a really important way it brings a large part of the community into listening to and participating in orchestral music.”

So while we can’t say for certain Bloomington has the most orchestras per capita in the nation or world, we can’t say that it doesn’t. What we can say is the community has a thriving and varied orchestra scene, one that legitimizes Smedberg’s curiosity.

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