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Sustaining The Notes 

by Marty Demarest


In case you haven't been following the story closely: The symphony has folded. It's not coming back. One of the region's cultural lights has dimmed - likely forever. The musicians are already looking for other work. Many of them will leave the area, draining it of already rare cultural resources. The office equipment has already been auctioned off, along with the orchestra's precious library of music. With any luck, the funds raised will pay for a small part of the nearly $1 million debt that's been accruing for the past few years. But that's about the best that can be hoped for. When a piece of music ends, there's usually a climax before silence opens up to allow room for applause. Orchestras, however, go out with neither a bang nor a whimper - they just stop playing.


Relax - it's not the Spokane Symphony Orchestra that we're talking about. But it could be.


The Colorado Springs Symphony Orchestra, which folded this past year, is just one of the casualties the American music scene has witnessed recently. Unprecedented increases in the cost of doing the business of art, as well as dwindling audiences and evaporating corporate donations, have conspired to eliminate several orchestras entirely. Symphonies in Sacramento, San Diego, and San Jose have all closed in the past ten years, and the venerable Chicago Symphony Orchestra joined many of the other leading orchestras in the country by closing in the red for the first time in history.


"It's a nervous-making situation for orchestral institutions," observes NancyBell Coe, artistic administrator for the Aspen Music Festival and School. "The potential audience pool, I feel, is under siege." Coe, who started her administrative career with the Spokane Symphony Orchestra and has served as general manager for the Cleveland Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, doesn't see competition for audience members getting any easier: "The competition for their discretionary time and the fact that music education in the schools has been so severely cut back in the last twenty years is going to hurt orchestras."


The good news is that the Spokane Symphony Orchestra has defied both local and national trends - just barely, and only for now. But survival in this climate is, in some ways, as good as thriving. According to Annie Matlow, director of marketing and public relations for the orchestra, the Symphony has not only ended the year in the black, but has actually increased its attendance - from 62,496 in 2002 to 62,754 in 2003. "It's a trend in the right direction. It's not huge, but nationally the trend is not in that direction. But what we're seeing as well are more ticket buyers - and this is following the national trend - buying their tickets to individual concerts, rather than subscriptions."


When asked about another major source of support -- corporate and foundation giving - however, the Symphony's executive director, John Hancock, simply shakes his head. While many beloved benefactors continue to support the orchestra, overall support has declined as dramatically for the symphony as it has for other arts organizations. This has led the Symphony to take another look at the organization's budget.


During the past year, the already-frugal Symphony cut $100,000 in expenses from the budget by asking staff to take unpaid days during several months. It has also temporarily suspended all Symphony contributions to non-musician retirement accounts. "Those actions early on," Matlow explains, "plus our board and staff using what I call heroic efforts to work on our annual fund to the end, helped us end this year in the black."


These are quick fixes that pulled the Symphony through one rough year. Unfortunately, they're not likely to have much effect in the long run unless the valuable time that they purchase is used well. If the Symphony is looking toward long-term solutions, it stands to reason that it should be cognizant of long-term problems. Some decisions have already been made, such as eliminating one of next season's concerts in Coeur d'Alene from the symphony's schedule. But other changes may have a much more lasting effect.


"Right now, we are making some of the biggest decisions that have ever happened in the life of the Symphony," Hancock states. "We're selecting a new music director, and we're moving to the Fox Theater."


As many homeowners know, if you want to expand your real estate assets, now isn't a bad time. When everything is paid for, the Spokane Symphony will have its own building to call home - a valuable piece of property that will not only enhance the organization's image but give it a stronger capital foundation on which to stand.


The move to the Fox has other, less-discussed benefits as well. For years, the Spokane Symphony has relied on audience understanding with regard to the acoustics at the Opera House. Music lovers in town often avoid the subject; but unless you're fortunate enough to hold seats in the first tier, listening to music in the Opera House is a deplorable acoustic experience, often rivaled by a decent home stereo system. The Fox, on the other hand, is a far superior space. If the music can sound better, audiences will be receiving more value for their purchases - a longtime, and long-term, business strategy for success.


But who will be coming? Another long-term concern for orchestras everywhere is the age of their audiences. Put bluntly, audiences that regularly attend symphony concerts are getting older. Specifically, the Spokane Symphony reports, the average age of its season subscribers is 63.


"I'm torn about this," says NancyBell Coe. "When I started working for the Spokane Symphony back in the 1970s, people were saying that the audience was aging. That was twenty-five years ago, and the audience is still aging. I don't take it as a given that there will be a replenishment of the 40-60 year-olds coming in; but I've heard the complaint for 25 years. On the other hand, with the virtual complete collapse of music education, you can't say 'That's just fine.' "


But the Spokane Symphony may already have a solution in the guise of one of their problems. As mentioned earlier, the organization has been selling fewer series subscriptions and more single tickets. Individual concert tickets are sold to a younger audience - 50 years old, on average - than the one that's buying subscriptions. In other words, while the symphony is losing season ticket sales purchased by an older audience, it is gaining individual sales purchased by a younger audience.


Many of those tickets were sold to people who were attending something other than the orchestra's classical concerts. According to Matlow, Pops Concerts are the most popular of the symphony's offerings. Big-name popular acts, which almost always perform backed by the orchestra, expose a new audience to the members and musicianship of the Symphony.


Hancock realizes this, and the Symphony is emphasizing other programs that put a new audience in contact with what the orchestra can provide. "The proscenium theatre itself in the world of theater is a magic barrier that separates the imagined from the public," he points out. "I think that barrier should be taken away in a concert, and the mystery of who those people are and what they are like should be taken away. Let's emphasize what the performers and listeners have in common. The Chamber Soiree series," where members of the orchestra perform works in smaller ensembles in a more intimate setting, "has been a big success. That audience has doubled in size every year for four years, because the musicians are close up, they talk, and in that setting with just a few instruments, first-time listeners can learn about the sound of the instrument in an easier way than they can in a concert where there are 80 people sitting onstage. For first-time listeners, it can be intimidating to listen to an orchestra - it's hard to pick out what is causing the interesting sound you're listening to."


The orchestra has also had good results in audience-building when it travels to outlying communities. "We're playing in Chewelah for the first time that I know of," Hancock says. "And in the process of making friends there, we discovered that there are people who have decided to live there to escape the city. But it wasn't symphony orchestras that they wanted to escape. So when we bring the orchestra to that community, it will be special for them. People in Spokane can take the Symphony for granted... the appreciation for what we do grows larger the further you get away from Spokane."


For a city that so frequently cites "quality of life" as an asset, Spokane could certainly do worse than have a full-time professional orchestra. "In the dark days of Cleveland," Coe observes, "local businesses and leaders decided to support the orchestra, even as everything else was falling apart. This was important to Cleveland's self-image. We had an orchestra and an art museum. Our municipal bonds may have been junk, but there were other beacons of excellence. And the rest of the country recognized that."


That's the primary advantage of music: It's invaluable. Now the challenge facing orchestras like the Spokane Symphony is to find ways to encourage the community to attach value to it. "Post-9/11," Coe says, "what you didn't see were concerts cancelled. What you did see was reverential attendance at concerts, because the music meant so much - for solace, for bringing together... reminders of beauty in a world that seemed irrevocably ripped asunder. The art itself doesn't only retain its importance - it grows in importance."





Five Easy Pieces?
1. Make the music director a part of the community -- In Portland, the Symphony turned their music director, James DePriest, into an icon who worked hard to engage the community, from talking to the audience at every concert to making sure he appeared around town frequently. Even in New York, the Metropolitan Opera's artistic director, James Levine, can be found talking about music on the sidewalk. When the Spokane Symphony hires a new music director, emphasize his or her presence as an active, excited member of the community. They're not only an artistic director for the orchestra, but for the community as well.





2. Highlight the faces in the audience -- The Symphony has one of the most diverse boards of directors in town. In addition to providing guidance to the orchestra, one of their roles should be to lead the community to the concert hall. Promote their involvement, along with that of other community leaders who enjoy the Symphony. People want to attend concerts when someone they trust tells them about it.





3. Capitalize on your strongest asset -- The Symphony has one of the largest bodies of artistic professionals in the area. Capitalize on that asset by giving the individuals in the orchestra greater visibility. It's great to hear interviews and read profiles of visiting artists, but what about connecting with the amazing performers who live next door? Knowing an individual artist is one of the strongest reasons to support his or her work.





4. Educate -- Even with tight finances, don't skimp on educating children in the community. With cutbacks in school funding and an increasing emphasis on test scores, music education needs the symphony more than ever. The results in community goodwill might be valuable, and any children you teach today may turn out to be your audience tomorrow.





5. Keep playing it safe -- Cutting back on the Symphony's programs might feel bad, but the needs of the community, rather than the desire of the board and artistic staff, should guide decisions. The Spokane Symphony has the 48th-largest budget in the country even though it serves the 98th-largest community. Depending on how you look at it, it's doing twice as well as it could, or it's using twice the resources it should.





Publication date: 08/21/03

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