Oregon East Symphony 2008-9 Audience Survey: Results and KW Comments

At our season opening concert last week, the OES did our first Audience Survey in many years. The results were surprising and interesting in several ways. Below see the results and my comments


Please rate your Overall Experience with us tonight-

Overall Experience “Excellent”- 96%

Overall Experience “Fair”- 3%

Overall Experience “Neutural” 0%

Overall Experience “Unsatisfactory” 0%

Overall Experience “Poor” 0%

KW Comments- These are encouraging numbers.  Additional comments seem to indicate that the only areas of concern had to do with snafus involving seating and ticket-taking. There were some backups at doors and a couple of double-sold seats. This kind of thing happens from time to time, and we’ll try to get more people on the doors next concert. At least nobody had bird poo on their seat, which happened a few years ago when part of the Vert’s ceiling gave way.


Please rate the Quality of this Evening’s Performance-

Performance Quality “Excellent” 96%

Performance Quality “Fair” 3%

Performance Quality “Neutural” 0%

Performance Quality “Unsatisfactory” 0%

Performance Quality “Poor” 0 %

KW Comments- Obviously, this one in many ways means the most to me. It’s a big improvement over the last survey (done in my 2nd year with the orchestra), and a HUGE one over the survey done at the end of my predecessor’s tenure (he said shamelessly gloating). It’s doubly rewarding to hear this about such a difficult concert- much bigger-budget bands would struggle with preparing the Dvorak and Bloch on such a tight rehearsal schedule.


Please rate this evening’s selection of works-

Program Selection “Excellent” 85%

Program Selection “Fair” 14%

Program Selection “Neutral” 1%

Program Selection “Unsatisfactory” 0%

Program Selection “Poor” 0%

KW Comments- To be honest, this is one of the bigger surprises for me on this survey. Considering that the entire first half of the program was unknown repertoire, and that the Bloch is in some ways a rather austere and intense piece in a musical language that may be unfamiliar to a Pendleton audience (it is the first Bloch of any kind the orchestra has ever done), I’m thrilled we did so well, with 99% of audience members responding favorably to the program, and 85% very favorably. I think this is partly the result of many years of hard work introducing unusual works here- our audience is now willing to invest itself in an unfamiliar piece.


What types of pieces are you most interested in hearing on a concert (pick as many as you like)

Symphonies- 87%

Concertos-  60%

Choral- 63%

Light Classics- 50%

Pops- 47%

Small Ensembles- 40%

KW Comments- I get a lot of pressure to do more Pops and Light Classics at the OES (although we have done a lot of both, particularly Light Classics). How interesting then, that it is Symphonies that come in first, and that Pops and Light Classics are minority interests. Of course, this is a survey of an audience that came to hear Tchaik 4, so it is by no means a representative sample- there may be others out there who didn’t come tonight who would come to a Pops show. However, it looks like only half of tonight’s audience would really want to come back for a Light Classics show, and less than that for Pops. We focus a lot on how to get new people to come, but this reinforces that the people who are coming are coming because they get what they want here.


Length of Concert

Good length- 95%

Too long-  5%

Too Short- 0%

KW Comments- To the best of my knowledge, no audience member anywhere has ever rated a concert of any kind as “too short.” On the other hand, I often find with less than world-class orchestras a pressure to add one extra piece to “fill out” the program lest it be “a little short.” This often tips a difficult program into being a nearly impossible one. However, the great, and VERY surprising news here is that only 5% of respondents thought tonight’s concert was too long. This was a HUGE program- a long and hefty opener, a four movement concerto and the Tchaik, complete with 20 minute first movement.  I’m pretty sure that one of those who thought it was too long was the lady at the reception who told me “Ken, you know , those last two pieces were really long…. Really long….Don’t you think they were long?” (yes, I was offended).


Program suggestions

“Tchaikovsky’s always been my favorite!”

“Modern (Messiaen, Cage, etc)”

“Charles Ives”

“Movie Music”

“Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Lizst, Mendelssohn, Rossini”

“I enjoyed last season’s opera with the group from Portland”

KW Comments- Okay, I really wasn’t expecting to see Messiaen on this list. One of the current heartbreaks in my life is that nobody has hired me to conduct any Messiaen (whose music I am very, very passionate about, and I know Turangalila backwards having covered it twice) in this, his anniversary year. Had I had even this one request to go on, you can bet we would have been the first redneck orchestra to do Turangalila this year. The 2 Tchaikovskys remind me of my comment about repertoire types- Tchaik fans come to Tchaik concerts. Not at all surprised to get the request for Movie Music (some of which we’ve done, but not tons- it’s expensive), but more surprised that contemporary music out paced it in popularity.

Other Suggestions or comments

“Supply pencils for survey”

“This concert was outstanding!”

“I wish I had come before tonight!”

“Lift the back section of the orchestra up higher”

“Please avoid Sunday afternoon concerts! Children under 4 years should be strongly discouraged!”

“Recently I heard the Tchaikovsky on PBS. OES is way better than TV! The Chamber Music on Sunday was world class! Really!”

“Orchestra sounds great”

“I would like to see local musicians perform. Hired professional musicians can be seen elsewhere”

“Perhaps half of the program could be symphonic with less performed works and the 2nd half with works containing recognizable melodies.”

KW Comments- I was delighted to see so many flattering comments, and to know that the chamber music went down so well. I’m not sure who conducted the inferior Tchaik 4 on PBS, but I hope it was Lorin Maazel.

So, maybe I can take a moment here to address the criticisms. The back of our orchestra is on risers, and probably about as high up as they can go because the ceiling above them (this is the brass section, of course) is fairly low. We also often sit the basses at the back (especially for Beethoven), and they need to stand on the risers, so the current height is close to the max our stage will allow. I’m sure that whoever requested that was sitting on the main floor, which is really too low relative to the height of the stage and the length of the hall. A patron on the middle of the main floor still has their eyes below the lip of the stage which isn’t good.

The comment about local musician participation is not surprising- I was expecting more of these. This is a discussion that has run through my tenure at the OES, often in heated terms. There is still a strong local contingent in the orchestra, but 10 years ago, the orchestra was all local. The fact is that many of the local musicians who were in the orchestra 10 years ago have either moved away or retired (the membership of the orchestra was remarkably stable for its first 15 years. Many of them were already in their 50s when the orchestra started, and are now in their 70s ).

I also find the concept of “hired’ musicians in itself to be distasteful- it has too much of the ring of “hired help,” as if they were a gang of musical mercenaries.  I don’t know any group with more commitment and esprit de corps than our musicians, both local and commuting. Our commuters are people who travel great distances and go to a lot of trouble rearranging their teaching schedules (and often missing out on better paid gigs in the city) to be with us. I rate a musician’s “belonging” in an orchestra in terms of what they give of themselves to the orchestra- are they invested, are they committed, are they prepared, do they play their guts out, are the kind to audience members? I don’t give a damn what their zip code is.

Of course, part of the orchestra’s mission is to provide an opportunity for local musicians to make music at a high level, something I think we’ve been very successful at, but I dislike the very notion of dividing up musicians based on where they live, since that has nothing to do with what they bring to the orchestra. Once the rehearsal starts, we’re all equal members of the orchestra-  musicians and collaborators, regardless of where we’re from, what we look like or anything else. I hope that after I’m gone, maybe those who would ban anyone from “away” will stop seeing our out-of-town musicians as mercenaries and recognize that this is a remarkable group of people who have been incredibly loyal and generous in trying to bring great music to a rural area for many years. In doing so, I’m sure they’ve enriched the musical lives of our local musicians immeasurably- how many times has a local player said to me “thanks for bringing in Biff- I learned so much sitting with him,” or “I never imagined we’d get to play a piece like that Schnittke opera we did on Tuesday here in such a rural area” (no, we’ve never done a Schnittke opera in real life). My interest in working with any musician who judges a colleague on their zip code, whether someone from a big city who looks down on a rural resident, or a rural musician who thinks that city musicians are just in it for the money, is minimal at best, as is my sympathy for the listener who only wants to hear people who live on their block.

Finally- the comment about programming. We’ve done that format of concert (one half substantial, one half light/familiar)  before several times, but it is limiting because you can’t do a lot of things that you want to do- if you look at the data on audience preference, a lot of people who do want to hear a symphony don’t want to hear  the pops stuff, and probably vis-a-versa. Still, I’m sure it is a format the orchestra will come back to from time to time. This year on our main series we’re doing one Overture-Concerto-Symphony program, one program of short well-known, single movement works, a Holiday Pops concert, a single-work concert (Mahler 5) and a two work concert with choirs (Mozart Requiem and Beethoven 2). That kind of variety of program has been pretty typical in recent years.

Anyway, it would be great to hear from some of our musicians or listeners here about the results of this survey, or your reactions to my comments. Do you agree? Do you disagree? Would we have gotten completely different results had we passed out pencils?

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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2 comments on “Oregon East Symphony 2008-9 Audience Survey: Results and KW Comments”

  1. Erik K

    Agreed 1000% on the “hired help” thing. There is an atmosphere at OES that exists nowhere else, and it comes not strictly from the local folks, but also from the big-city folks who jump at the chance to go. The inclusion of professionals from points beyond not only raises the artistic standards of the orchestra, but raises the artistic and cultural standards of the participants themselves.

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