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January 5, 2007

Field Report: The Eugene Symphony Orchestra

In early December I spent two days with one of the real success stories in American orchestras: the Eugene Symphony Orchestra in Oregon. Here is an orchestra that has operated with a balanced budget (of about $1.6 million) for many years now and has grown artistically to a remarkably high level of playing. Despite their success - the orchestra plays in a 2,400 seat hall to an 85-90% attendance - the orchestra is not afraid to experiment and take risks.

Part of their success has to do with three wise choices of music directors over the past fifteen years or so. Their philosophy is to find an exciting, young talent, help that talent to grow, and watch them move on to higher visibility posts. Their approach seems, in fact, to be "if the music director we hire is still here ten years later, we made a mistake!" Their last three music directors have been Marin Alsop, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, and (currently) Giancarlo Guerrero. Each has stretched the orchestra. For instance, I remember hearing a vital, committed performance of John Corigliano's challenging Symphony Of Rage and Remembrance more than ten years ago under Alsop. I'm willing to bet that the orchestra is now at a point where if I played you a CD without identifying the orchestra, you'd guess one at ten times the budget level.

Many positive things struck me during my visit, but two really stood out. The first was the committed attitude of the Board and the management. Here is an orchestra running in the black, playing at a very high level, filling the house fairly well, recognized and respected in its community. So you'd think this a perfect setting for some complacency. Why not do business as usual when business as usual seems pretty good? After all - "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Well, this organization shares my feelings about that management cliché: our job is to catch it before it breaks - and so I was asked to help lead a retreat for Board and senior staff because they want to improve their organization. They want to build a better endowment, to stretch their ideas of education and community and engagement, and to grow the orchestra to even better levels. It is admirable to find an organization thinking that way when it doesn't have to.

The other thing that stood out was the video enhancement of the concert I saw. The program, stunningly conducted by Guerrero, featured their fine chorus in Vaughan Williams' Serenade to Music, Bruckner's setting of Psalm 150, and Beethoven's Ninth. When I learned that they were going to add video enhancement, provided by the company of board member Carolyn Chambers, I was very curious to see how they would do it. The approach was to have three cameras, and project the conductor, or orchestra, chorus, or soloists, onto two large screens placed to the left and right of the stage. To me, adding video enhancement has the potential of shrinking the distance between audience and stage, and bringing the audience closer to the music - or it has the ability to destroy the musical experience by distracting the audience with ever-changing camera angles and shots. I've never seen video enhancement done better than it was in Eugene. The director was musically sensitive, shot changes were subtle, and most importantly, the director trusted the music and wasn't afraid to linger. The result was video that did truly enhance the listening experience. This concert showed me that there is a video technique that can truly deepen the musical experience, by letting the audience feel closer to the people making the music.

I also saw a larger-than-usual number of young people, people clearly under thirty, at this concert (which was a non-subscription special). Response from the audience that I heard at intermission was extremely positive, from old and young audience members. I have no idea if the expectation of the video attracted the young folks there, or maybe it was just that always-famous Beethoven Ninth. But whatever the reason, it was heartening.

I am often asked to give examples of orchestras of various sizes that I can point to as successes, and the truth is there are many of them. One, without question, is the Eugene Symphony Orchestra.

Posted by hfogel at January 5, 2007 9:08 AM

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