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February 1, 2008

Reading Symphony Orchestra: Serious about its future

On January 19, I spent the day with the Reading Symphony Orchestra in Reading, Pa. Reading is a city of about 90,000, in a metropolitan area of about 300,000. But within that metropolitan area are other orchestras in other communities (Lancaster, York), so they are not the only orchestra serving their area. They have recently appointed a music director, Andrew Constantine. This was quite typical of a day I might spend with an orchestra, and I thought it might be worth sharing with you.

The shape of the day was:
8:00am-Breakfast with Andrew Constantine
10:00am-Session with the board - mostly Q&A
1:30-3:00pm-Meeting with community leaders, executive committee, and mayor
5:30-7:30pm-Dinner with executive director and board member who had chaired the music director search committee
10:00pm-Reception in concert hall

The meeting with the board was prepared and planned by the Reading Symphony Orchestra, and I was given questions to discuss. I won't even try to replicate the discussion, which was very intense and involved everyone; this is a great board that takes its role very seriously. But I thought it would be interesting to share with you the questions, which were sent to me in advance. Where the questions led to other subjects I have added that in parentheses.

Role of the League, what it means to orchestras and to the Reading Symphony.

What are best practices in orchestras of comparable size? (I turned this discussion toward governance, rather than the more operational ideas that they were thinking of; we spoke a lot here about the board, and how it functioned.)

Should we be striving for the next level? How do we determine that? What did other orchestras do to get there? (I turned this into a discussion of what they meant by "next level," and really focusing on mission and vision.)

Discuss trends in keeping orchestras modern while still pleasing the classical audience.

Identify orchestras that are adjusting to the 21st century. How are they bringing in new subscribers, single-ticket buyers, etc.? What are thoughts about pricing?

Impact of new media. What is working?

What are other orchestras doing to bring in young-generation support groups?

In Reading there is a great emphasis on educating children as a means for fund raising. We have two very successful youth orchestras, and student concerts featuring student winners of competition. Are we doing enough? What are orchestras doing to engage their communities?

As you can see, they gave a lot of thought to the meeting, and as you might guess, when the three hours were up we hadn't covered everything. But it was a very stimulating, energetic discussion. I was very impressed that about 27 trustees (out of 35) gave over three hours of a Saturday morning for this meeting.

The lunch consisted of the executive committee (who had been at the morning session) along with some other heads of other arts organizations, and the city's mayor. Mayor Tom McMahon is a genuine music lover - and quite knowledgeable. He sat next to me at lunch, and we occasionally talked about different music and performances. The general discussion was a kind of continuation of the morning meeting - but the mayor surprised me at one point when I said something about applauding between movements and he said "oh yes, you made that point in your blog." It turns out that the mayor is a regular reader of this blog, and quoted it often during the lunch. What a lucky city Reading is, to have a musically knowledgeable and caring mayor.

The concert was for strings alone, and was very impressive. Andrew Constantine conducted with very sensitive dynamic shadings and phrasing, and put together an interesting program:

HOLST St. Paul's Suite
POULENC Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Timpani
DVORAK Serenade for Strings.

The orchestra plays in a glorious setting, an old Masonic theater/temple originally built in the 1880s, damaged by a fire and restored in the 1920s. Good acoustics, plenty of public spaces, and gorgeous interior design. They are very fortunate. It has about 1750 seats, and the Reading Symphony tends to sell about 1500-1600 of them on average.

The orchestra's budget is $1.6 million, they have operated with a balanced budget for the past five years or so, despite a low endowment (under $800,000). They are contemplating an endowment drive.

This is an orchestra with no sense of crisis, currently in a honeymoon stage with their new music director, who seems deeply involved off the podium. (Andrew has committed to more days this season than is required by his contract, and from talking with him I sense that he cares about the institution very much. They are thinking about growth in a controlled way, but growth nonetheless, and examining themselves in a very healthy way. In addition, the quality of the string playing in the concert was at a very high professional level (about half their musicians live in Reading, the other half are freelancers from a variety of places, including Philadelphia and New York). All-in-all, this was one more very healthy example of a smaller community orchestra that has found its role and that serves both music and its community very well.

Posted by hfogel at February 1, 2008 11:21 AM

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It's heartening to hear about a regional orchestra that's in such good shape. I heard them a few times under their previous conductor (now laureate), Sidney Rothstein, who stayed with the RSO for 30 years and built it into something that's not only musically fine, but also supported by the vibrant and devoted community that you spent the day with. Presumably the new director is benefiting from that.

In Philadelphia, people recall wistfully the days when conductors spend decades with their orchestras. Rothstein's commitment to Reading was apparently something quite special. (Disclosure: I worked with Sidney before he went to Reading, and I knew what they were getting.)

Posted by: Eric Bruskin at February 2, 2008 8:53 AM