After taking a couple of severe beatings in the past 13 years, symphony orchestras are making another comeback, League of American Orchestras president and CEO Jesse Rosen told Utah Symphony | Utah Opera stakeholders this week.
Rosen addressed the US | UO’s annual general meeting in Abravanel Hall on Wednesday, two days before the orchestra’s season-closing concerts. It was a newsy week for Utah’s largest arts organization, as Utah Symphony music director Thierry Fischer extended his contract through the 2018-19 season. Stakeholders also were told that O.C. Tanner president and CEO Dave Peterson will succeed Pat Richards when she steps down as US | UO board chairwoman Sept. 1 after a trio of three-year terms. Richards recently was appointed as chairwoman of the League of American Orchestras board and will continue to serve on the Utah board.
Rosen, an erstwhile trombonist who studied at the Manhattan School of Music and the Juilliard School before embarking on a professional career that has included time as general manager of the Seattle Symphony and orchestra manager at the New York Philharmonic, said he has been an admirer of the Utah Symphony since the days of noted music director Maurice Abravanel.
"The Utah Symphony, and what [Abravanel] stood for, continues to be present in my own thinking and musical experience," Rosen said in a chat before the meeting. "He was ahead of his time." Rosen cited two of the late maestro’s "pioneering ideas": embedding the orchestra deep in the community and building a high-quality, risk-taking ensemble. For a long time, he said, many high-profile orchestras viewed community outreach as antithetical to musical excellence.
Today’s orchestra executives are becoming aware that they need to adapt to a changed society, Rosen said. The health of arts organizations has reflected the world economy, with marked downturns after the 2001 terrorist attacks and the 2008 recession. "We’re now in a period of recovery," Rosen said. And, by and large, orchestras are "coming to grips with the world as it is today." One crucial step is reaching and retaining first-time ticket buyers.
Richards pointed to several Utah Symphony initiatives aimed at recruiting young and not-so-young concertgoers: the long-standing outreach program that takes the orchestra to public schools all over the state; the Mighty 5 tour, which will include performances at the state’s five national parks this summer; the docent program that brings fifth-graders to Abravanel Hall for an educational concert; ticket discounts for students, teachers and people under 30; the All-Star Evening and Pro-Am concerts, which bring in friends and family members as well as the students and adult amateurs who get a chance to play with the orchestra; and the Cadenza and Vivace social groups, which sponsor pre- and postconcert parties for senior citizens and young adults, respectively.
"Contrary to what many would have you believe, orchestras are not shrinking or dying or anachronistic," said Rosen, noting that there are 1,200 professional and community orchestras in the United States now, compared with 1,100 a decade ago. "They remain a very robust part of the performing arts."
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