The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra is gearing up for its next century of classical music with a dose of ambition. The orchestra marked the beginning of its centennial season Sept. 21, and programming will bring new community partnerships, commissions and a ping pong concerto.
Behind the scenes, the preparation for this season presented its fair share of challenges. As the orchestra bounced back from a pandemic-driven drop in revenue, it also faced the task of adapting to the community’s changing tastes. Audience members found different philanthropic priorities, leading the orchestra to adapt its programming and further demonstrate its community impact.
“There feels like there’s been a change in audience taste, and this is something that has been a reality of recovering from the pandemic,” says Curt Long, RPO president and CEO. “Many orchestras have reported that attendance has been slower for programming aimed at traditional audiences while more experimental programming has been packing audiences in. We’re trying to do both to meet audiences at both sides of the equation.”
The new season offers RPO hope alongside the future’s challenges. Finances are in their best spot since the 2020 pandemic shutdown, RPO says, and its leaders expect to continue this momentum by being a force for good within the Rochester community.
“The pandemic put more focus on other philanthropic needs in the community,” says Long. “We’re lucky to be in a community with a large audience that loves symphonic music, but we are mindful that our case for support has to include being a force for good.”
A hundred years of music
The RPO has been an artistic cornerstone of Rochester since it was founded in 1922 by George Eastman, who envisioned the orchestra as a musical community for Rochester. The orchestra gave its first performance in 1923 and was eventually managed by the Rochester Civic Music Association, which also sponsored the Civic Orchestra, Eastman Theater Concerts and other community events .
When the Civic Orchestra dissolved in 1965, the RPO became the focus of the CMA’s funding. The CMA became the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra Inc. in 1975–the nonprofit organization that oversees the orchestra today. The orchestra also expanded to provide educational opportunities to local students in grades 8 through 12 when it created the Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra in 1970.
A century since its birth, the orchestra has achieved global recognition, recorded its own discography and won a Grammy Award. With more than 150 events per season reaching 170,000 audience members on average, the orchestra offers ticketed events, educational programs and free community performances. It has also been able to attract top talent.
In 2021, the RPO named Andreas Delfs as its music director. Delfs succeeded Ward Stare, who has been called a rising star. Born in Flensburg, Germany, in 1959, Delfs attended the Hamburg Conservatory, studying with famed conductor Christoph von Dohnányi. After moving to New York City, he won the Bruno Walter Memorial Scholarship and completed his Master of Music at Julliard.
Together, with its musical talent, the orchestra meets its mission to provide Greater Rochester with exceptional, engaging performances to enrich and inspire through an intentionally planned catalog of performances. Seasons are planned with care.
For its centennial, the RPO started planning more than a year ago. In January, it announced new initiatives for the season, which runs through June 2024.
“Everything about season planning is a puzzle,” observes James Barry, RPO vice president of planning and operations.
The orchestra had to contend with the tension, experienced by similar organizations around the world, between traditionalists and those who believe the orchestra needs to change and adapt. RPO leadership found this to be the case, especially after its return to operations post-pandemic .
COVID-19 left a sizable impact on the RPO as an organization, which had a history of tradition and planning far in advance. The orchestra had to transform to become more nimble and flexible. While it was a difficult period, the pandemic built time for leadership to slow down and consider how the RPO could combine its legacy of excellence while playing to new audiences.
Marking a milestone
With its new season, the RPO is intentionally piecing together traditional works with innovative new commissions and experimental pieces, often within the same concert.
For example, a two-night concert in April 2024 will feature the Mussorgsky classic “Pictures at an Exhibition” alongside a centennial commission. A world premiere multimedia work in collaboration with visual designer Deborah Johnson, the commission will use screens and projections to muse on the life of George Eastman and Kodak.
“This concert presents a traditional format, but not often do you see a screen come down presenting beautiful images,” says Barry. “It’s about balancing tradition with today.”
Another example of a balanced concert arrives in January 2024, when the RPO will perform Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” alongside performers from Garth Fagan Dance. The same concert will also include Andy Akiho’s “Ricochet,” known as the “Ping Pong Concerto,” where two ping pong players will be on stage alongside the orchestra.
These innovations offer the RPO a chance to engage audiences with different interests during the same night. Finding clever ways to engage audiences of different demographics also extends to the orchestra’s work outside the concert hall.
“I pick up the phone and talk to people to uncover, investigate and learn about artists,” says Barry. “Being strategic about who we are bringing to Rochester and why we are bringing them to is important. Good and strategic intentions will allow us to build a varied season, and if the planning feels authentic, this authenticity spreads.”
The centennial season has already been met with support and enthusiasm from new and traditional artists alike. After the orchestra’s season announcement concert in February, attendees took to social media to express their excitement.
Bouncing back financially
Ever since the pandemic’s effects struck the orchestra’s operations in 2020, the RPO has been working to recover financially. When the RPO was unable to perform due to the pandemic, the organization lost 95 percent of its revenue–an experience similar to city orchestras nationwide.
The RPO has kept a finger on the pulse of its finances and arts philanthropy across the country. In June, Rob Dermody, RPO vice president of development, attended the League of American Orchestras National Conference in Pittsburgh. He learned that in response to historical crises, it typically has taken arts organizations three years to bounce back after experiencing a financial decline.
The RPO is on a similar path. The orchestra runs an annual campaign to support its $12 million budget. Although this split fluctuates, 60 percent of the budget usually comes in through philanthropic efforts while the other 40 percent is earned from performances. The budget supports the orchestra’s 80 professional musicians and 30 administrative staff members.
In its 2021-2022 season, the orchestra saw some hemorrhaging at its lower donor tiers; for every one donor it lost, the orchestra gained only one-third of a donor back. A slight improvement came in the 2022-2023 season, when for every one donor lost, the RPO saw two-thirds of a donor back. According to its latest Form 990, for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2022, the RPO generated $11.4 million in revenue, up from $7.7 million the year before though still down from $12.3 million in 2020. Expenses totaled $11.9 million versus $7.2 million in the prior year. The deficit of $498,259 was a mirror image of the previous year’s $512,657 surplus.
The RPO is starting its next century in a strong financial position, the orchestra’s leaders say. It is anticipating a gain in donors. Currently, the RPO has 4,000 donors. Ticket and subscription sales are strong so far, and as of two days before the season’s open, the orchestra’s $2.8 million annual campaign was further ahead than it has historically ever been at this point in the season.
According to Dermody, if the RPO keeps up the current pace it will end this season in its highest spot for ticket sales throughout the RPO’s recorded history (back to the 1980s).
“I’m feeling very positive and we are seeing a lot of early indications that people are excited about this year,” says Dermody. “The data is telling us that people are coming back, and this is theoretically our third year of bouncing back from a decline due to something significant, such as the pandemic.”
Data also shows that the RPO has been effective in engaging new audiences over the last year. In the 2022-2023 season, the organization saw 5,000 new-to-file households of people who have never been to an RPO performance before. Of these, 1,000 households came from the Philharmonics Series, while the other 4,000 came from the Pops series and other community events.
To sustain this growth, the RPO’s development team focuses on strategic storytelling and donor engagement.
“Our strategy is storytelling,” says Dermody. “Gone are the days where people just support institutions because you are an institution that should be supported. People are investing in our mission, and we need to be good stewards of their investment by showing them their impact and telling the story.”
This impact storytelling pairs with the experience of excellence the RPO strives for when performing, which in turn attracts new donors.
“The No. 1 reason people make a donation is because they go to a concert and it’s an incredible experience,” says Long. “They want to make sure that music continues and it’s here for the future.”
As for donor engagement, the RPO strives to personalize the experience of donors. Access and exclusivity go hand in hand with the amount one gives, and RPO leadership builds relationships with donors to tailor and customize their experience.
As the RPO turns the corner of the century, a challenge is maintaining momentum to keep the orchestra thriving for another 100 years. In addition to donor acquisition, strategic storytelling plays a role in overcoming this challenge.
“Our business model used to revolve around the idea that we could take it for granted that the philanthropic leaders of Rochester see the RPO as a pillar of the community,” says Long. “I think there has been a change over the past few generations of philanthropic leaders in this way of thinking. People now identify that the community may have higher philanthropic priorities than supporting pillar traditional arts organizations that serve largely affluent, educated, suburban audiences.”
According to Long, the RPO is responding to this by being mindful that its case for support has to go beyond memorable performances of great music and toward being a force for good in the community. To that end, the RPO has stepped up community engagement.
The organization received first-time grants to work in care and wellness; 28 ensembles have been sent to 20 organizations around Rochester to play music for children and elderly with developmental or cognitive degenerative disabilities. Partner organizations have included the Golisano Autism Center and the Mary Cariola Center.
Positive feedback from the initiatives also motivated the RPO to launch its 100 Acts of Giving Back effort for its 100th season. This initiative is a way for the RPO to expand what it does for the community outside of the concert hall.
The RPO currently plays 35 weeks throughout the year, with 14 of these weeks dedicated to the Philharmonics Series and nine to the Pops Series. Moving forward, the orchestra is making sure the same amount of intentional planning around audience development and community service goes into the other 12 performing weeks of the year.
“Trying to make sure we are just as intentional and strategic in how we program those other 12 weeks as we are when we are planning Philharmonics and Pops concerts is going to be important for the RPO as we move forward,” says Long. “That’s a big part of how we can program for new audiences and be a force for good in the community.”
For now, the RPO is looking forward to how this season will set the stage for future success.
“My hope for this season is that we are proud of it and that the community is proud of it,” says Barry. “We’ve worked hard to bring a season that hopefully excites a lot of people in our community and welcomes people to our concerts who have never come.
“When you celebrate, it also involves looking forward to the future,” he adds. “What we’ve programmed, who we’ve programmed with, the new works—this is what the RPO will look like for the next 100 years.”
Evan Coleman is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and a recent University of Rochester graduate. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].