The RPO after COVID

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The RPO must navigate a world altered by the pandemic and heightened awareness of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic disparities.
(Photo credit: smilliephoto.com)

A double challenge confronts the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra as COVID-19 vaccinations bring the promise of a return to live performance.

First, the pandemic changed the world of live entertainment. How can the RPO use the experience as a springboard for a new integration of in-person and recorded performance, strengthening its revenue base in the process? Second, the pandemic and the death of Daniel Prude have highlighted disparities by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. As the RPO builds its future, how can it serve as a bridge to a more equitable future—one that helps strengthen its finances by broadening its audience?

New leader arrives amid a pandemic cash crunch

Andreas Delfs
(Photo by Alex Cassetti)

At the forefront of the RPO’s response to these challenges is Maestro Andreas Delfs, who succeeded Ward Stare, beginning his tenure as music director in January. With a rich and varied career directing orchestras around the world, including a dozen years building the reputation of the Milwaukee Symphony and a number of appearances as RPO guest conductor, he’s been warmly welcomed by musicians and management alike.

“Andreas is the perfect conductor to lead the orchestra in Philharmonics concerts that will be cathartic and inspiring and touch our audience in powerful ways,” says President and CEO Curt Long.

The pandemic, which arrived here last March, blew a big hole in the RPO’s income statement: Although ticket revenue contributed nearly half of the orchestra’s operating revenue in previous years, box office receipts shut like a faucet as venues closed. The orchestra began offering online performances on a subscription basis in the fall, but at prices and attendance well below the norm, opening the faucet to just a trickle.

Long reports that the best-attended streamed performance, the Holiday Pops concert in December, attracted 1,573 paid households at $25 each (discounted when purchased as part of a package), well below the 6,105 tickets sold to 2019’s live performance. As couples and family groups are common at RPO performances, particularly the Holiday Pops, total “attendance” at this performance in 2020 was probably better than half that in 2019. Yet, as Long observes, the revenue from streamed performance is less than a tenth of what the live performance would have earned.

Wes Nance

Like families confronted by adversity, some orchestras pulled together and others were pulled apart. Led by the musicians, Long, Pops Conductor Jeff Tyzik and a supportive board of directors chaired by Harter, Secrest & Emergy attorney Ross Lanzafame, the RPO unleashed the remarkable creativity of members, selected Delfs as new music director and started plans for a triumphant Centennial in 2022. Wes Nance, chair of the Orchestra Committee (thus head of the union), recently participated in a nationwide meeting of his peers. Based on what he heard at that meeting, he reports that “the RPO is probably in the top 5 percent of orchestras” in the level of cooperation, a sentiment echoed by Long.

Salaries and benefits were 64 percent of the RPO’s $10.7 million 2019-20 budget. The orchestra slashed costs in the 2020-21 budget by 35 percent through a negotiated pay cut to musicians, temporary furloughs and position eliminations. The 21 percent reduction in musician compensation involved eliminating four weeks of pay, reducing the RPO’s retirement contributions plus shifting four weeks to the summer of 2021 (thus the next fiscal year). Eliminating out-of-pocket costs of canceled concerts, such as rent for Kodak Hall, made for additional savings.

Other organizations stopped paying their musicians altogether. The Nashville Symphony laid off 79 musicians (49 full time) on July 1, although partial pay resumed in January. The Metropolitan Opera’s musicians haven’t been paid since April 1, although partial pay is being restored as part of an agreement to return to bargaining.

Strong support from donors and funds from the Payroll Protection Program (part of the federal CARES Act passed last March) helped the RPO navigate the loss in ticket sales. CFO Ron Steinmiller reports that the CARES Act delivered $1.2 million in 2020 and is expected to bring $1.3 million this year. The RPO also expects to qualify for as much as a $500,000 from the CARES Act’s Employee Retention Credit program. 

Contributed funds increased about $2 million in fiscal year 2019-20. Steinmiller cautions that while the RPO’s annual campaign grew from $2.4 million to $2.7 million, major additions to the endowment—including a $400,000 bequest—accounted for the rest of the increase.

Is it live or is it YouTube?

The pandemic has forced many people to get comfortable with video communication and new ways to consume entertainment from home. Just as patrons have been forced online, so has the RPO, in turn forcing an examination of the balance between live and recorded performance.

In a post-COVID world, does streaming bring new revenue and spur interest in live performance? Or does it cannibalize in-person events? Is there a long-term audience for RPO streams, given the vast array of other online sources of orchestral music? Can production quality of a recorded performance meet the RPO’s high professional standards?

The Detroit Symphony, a U.S. standout in online offerings, performs J.S. Bach’s “Concerto for Three Harpsichords in C Major.”

Some of the world’s orchestras have established a formidable portfolio of online performances, with the Detroit Symphony a standout in the United States. Nance points to the Berlin Philharmonic as the global leader. The Berlin Phil streams 40 live concerts a year and makes them available on a subscription basis after the fact, a resource including hundreds of recordings. A monthly subscription is €14.90 a month or €149 a year—about $18 or $178. 

The Berlin Philharmonic, seen performing outdoors at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, streams 40 live concerts a year.

Visual ‘calling card’

Delfs broke new ground at the Milwaukee Symphony by posting recorded concerts online. “The experience of having our recordings—which we chose from the best of our regular radio broadcasts—available on a new medium was very important for the Milwaukee Symphony in developing a higher national profile,” he says.

He sees an important role for recorded video performances by the RPO as they can serve “as an exploratory mission to see how many people might enjoy the experience of recalling a concert they experienced live and want to continue enjoying at home, or the opportunity for the loyal subscriber to participate in a concert event that they might have missed live in the hall. Currently, the RPO is not offering a lot of visual ‘calling cards.’” 

Five performances in the 21-22 season will be offered online. Yet streaming isn’t costless for the orchestra. Currently, neither Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre (the RPO’s principal home) nor the Hochstein School of Music’s performance hall have sufficient equipment to support high-quality video production. The orchestra has to engage an outside production company to set up, record and produce performances intended for streaming. As Tyzik cautions, video production “isn’t the RPO’s business.”

Live and video can be complementary

Matt McDonald

Given the choice, few sports fans prefer video to live events. RPO patrons are no different. Yet as technology has revolutionized home viewing of football or soccer, video can enhance a viewer’s experience of an orchestral performance. The recorded performance might add commentary from conductors or soloists and close-ups of performers. 

One of the delights of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” for example, is the many wonderful instrumental solos. A video capture might include a series of closeups of, say, Matt McDonald, the RPO’s principal bassoon, as he plays the ballet’s “Chinese Dance.” (Listen here to a fun rendition by The Breaking Winds, a bassoon quartet of Eastman School of Music grads.)

A new emphasis on diversity

Herb Smith joined the RPO in 1991, shortly after graduating from the Eastman School. With the exception of a brief stint by jazz great Ron Carter while an Eastman student, Smith was the first—and remains the only—Black musician in the orchestra. 

Herb Smith

New York Times music critic Michael Tomassini urges the orchestra world to do better: “The status quo is not working. If things are to change, ensembles must be able to take proactive steps to address the appalling racial imbalance that remains in their ranks. Blind auditions are no longer tenable.”

Like nearly all major orchestras, the RPO conducts auditions with the players behind a screen, identified only by how well they play. Begun in the 1970s, the “blind audition” has had a dramatic impact on gender equality in orchestras, which were male-dominated before the change. Women now comprise a third of the Boston Symphony, half the New York Philharmonic and nearly half the RPO. 

Delfs believes that Tomassini’s solution is simplistic.

“I was 12 years as music director of the Milwaukee Symphony—so I called the personnel director and asked her, of the hundreds of auditions I did when at the orchestra, how many African-Americans were in the final rounds? ‘Zero.’ How many African-Americans were the semi-final rounds? ‘Zero.’ How many were in the preliminary rounds? ‘Five.’ 

“We cannot change the fact that an institution like an orchestra is built on artistic excellence, just like a fabulous baseball team, or great theater group. You cannot do a percentage here and a percentage there just to be fair.”

Says Smith: “That’s the same answer you get from every orchestra in this country and in Europe. ‘We have this audition thing that happens behind the screen, so it’s all fair, right?’ But we don’t have any Black applicants.”

There are more Black classical musicians than people think, adds Smith. “They’re out there, although maybe they need to be encouraged to come to the auditions.” He points to the Gateways Music Festival, a showcase for Black musicians, as evidence. 

Gateways Music Festival at Kodak Hall

Just as many companies are intentional about diversity recruitment, orchestras need to do the same, Smith argues.

“Most orchestras aren’t trying to make the orchestra look like the community they play in,” he says. “Orchestras were never set up to be inclusive. I’m not saying that they were set up to exclude, but they weren’t set up to include.

“But now the RPO is doing something about it. We have a Diversity Inclusion Committee that’s trying to change the perception and connect the orchestra to the community.” How long is it going to take? “I don’t have an answer to that, but as long as I’m in this orchestra I’m going to keep working toward it.” 

The talent pipeline

Both Delfs and Smith point to the pipeline for classical musicians as a critical problem. The ranks of professional orchestras are drawn from the ranks of conservatory graduates. “The ratio of African-American students (in conservatories) is better than in orchestras, but still very low; Hispanics, too,” says Delfs. Eastman School dean Jamal Rossi and Matthew Ardizzone, associate dean of admissions and enrollment management, see progress. The share of Black/, Indigenous, People of Color in the application pool has doubled in the last decade, to 14 percent. 

High school or college is too late to start a professional career. Smith began playing the trumpet in the fourth grade at Pleasant Ridge Elementary School in Cincinnati. While he admits that it might have been Shannon on clarinet that first caught his eye, he got captured by “that shiny trumpet.” And he says he got support and encouragement, remembering his band director saying, “Oh, man, you’ve got a natural talent.” 

Many Rochester children don’t get the opportunity for their talent to be noticed. “Where Black people go to school, there’s no music programs. So, there’s no net to grab those kids. You have to get music programs where the Black kids are,” says Smith. 

And talent needs to be encouraged, as was Smith’s. Says Delfs: “Many of us had an inspiring mentor at some time in our life. For me, it was a piano teacher when I was 10. A child who grows up in a family that doesn’t care about music but has talent that a mentor or tutor or “big brother” or foster parent might encourage. The musicians of the orchestras need to be those people.”

Venezuela’s renowned El Sistema program inspired the creation of ROCmusic in 2012. A partnership of the RPO, Hochstein School of Music & DanceEastman School (University of Rochester), Eastman Community Music SchoolGateways Music Festivalcity of Rochester and the Rochester City School District, it offers free instruction to Rochester children at three city rec centers. The district now offers a band in each of its 48 schools and a string program in 27 schools. The string program has been growing steadily—it was in just five schools in 2014. In addition, the Pride of Rochester Marching Band is a districtwide ensemble. Smith just received funding for another program, Herb Smith Trumpets. 

Playing concerts in the schools can help. 

“One of my most vivid memories since joining the RPO was a concert we did at Wilson Magnet some years ago,” recalls Tyzik. We were playing a Shostakovich symphony that gets pretty crazy at the end. I’m conducting and start hearing this noise behind me—’What’s going on,’ I thought. When we finished and I turned around I saw the whole group of students on their feet clapping and cheering. The only barriers to appreciating great music are the barriers we create in our minds.”

Ned Corman, elder statesman of the Rochester music scene, recalls an effort to fill otherwise empty seats in Kodak Hall with Black students from Rochester. “Keith Elder (then Eastman’s director of concert activities) would reserve 100 tickets and do whatever it took to get them to the concert.”

Now executive director of the Tulsa Symphony, Elder says a key insight came from his partner in the YWCA’s Person2Person program, an effort aimed at promoting dialogue on matters of race by pairing participants from others of a different race or ethnicity. 

Wynton Marsalis in Amsterdam

Matched with Minister William Wilkinson, Elder told him, “Bill, we have all these free tickets and we give ’em away but nobody comes.” Wilkinson replied: “Yeah, they can’t get there. The barrier isn’t necessarily the ticket, it’s actually getting to the event.”

With the support of Rochester Gas and Electric, Eastman provided transportation and “suddenly we had 90 kids experiencing the concerts,” Elder recalls. “And after the concert we’d bring them backstage to meet the soloist. And I remember we had Wynton Marsalis and Wynton greeted each and every one of these kids and tells them, ‘Look at me. I grew up in New Orleans and didn’t have a ton, but look at what music has done for me.’”

It’s a family affair

Juliana Athayde

Delfs also speaks of the role of family in the lives of professional musicians. “You’d be surprised at how many musicians in orchestras all around the world will tell you, ‘Well, my dad was a musician and his mother was a musician.’ If you don’t have the good luck to grow up in a family like this, your chances to be exposed to classical music and instrumental music are very small.”

Both of Concertmaster Juliana Athayde’s parents are music educators. She started violin when she was 2 years old—or so she’s told, as she doesn’t remember ever not playing the violin. Remarkably talented (even with the early start), she won the position of RPO concertmaster at age 24, the youngest person to hold the post in the orchestra’s history. Married to Principal Oboe Erik Behr, their children have a head start on a music career.

Jason Shen (upper right) was the sparkplug and producer of the cello section’s pandemic rendering of “Home on the Range.”

While starting at age 2 is unusual, a casual survey of other RPO string players reinforces the need to start young. Cellist Zexun (Jason) Shen attended a music-focused elementary school in Shanghai at 4 and began studying cello at 4½. He points out that the physical dexterity required to play a string instrument at a professional level is very hard to acquire much later. 

Violinist Thomas Rodgers began studying piano with his father at 5 and violin at 6. Principal Cello Ahrim Kim began at 6. Husband Robin Scott, first violinist in the Eastman School’s resident string quartet, the Ying Quartet, also started at 4 (and comes from a family bursting with musicians). RPO violinist Aika Ito began her studies in her native Japan at age 4. 

Nance tells a different story for brass players—and for very practical reasons. First, the instruments are heavy and can’t be made smaller. A 1/10 size violin can still play the same pitches as a full-size instrument. But a trumpet needs 6½ feet of tubing regardless.

Second, “Teeth! I have had my own kids or certain students start very young on a brass instrument, but when those baby teeth start falling out in the front there is an obvious problem, LOL. Then you hope the permanent ones come in straight, else now you have to deal with braces, which for brass is another problem.” Nance started trumpet in the 5th grade at 9 years old and won his RPO audition eight years later at 17—35 years ago. 

Building a diverse audience                       

Jeff Tyzik

If young people are to be exposed to classical music at an early age, promoting diversity in the seats is critical. Tyzik is the RPO’s chief ambassador to those in Rochester who might prefer to listen to pretty much anything but the dead Germanic gods of Western classical music like Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and Brahms. 

Says Tyzik: “In coming seasons we plan to build our audience by focusing on the music of great artists, like the program featuring the Paul Simon Songbook. The great artists of pop music—not just Simon, but the Beatles, Aretha Franklin and many others—built their hits on a foundation of symphonic players.”

He also wants to target the widest possible demographic, often by partnering with other arts groups like Garth Fagan Dance, PUSH Physical Theatre and Rochester City Ballet. 

“We did a concert called Soulful Celebration a few years back that centered on gospel—and it was a great success, attracting a largely Black audience,” he says. It took intentional marketing to attract a new audience, however, including delivering flyers to Black churches and advertising on radio stations with a diverse market, like WDKX. “We can attract a more diverse audience, but we need to think about programming that will support that goal.”

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George

Smith is encouraged that the RPO is rediscovering the lesser-known works of Black composers, such as Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George, a well-regarded 18thcentury composer whose influence is evident in the work of Mozart. The RPO streams Saint-George’s “Overture to L’Amant Anonyme (The Anonymous Lover)” beginning April 1. 

Smith also notes the free stream titled “Truth Is of No Color” celebrating the life of Frederick Douglass and featuring the works of contemporary Black composers Jessie Montgomery and Carlos Simon. This is available through April 29.

Preserving and expanding the audience

Jessie Montgomery

Annual attendance at the 75 to 80 ticketed RPO concerts has remained roughly constant since the 2013-14 season at about 100,000. Concerts that are either free or only offer modest compensation—free public concerts, programs at schools or community concerts outside Rochester (“runouts”)— total another 50 concerts each year. 

While total attendance has held up, the composition of attendance has been shifting. “The number signing up for a full season subscription has plummeted,” Long says. “Our business model originally was built around this idea that most of the people that came would be extremely loyal and regular attenders. As long as you didn’t let the conductor program too much crazy new music, they would come back every year.”

Confronted with an explosion of entertainment choices, people are picking and choosing which concerts to attend. Whether subscriptions will fully bounce back for the 2021-22 season remains to be seen. Ongoing worries about COVID may continue to limit attendance. One encouraging financial sign: Through the end of February, contributions to support current year operations (excluding government grants) totaled $2.7 million, slightly ahead of the same point a year ago.

Programming remains key

Satisfying those who prefer to hear the same reliable symphonies over and over while including works from lesser-known composers—like the Chevalier de St. George or Jessie Montgomery—is a tall order for the music director. I asked Delfs how he walks that line.

“That has a lot to do with trust,” he says. “I have to build a loyal audience that learns to trust me and the musicians with what we program. You’ll see that in the first season I’ve programmed a few pieces that are a bit unfamiliar. And I pair less-familiar music with more familiar music. The Anna Clyne cello concerto (part of the not-yet-announced Sunday matinee at Hochstein) is paired with the Mozart ‘Jupiter’ symphony, for example.

“Then I can start taking a few more chances and people can say, ‘I don’t know this composer and the piece looks a bit funky, but I know that I can trust the Rochester Philharmonic. They haven’t let me down and I’m willing to take the chance.’”

Stabilizing finances coupled with inspiring new leadership appears to have the RPO in a good position for the future. COVID, state health regulations and weather permitting, we can look forward to an all-outdoor 12-week RPO season this summer and a return to Kodak Hall in September.

Kent Gardner is Rochester Beacon opinion editor.

4 thoughts on “The RPO after COVID

  1. Thanks for the very thoughtful article. True, there are not enough resources to support young musicians of color. But we at Rochester Education Foundation have benefitted from a generous community to provide resources and support to our young city music students. We support summer music lessons for city students and have donated about 3,500 musical instruments to be used by city students. We also offer an annual Musical Instrument Award to a talented city student headed for college; two of whom are currently students at Eastman School of Music.
    There is no shortage of music-lovers among city students. The question of how the RPO and our other cultural institutions will welcome and engage them is critically important.

    • Thanks for reading, Gary. Between the RPO and the Eastman School of Music, we have access to wonderful music all year round. Rochester is a great music town–chamber music, choral music, etc. Great jazz festival in the summer (well, most summers).

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