The RPO’s 2019-20 season brings change 

A subtle sonic shift

RPO Music Director Ward Stare has long been an advocate for innovative programming of new music. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • RPO Music Director Ward Stare has long been an advocate for innovative programming of new music.
The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and its music director Ward Stare are making subtle but important changes to the way its programming connects with audiences heading into its 2019-20 concert season.

In contrast to the RPO’s conservative programming of more traditional fare in 2018-19, the upcoming season offers plenty of less familiar music. The 2019-20 Philharmonics series opens with the RPO’s first collaboration with the Rochester Fringe Festival, in a concert exclusively featuring living composers. The series continues with underperformed works by female composers. It also features a rare, concert performance of Virgil Thompson’s opera about Susan B. Anthony, “The Mother of Us All,” in honor of the suffragist’s 200th birthday and the centennial celebration of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

Stare has long been an advocate for innovative programming of new music. On May 17 this year, Azica Records will release a new album by Stare and the RPO, featuring the world premiere recordings of Jennifer Higdon’s Harp Concerto and “Rapture” by Patrick Harlin. But 2019-20 is the first full season of decision-making for which the RPO’s president, Curt Long, and its recently appointed vice president of artistic administration, Eric Gaston were present. The changes in programming are just one indication that the new leadership is signaling a period of transition.

The RPO board’s decision to hire Long was based in part on his experience leading orchestras of similar size, like the Alabama Symphony Orchestra in Birmingham and the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, board chair Ingrid Stanlis says. Long has worked with professional orchestras for 28 years, and he’s no stranger to innovation, having overseen the creation of the Alabama Symphony’s annual, genre-blurring Sound Edge Festival. Founded in 2017, the festival partners the orchestra with popular musicians from the worlds of rock, hip-hop, and other styles. It also features modern works infrequently performed in standard orchestral series.

In Rochester, Long recognizes a challenge in trying to bring fresh programming to a music community that has an appetite for standard Philharmonics and Pops concerts, while still remaining financially viable. The city’s avid music lovers expect to hear the classics, and the RPO stands to lose audience and revenue if a certain number of crowd-pleasing compositions aren’t on the schedule.

But fewer people subscribe to symphony orchestras’ season tickets than in the past, Long says. Orchestras used to be able to count on about 80 percent of their total audience buying season subscriptions. Among RPO concertgoers today, Long says, less than 5 percent buy a full subscription. About 15 percent buy packages of three to five concerts, and about 80 percent buy single tickets.

One way to increase single ticket sales is to add non-traditional programming. But it’s essential to increase both the audience and donors, because progressive programming doesn’t sustain sales by itself. And although last year the RPO took in a record high in both ticket sales and annual fund support, Long says a shift in the orchestra’s approach to marketing is needed.

“We haven’t been really doing a good enough job of marketing the institution, and why we make a difference in Rochester,” he says. “So one of the things that you will see that’s gonna be different is more focus on institutional marketing.” The RPO’s message needs to transcend the performance of celebrated composers like Berlioz, Bartok, and Stravinsky. “‘Cause if that’s all we do,” he says, “then our affluent, old, suburban audience should pay for it. And there’s a lot of people in the community who – that’s not gonna be on the list of what their priorities are.”

Long also sees a need to adjust the way the RPO relates to the local community.

He wants to make collaborations with other local cultural organizations a priority, to better establish the RPO’s identity while also reflecting the community’s identity. The Rochester Fringe Festival concerts next September and the orchestra’s Pops program with Garth Fagan Dance next January are prime examples.

“When I got here and I saw that our opening Phils concert, two years in a row, was in the middle of the Fringe Festival,” Long says, “and there was this whole hoopla going on downtown, and we were playing Grieg and Brahms – to me it felt like we were missing an opportunity there.”

The RPO has to change how it sees itself, Long says. “We kind of grew up expecting that we’re one of the pillars of the community, and people should support us just ’cause we’re important,” he says. “And that’s just not the way the world works anymore. We have to be a good corporate citizen. We have to understand what’s important to Rochester, and how can we help support the community accomplishing its goals.”

Long says versatility in programming is essential. Rochester is a mid-size city, and the classical music audience isn’t large enough to merely play the works of prominent composers like Shostakovich and Stravinsky throughout the season, Long says. “Both the economics of how the business has to work and the way that the broad needs of the community are gonna be served suggest an orchestra like this has to be more varied in our thinking about what our musical programming should be," he says.

Decisions about next year’s programs reflect a desire to connect with what matters to the Rochester area and its legacy. The difference in programming for 2019-20, Ward Stare says, began with the idea of commemorating the legacy of Susan B. Anthony as a progressive iconoclast who confronted the status quo and shifted the paradigm.

“I thought: Well, who are some people who have done that in music, and how can we make that connection?” Stare says. He also wanted to bring to light composers, particularly female composers, who haven’t been featured enough. “And so it all sort of started to grow from there,” he says.

Eric Gaston, who joined the RPO this past summer to head artistic administration, takes scheduling and financial costs into account when working with Stare to plan concerts. Gaston worked with Stare when he was resident conductor at the St. Louis Symphony. “He understands very well, I think, what makes me tick musically,” Stare says, “because he’s seen me develop, really. He saw me when I was just cutting my teeth in St. Louis.”

The RPO is evaluating ways to use new venues, generate interest among new audiences, and approach things differently, including how to “make the orchestra even more nimble and flexible, so that we do things that you may not expect,” Stare says.

“We would never, ever give up our core business,” board chair Ingrid Stanlis says, “but we do need to expand beyond it in order to attract new audiences. I’m pleased with the way we’re going in programming, and I hope we can continue to be somewhat experimental or innovative, while still satisfying those people that really wanna hear ‘Beethoven 9’ every year.”

The RPO’s 2018-19 Philharmonics Series concludes with a concert presentation of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” on Thursday, May 9, 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, May 11, 8 p.m. at Eastman Theatre’s Kodak Hall, 60 Gibbs Street. $24-$106. 454-2100.

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