Ask around the industry, and one will hear many different points of view as to what is the most responsible and effective way to build and sustain a symphony orchestra. Many groups have turned to pops programming hoping to generate income and expand their audiences, others have emphasized educational programming. Others have favored selective downsizing- maintaining fiscal health by keeping programs small, production costs low and seasons modest. It sometimes seems that improving and expanding an orchestra’s artistic mission is expected to occur automatically as a side effect of other approaches.
The Oregon East Symphony has grown a great deal in the last six years, and even more in the last 20. My first performance with the group was of the Mozart “Paris” Symphony (No. 31), with a group of about 25 musicians, all volunteers. Also on that program were a number of choral selections lead by another conductor. It has been quite a journey from that project to Mahler 2, with an orchestra of nearly 100 musicians, including leading freelancers from throughout the Northwest. I think we’ve been very lucky during this period to have strong leaders throughout the organization, including executive directors and board presidents who had the intelligence, toughness and vision to make it possible for us to grow. Of course, not everyone wanted us to pursue this path- a very small, but vocal, minority would have preferred the “keep it small” approach. Others thought that a more appropriate 20th Anniversary concert would be an outdoor pops event to reach as many people in town as possible.
My feeling is that in this day and age, music is too important to keep small, and too badly needed to be relegated to being solely a form of entertainment. In a culture that is drowning in garbage, we need great music more than ever. We need to offer people an alternative to reality TV, lip-synching pop stars (the world’s biggest selling “classical” soprano, who is actually a mezzo, always lip-synchs her TV performances, which doesn’t bode well) and other soul destroying mass-media. I believe that we have a moral responsibility as musicians and music lovers to give as many of our fellow citizens the chance to discover the transformative power of great art as we possibly can.
I also believe that when reaching out to the community, it is important to give them the best of music, not just the most easily sold. One need only look at the epidemics of heart disease and type-two diabetes to understand that simply providing people with the most popular kinds of food doesn’t amount to providing them with the food they need to live healthy lives. Orchestras must continue to have faith that we provide something essential and vital, and that instead of abandoning that, we have to work harder to connect what we offer to the people who can benefit from it.
In the end, this experiment has been a very inspiring one. We always knew that this would be the most expensive concert we’ve ever done, and it was, but we were able to raise more money for this event than for any other program in the orchestra’s history. In fact, we raised nearly one dollar for this concert for every man woman and child in the city. Imagine what would happen in New York or Cincinnati if they could achieve that. This not only meant that we were able to pull off the concert, but also that in the process we have cultivated a whole new group of sponsors and donors.
Every concert is, in part, a bringing together of people, but a piece as large as Mahler 2 provides the organization with the opportunity to accelerate that process. One finds new donors, new volunteers, new helpers, new contractors and new musicians. On stage with us were a large number of founding members of the orchestra who have been with us throughout our 20 seasons, but also a large number of musicians for whom this was their first concert with the OES. Likewise, as it was our biggest seller in many years, we managed to bring in a large number of audience members whose first impression of the orchestra will be of us at our best in the kind of music that makes the hard work of keeping an orchestra alive worthwhile.