Posted on August 21, 2019

How a Conference in Utah Could Help Save the Symphony World

Lottie Elizabeth Johnson, Deseret News, August 19, 2019


As members of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians gather in Park City this week, one of the most important items on their agenda is how to prove their value in an ever-growing and competitive entertainment industry.

“We have to remain relevant. That’s an issue for everybody, is how do the orchestras keep their profile in the public eye … as music education is being swept to the side by our public schools and nobody really comes up wanting to be a part of classical music or listening to it,” said Meredith Snow, chair of ICSOM and a longtime violist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “That is just becoming a smaller and smaller segment of our society, and so we have to fight to maintain relevance.”


Utah Symphony and Utah Opera spends $4 million on education outreach each year — about 20% of the organization’s overall budget. Every season, the Utah Symphony puts on 50-60 concerts in schools, and just a few months ago, music director Thierry Fischer conducted an orchestra featuring 250 teenagers from five high schools in a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird.”

“I don’t know of any other state that invests in the student experience, being inspired by professional artists, the way that we have,” Paula Fowler, Utah Symphony and Utah Opera’s director of education and community outreach, previously told the Deseret News. “Our professional arts organizations serve many more students than most professional organizations do.”

Introducing younger listeners to classical music in turn helps with another pressing issue currently facing orchestras nationwide: the quest for donors.

“Because we’re a nonprofit — unlike the movies or Broadway shows — we’re kind of more like museums in the sense that we need donated dollars above and beyond ticket sales to keep our doors open,” Snow said. “We are losing orchestras.”

Snow pointed out that over the last few years, several orchestras such as the Louisville Orchestra and Philadelphia Orchestra have filed for bankruptcy, while the Atlanta Symphony decreased its year-round season to 42 weeks.


Reflecting your audience


“You look at most orchestras, we’re very white. Our donors are white and our patrons are white, and that does not reflect the society that we live in,” Snow said. “We need to be looking at inclusion and diversity, and offering female composers and conductors and people of color and Latinx — all of those things are relevant to how we maintain ourselves. We’re definitely behind the eight ball.”

Orchestras throughout the nation are trying to catch up by diversifying their programming, although those efforts look different in each market. In recent years, the Utah Symphony has highlighted female composers, conductors and musicians, as well as works from composers of color. Snow pointed to her own orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which has sought to attract new audiences by being on “the cutting edge of contemporary music.” {snip}


“It’s vital that people become involved in a political sense to promote orchestras. … If we don’t preserve the orchestras, preserve this art form, it’s just going to die on the vine, and that tremendous accomplishment of humanity would be lost,” Snow said. “You just have to keep your community alive and connected and vibrant, and I think that the arts, that’s what they’re there for.”