Symphonies aren’t supposed to be stuffy or elitist. People used to bring wine and throw tomatoes in the original concert halls. They were more like jazz nightclubs.
Somewhere along the line, orchestras changed. Matthew Savery, the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra music director and conductor, is trying to change them back – minus the tomato-throwing.
“[Audience members] don’t need to wear tuxes or have classical degrees,” Savery said. “They just need to close their eyes and enjoy.”
He explains portions of pieces to the audience during the performances and chooses some programs people are more likely to know. His efforts, combined with talented musicians, a supportive board and loyal community, means the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra is the most successful it’s been in decades. At the same time, orchestras around the nation are collapsing.
“In a nutshell, orchestras across the country are seeing a decrease in audience and decrease in funding, both federal and state dollars and individual donors,” said Rachel Bailey, executive director of the symphony. “They’re really struggling to keep their programs afloat.”
The Minnesota Orchestra held its annual fundraiser last week but the symphony itself hasn’t played in a year. The Nashville Symphony came within a day of foreclosing on its concert hall. Orchestras in Honolulu, Albuquerque and Philadelphia have filed for bankruptcy.
The 2008 financial collapse hurt. Savery noticed at his orchestra in Bozeman, Mont., that donors seemed to cut their gifts by the same percentage they lost in their portfolios. Local endowments also took a hit, he said.
But other factors came into play. Many symphonies started to suffer a disconnect between management, musicians and the audience, causing a decline in viewers. Orchestras responded by pairing their musicians with pop stars for concerts that often lost more money than they made. A current trend is small groups, such as a string quartet, playing in bars. Savery calls it a gimmick with limited chance of success.
“An orchestra, to succeed, has to be something the community embraces,” he said.
It has to build audiences who are loyal and will stay loyal, he said. That means selling them on classical music, not classical music paired with Michael Bolton. While those concerts are important, they’re not going to save the industry.
The Wyoming Symphony Orchestra is building a base, Savery said, and dreaming about the future.
It is inviting families with children to dress rehearsals for a cheaper ticket and more informal experience in the middle of the day instead of late at night. Savery is going into the community talking to service groups and giving speeches. The orchestra plans to hold a children’s concert with actors, comedy and props to hook them when they’re young. It may even start performing summer concerts.
The orchestra is also not shirking on quality. It brings in world-class artists such as Russian pianist Alexander Ghindin who will perform Oct. 5.
“One thing I’ve learned, whether people have a Ph.D. or a second-grade level, they can intuit quality,” Savery said.
And it’s paying off. Last year was one of the most successful seasons in recent memory. Attendance increased by 25 percent. The orchestra paired with a ballet for Swan Lake and sold out, Bailey said.
Christine Dunbar notices a difference when she scans the crowded symphony hall. She’s been a cellist for the Wyoming orchestra for 15 years, working as principle cellist for the past 10 years.
“You look and see how many people are in the seats compared to five or six years ago. It’s spectacular,” she said. “The orchestra is improving and in a really neat period of growth.”
The decline of orchestras around the country makes her sad. Symphonies aren’t a dying art.
With the combination of talented musicians, a forward-thinking conductor, supportive board and growing audience, Wyoming’s orchestra is bucking the trend.
“It’s like the stars have aligned,” she said. “We have all of the right elements to make a magical combination.”