California's Modesto Symphony: Involving the Citzenry

I have written continuously about symphony orchestras and community engagement. I keep saying that the biggest change in the behavior of orchestras around the country in the past decade or so is that they are re-examining their relationships with their communities, expanding those relationships so that they are so much more than givers of concerts - although of course those concerts are and will always be at the center of what they are. But orchestras must be more than givers of subscription concerts - they must be meaningful to a wide range of people, many of whom may never actually attend those concerts. From a time when community programs started with the hope that they might increase attendance, they have become programs with a different goal - a goal of the symphony orchestra being a true community resource.

I saw a wonderful example of community relationships when I visited California's Modesto Symphony Orchestra recently. The Arts Access Initiatives of the Modesto Symphony Orchestra have the stated objective of presenting and promoting music to the widest possible citizenry by increasing involvement and cooperation between the MSO and their community. The basic mission statement of this program tasks the orchestra with networking with the community to uncover unmet needs, or needs that can only be met through new partnerships.

Obviously those of us in the orchestra business know full well that the cost of operating an orchestra can make tickets priced in such a way as to exclude some people from our concerts. The MSO has a wonderful answer for that: a program called Sound Check. Sound Check is a card that can be purchased by or for any student for $30. That card allows, with no further charge, admission to any and all Modesto Symphony classical concerts, with no limitations.  What a fabulous approach - and an idea that I'd love to see others adopt.

Then there is the Youth at Risk program - where young people identified by the Center for Human Services in Stanislaus County are given free tickets for them and their families to attend two of the orchestra's Friends and Family Concerts.

Add to that the Call for Instruments program - something that I'm learning is done by a growing number of orchestras. The MSO encourages their own musicians, donors and patrons, as well as community members in general, to donate old instruments that are no longer in use, so that school children in the area who cannot afford instruments can actually have an instrument with which to study music.

The Modesto Symphony has developed a relationship with the Hispanic Youth Leadership Council. The Hispanic community in Modesto takes a very strong interest in their young people and in developing them educationally and culturally. The orchestra works regularly with this organization in many ways. For instance, it hosted a residency with composer Gabriela Frank for over a year, and one of her roles was to create a work that reflected the community. In order to do this she spent a lot of time visiting various neighborhoods and organizations throughout the area. She came to develop a relationship with the Hispanic Youth Leadership Council, visiting the young people a number of times and discussing and showing how she went about the composition process. Some 200 of these young people were guests of the Modesto Symphony Orchestra at a concert featuring the premiere of her work.

What I've written here is not an exhaustive list of the Modesto Symphony Orchestra's community programs, nor am I suggesting that other orchestras are not doing equally interesting, imaginative, or thorough work. In fact, I know the opposite to be true - many orchestras are doing imaginative work in the area of civic engagement. But I wanted to share with you some of the programs I learned of specifically in one city from visiting that city - to point out something that we in the orchestra world know, but that many in this country do not know. These kinds of programs don't always get a lot of local publicity, because the press generally prefers either something glitzy and glamorous, or a crisis. The meaningful, ongoing, beneath-the-radar work of engaging communities goes on while orchestras retain a reputation for being "elitist," a word that just infuriates me. So I wanted to share just some programs of just one orchestra in hopes that they might call attention to the work of all orchestras - and perhaps provide a spark of inspiration to some orchestra administrations who might just say "hey...there's a good idea. Let's look into that one."

May 16, 2008 10:30 AM | | Comments (1)



Thank you so much for delineating all of the good community engagement efforts the Modesto Symphony has been involved in! These are precisely the kinds of activities that we are looking into for our urban schools and community members!
Currently, the Oregon Symphony is going into its 8th Community Music Partnership in 8 years with yet another rural Oregon community. This award winning program has had many successes and each two year partnership has reaped tremendous rewards in music awareness and education for these rural communities and schools! Our funding is through a generous grant from the Ford Family Foundation, specifically earmarked for the rural populations in OR.
What needs to happen next is to establish the same depth of resources in our own backyard in the Portland area schools and community! These ideas that you have shared will certainly be on our "to do" list, as soon as we find the support and funding! Any ideas?
Although we are adressing the needs of our changing demographics in our concert offerings and outreach work, we are constantly coming up against the harsh realities of a lack of school funded programs that might draw on the rich music resources that our musicians and conductors are eager to offer to the next generation. Same lyrics!
Thanks for passing on this inspirational piece to all of us!Keep up the great work Modesto Symphony!


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This page contains a single entry by on the record published on May 16, 2008 10:30 AM.

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