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
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
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
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."