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October 24, 2007

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: A Model Community Resource

If you believe, as I do, that for orchestras to continue to survive and thrive, they have to be true community resources--they need to make connections to their community that go beyond giving subscription concerts, no matter how good those concerts are--the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra may be a model for our field. I spent two days with them in early October, and came away invigorated, stimulated, and filled with visions of how orchestras can accomplish this. The ASO is an integral part of so much of Atlanta that it is, in truth, a genuinely important resource for all of Atlanta...

It would take far too much space to go into a lot of detail here, but I'll try to summarize. In 1996, the ASO formed the Outreach Taskforce to design community programs; this cross-constituency group included board members, staff, and musicians. In 2005, the ASO combined its education and community engagement departments into a Department of Education and Community Engagement, also known as the Learning Community. They brought in outside experts to re-think the vision of their education and engagement work. They developed two senior positions that would share responsibility for education activities in the community: a Director for Learning Development, and an ASO Community Catalyst. Both report to the VP for the Learning Community. They have an enormous number of programs in both areas, education and community engagement, many of which overlap. There are workshops, in-school master classes, Boys & Girls Club after school music program, the Latin American Association After-School Strings Program, United Way programs, Symphony Street Concerts, a youth orchestra, adult education programs, neXt Generation Concerts, and more. About 80 percent of their musicians volunteer time for these programs. The musicians I spoke with were intensely proud of their community work. I cannot summarize these programs here in a brief report, but I have not encountered as broad and deep a series of programs and community relationships anywhere.

One program that deserves mention is the Talent Development Program--TDP--designed to develop classical music talent among young Latino and African American students. TDP prepares students for conservatory/college level study by providing instruction, mentoring, performance opportunities, and complimentary admission to ASO concerts. A scholarship fund assists TDP students who wish to attend summer music training programs, such as the Aspen Music Festival and School and the Interlochen Center for the Arts. Since 1993 more than 70 students have enrolled in TDP, the majority of them choosing to pursue a career in music. The ASO states in its overview of the program: "The TDP addresses the need to create a broader talent pool of well-trained, diverse musicians who are qualified to audition for major professional orchestras in the United States." The program began in 1993 with just a few musicians; it now has 25 African-American and Latino students from the Atlanta metropolitan area.

There is, throughout the organization, a sense of openness of communication, and a sense of enormous value placed on the orchestra's relationships with a wide range of community organizations and community partners. One hears this from musicians, board leaders, administrative staff, and Music Director Robert Spano. Every subject seems open to discussion and examination, and there is a phenomenal sense of energy around these programs.

The concert I heard also showed the ASO to be in terrific shape--the "Queen Mab" scherzo in Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet (they played the orchestral scenes) is a notoriously difficult piece, and it was played with astonishing delicacy and clarity and precision. All in all, my two days with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra provided me with an enormous optimism about where we are heading in the world of American orchestras.

Posted by hfogel at October 24, 2007 4:10 PM

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Any idea what might persuade them to banish that word "outreach", with its implications of an inner core extending occasional tendrils to touch those outside the magic circle?

The programs sound wonderful, and there can never be too much music education! All the more pity to undermine the good work with that alienating label...

Posted by: Karl Fogel at October 24, 2007 5:20 PM

It is fantastic to read about Atlanta's programs and especially the high percentage of musicians volunteering. I think a lot of orchestras would like to do more in this field - or have already tried to do more - but wind up dealing with "service count" issues in their contracts.

Henry, do you know of some orchestras who have successfully dealt with this situation?

While I have heard of some anecdotally, I prefer not to guess in a sensitive area like this - so perhaps some folks involved with orchestras taking different approaches to this issue might let us know.


Posted by: Larry Fried at October 25, 2007 4:45 PM

One puzzle, though. At Saturday night's concert -- featuring pleasant 20th century French music and a Gershwin piece -- two-thirds to half of the prime orchestra seats were empty. It was a big college football game night, but couldn't these wealthy corporate and individual subscribers manage to find bodies eager to fill this embarrassing emptiness? This was not a unique situation, I fear. As occasional out-of-town visitors, we can usually depend on getting good Saturday night seats on short notice. In contrast, our hometown orchestra in Sarasota is typically sold out on Saturday nights.

Posted by: Raymond Johnson at October 29, 2007 9:17 AM

Another band that is very good at outreach is the Austin Symphony Orchestra, playing in high school gyms as well as annual concerts to which kids from all over town are bussed. Two or three chamber music societies in Austin also work in the schools giving lessons. We have only to look at Venezuela's national 'el sistema' to see how valuable outreach can be, taking kids out of slums and making musicians out of them; and 'outreach' is the perfect word for reaching out as opposed to sitting around whining about the state of 'classical' music.

Posted by: Donald Clarke at October 30, 2007 1:48 PM

Atlanta Symphony sounds like they have really embraced the idea of being a community resource. One similar idea I have heard in my arts administration grad program is the idea of "public value" of the arts. Atlanta Symphony is a great model.

Posted by: K. Alexander Smith at October 31, 2007 8:41 AM

Here in St. Louis, the Symphony has had their "Community Partnerships Program" for over a decade now, where musicians from the orchestra perform in venues outside of the main symphony hall, both in Missouri and in Illinois. I even got funding for one such event at a local university and hosted it. For a first doing doing that, it attracted a nice crowd, 100 for a setup of 120 seats, but I was disappointed that not more students came. Still, one can't complain there overall.

Contrast the attitude of Atlanta, St. Louis, and Austin with one musician from the New York Philharmonic, quoted in this 2004 article: "Are you sending the Yankees to Newark?" (Just so people know, Mr. Fogel is quoted elsewhere in the article.)

Posted by: Geo. at October 31, 2007 11:30 PM

Atlanta arts organizations generally are big on education and "outreach" (or whatever you want to call that sort of thing. (I've served on the boards of several mid-size theatre & visual arts groups, so I have some familiarity with these issues.) Of course, funders love these programs, and there are good reasons for doing them; the challenge is getting donors to realize the necessity of subsidizing the basic mission of the nonprofit intitution, whether it be orchestras, opera, ballet, theatre, or visual art.

Our recent experiences at the ASO have not included large numbers of empty seats. We tend to go on Fridays, and even with contemporary music on the program, the orchestra seats and loge (lower balcony) have been around 90% full. I think the upper balcony rarely fills up - I don't want to sit up there, and it's one reason we need the new symphony hall!

Posted by: BPJ at November 2, 2007 12:44 PM