Commentary: Save Our Symphony

Mike Lawson • Commentary • March 2, 2018

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Recently, the San Antonio Symphony embarked on an emotional rollercoaster of dizzying speeds and heights.

After a summer 2017 power struggle between two separate boards, the Symphony Society of San Antonio (SSSA) and Symphonic Music for San Antonio (SMSA), leadership was assumed by SMSA. During this period of time, the musicians agreed to a contract extension to end on December 31, 2017. In late December 2017, contract negotiations between the SMSA and the San Antonio Symphony musicians came to an abrupt halt when the SMSA walked away. The SSSA scrambled to pick up the reins that had been wrested from them earlier in the year and decided it was best to cancel the season, stating the final concerts would be the January 5-6 Tricentennial Celebration performances featuring music selected to celebrate San Antonio’s Hispanic heritage during its 300th year.

On January 4, 2018, the Symphony Society of San Antonio board chair resigned and was replaced by the vice-chairperson. On January 5, the new board chair called a meeting of current and past board members of the SSSA. The decision was made to resurrect at least part of the 2017-18 season in order to keep moving forward while trying to secure funding.

The community celebrated the orchestra with numerous ovations during the Tricentennial concerts, which were to be the last of the season. Audiences came out in record numbers. At the January 5 concert, following intermission, music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing announced that he had been directed by the new Symphony Society of San Antonio board chair to share that the season would go on and these would not be the last concerts of the season. The crowd went wild. The following week, however, it seemed that the community felt their job to save the symphony was already done, as tickets were advertised with special deals such as BOGO (buy one, get one) and $5 seats for the Dream Week concert weekend, which featured programming celebrating the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King. The same discount offers were advertised for upcoming pop concerts. The musicians endured a furlough during the month of February. Meanwhile, the Symphony Society of San Antonio board and city leadership continue to meet and discuss funding options to help stabilize the remainder of the season and to assure a solid financial foundation moving forward.

This scenario is not unfamiliar to many cities across the country: orchestras in Ft. Worth, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Nashville, and even the New York Philharmonic, just to name a few, have experienced running deficits or even strikes and lock-outs. Some orchestras have even filed for various forms of bankruptcy. These unfortunate circumstances raise many questions, among them the models used to sustain orchestras, societal perceptions of symphonic music, and the relevance of symphony orchestras in today’s society.

Why are symphony orchestras important to our communities? What roles do they play in our society? Many have the perception that symphony orchestras are elitist organizations, despite the many years that orchestras have spent trying to reach new audiences and develop new connections with their communities. In the 1990s, there was a trend in orchestra programming called “breaking down the fourth wall.” Audiences were encouraged to attend in their comfortable clothing. Blue jeans were welcome! Multi-media presentations were added to enhance the concert experience and make it more relevant to the younger generations. Cocktail mixers were held before or after concerts in an attempt to cultivate young professionals into regular concert-goers. Audience members were invited to “sit on stage” among the musicians or to take over the baton and “conduct” the orchestra. Despite these radical outreach ideas, orchestras continued to battle against the perceived stereotypes. In the early 2000s, the focus included bringing the orchestra to the people, with various small groups interacting with the community and playing in unorthodox venues throughout their cities, such as grocery stores, prisons, or parks. Many orchestras have also tried to appear hip and relevant by collaborating with guest artists such as Metallica and Stewart Copeland of The Police. While these concerts definitely brought in a somewhat different appreciative audience, they did not translate into long-term subscriptions and sometimes alienated the regular subscription base.

I realize that I will be preaching to the choir, or in this case, the symphony and the band, when I enumerate the many ways that symphony musicians enhance their communities. Many teach individual lessons to all levels of musicians in our communities. They volunteer in under-served schools to instruct students who could otherwise not afford instruction. Often, they donate their time to bring music to hospitals and jails. They participate in various community service areas. They live in our communities and contribute as citizens. The most obvious is the art that they bring to life on the concert stage.

These pieces cannot be articulated and understood with anything less than an orchestra. The quality of the orchestra is also crucial. In trying to explain the difference to an untrained musician, I make the following comparison: One can go to a specialized venue and spend the evening painting and socializing with friends. All of the participants are painting their version of a great master’s painting. At the end of the night, as an objective observer, which would you rather see—the original painting by the master or the novice’s attempt? It is the same with the quality of orchestras. While school orchestras or small municipal orchestras may be able to play many of the pieces in the standard repertoire, many to a fairly high standard, we still need to hear those pieces brought to life by masters. It is only then that we may truly appreciate the various levels of artistry and nuance of a particular work.

While most would agree that symphony orchestras and musicians have worth in our communities, support for symphony orchestras is something that most communities grapple with. Since the current orchestra business model relies so heavily on donors and subscriptions, it seems that this is where the first focus ought to be placed.

We all know Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Creative solutions are called for, along with the courage to implement them and the willingness to experience the failure of some of those initiatives along the way. One must look at and understand the general characteristics of each generation to help engage a potential audience member or symphony supporter. One must also capitalize on existing but untapped support, such as the community’s music teachers and students.

The donor model does not help eradicate the elitist perception of symphony orchestras. It suggests patronage of old and sends an unintended message of exclusivity to those that have not yet found their way to the symphony experience. One way to work around this might be to change the donor model to that of a membership model, much like those used by public radio and television stations. Donors would still be allowed and encouraged, but that base would be more focused on corporate and philanthropic contributors. The membership portion would offer various levels of participation with appropriate benefits attached at each level. The membership model enables everyone to feel that they are a part of the organization and allows those of lesser means to contribute and make a difference with what they are able to give. There could be special memberships provided specifically for K-12 students, another membership type for higher education students, and yet another membership type for music educators – you get the idea.

As for subscriptions, there is much room for creativity in this area. Perhaps a streaming subscription could be offered, where one logs in with a password from the comfort of their home and is able to experience the orchestra in a new way. While this would require some additional money and negotiations, it should still be explored for viability in this age of digital immediacy. Subscription packages should also offer smaller options in addition to the entire season or half season subscriptions. Flexibility of picking and choosing offerings might also entice potential subscribers. Discounting tickets should be avoided when possible, as it makes the orchestra concert feel like a last-ditch fire sale. That technique seriously devalues the perceived worth of the orchestra. Instead, donors (as newly defined in the previous paragraph) would be encouraged to purchase blocks of tickets to donate to new audience prospects, schools or under-served community groups.

All of these ideas rely heavily on marketing and getting the word out to the community. Again, the current model needs to grow and stretch to reflect our society and the generations that inhabit it. Current marketing avenues are still necessary, but social media use must be maximized to reach the new digital audiences that are going to carry symphony orchestras into the latter reaches of the 21st century.

“The rapidly evolving global economy demands a dynamic and creative workforce. The arts and its related businesses are responsible for billions of dollars in cultural exports for this country. It is imperative that we continue to support the arts and arts education both on the national and local levels. The strength of every democracy is measured by its commitment to the arts.” –Charles Segars, CEO of Ovation

With appropriate vision and engagement, courage for change, and contagious passion for music and artistic excellence, symphony musicians, with their leaders and supporters, we may be able to provide a new stability for symphony orchestras in our country. Current audience members must continue to attend and support. Music teachers in the community must model symphony support for their students, not just by attending the educational concerts or occasionally taking students on field trips, but also by monetary support and subscription attendance of some type. As musicians, it is our duty to support these organizations that showcase the highest artistry and musicianship to our students and our communities.

Kathy Mayer is former Education Director of the San Antonio Symphony. She is currently Chair of the Fine and Performing Arts Division at Northeast Lakeview College in San Antonio, Texas.

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