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It's rare these days to read good news about symphony orchestras, so today's report of record-breaking support for the Houston Symphony was indeed welcome.

The Houston Symphony adopted an ambitious five-year plan covering fiscal years 2011 through 2015 to strengthen its financial position. At its core, the plan focuses on the need to expand the Symphony’s audience and donor bases through strategies such as: 
  • introducing satellite concert series throughout Greater Houston
  • investing in new concert formats and multi-media projects
  • building stronger ties between patrons and the organization.
The successful FY11 outcome in Houston was largely the result of two factors:
  • the extraordinary generosity of the Symphony’s Board of Trustees who collectively doubled their annual contributions
  • more than 1,200 donors who made made first-time gifts to the Annual Fund during a “Million Reasons to Give” campaign
Wouldn't it be nice if Houston's solution could be applied to any orchestra suffering from financial challenges?  Of course, it's not that simple.  Each orchestra exists within a unique set of conditions.

For starters, orchestras' budgets vary greatly.  The Houston Symphony's annual budget for fiscal year 2011 was $25 million.  During the 2010-11 season, annual budgets of full-time orchestras ranged from $98 million for the Los Angeles Philharmonic to $6.5 million for the San Antonio Symphony.

"It costs money to make money."

Houston's fairly hefty budget allows for the above-mentioned satellite concert series throughout Greater Houston area as well as the multi-media projects.  I'm sure that any beleaguered orchestra would be thrilled to incorporate such concerts, but how many can afford to?

Another orchestra which has recently heralded good news financially is the Colorado Symphony.

To explain the Colorado Symphony's standout success at the box office, symphony leaders point to: 
  • more accessible programming, especially the introduction of its multimedia Inside the Score series
  • an overhaul of its marketing
Colorado's Inside the Score concerts are informal, multimedia programs which diverge from a straight concert format with the addition of light commentary and the frequent participation of dancers, actors and other collaborators.  Examples this year have included an exploration of tango, a breakdown of Dvorák's "New World" Symphony and a CSI investigation of the ailments that killed Beethoven, complete with an actor portraying the famed composer.  

The most recent Inside the Score concert on April 1 was devoted to a radio- style countdown of classical music's top 10 most popular works. More than 1,600 people attended, including 1,000 who purchased their tickets through a Groupon promotion.

"It makes a better use of our orchestra and the space, and (it has) turned a new product into a whole new interest," said Margaret Williams, vice president of marketing and communication. "We now have full halls, whereas it had been very small audiences in the past. We couldn't sustain 21 Masterworks concerts on Friday nights."

The Columbus Symphony Orchestra performed a similar type of concert last season, called Beyond the Score® .  It was extremely well done and entertaining, but the production, owned and rented out by the Chicago Symphony, was expensive.  (The fee covers such aspects of the production as orchestral parts with excerpts for demos, scripts for narrators, and video.)  Unfortunately, Columbus has no more of those concerts planned for the future due to the cost.  It appears that the Colorado Symphony, recognizing the limits of its modest $10 million budget, decided to  produce its own series patterned after Chicago's Beyond the Score® series.  (Smart move, Colorado.) 

Almost a third of all audience members in Denver are new ticket buyers!  What attracted more first time concert-goers to Denver's Boettcher Concert Hall this year??  According to symphony officials, these are some of the changes which attracted new audiences:
  • new investments in marketing and technology 
  • a new website
  • a social media campaign
“The Colorado Symphony undertook a complete overhaul of sales and marketing programs at the same time that it examined what Denver communities want and need from a symphony organization,” said James Palermo, the symphony's president and chief executive. “We asked tough questions, such as whether programming has sufficient appeal to younger generations and if people still want two-hour concerts.

“We also conducted research to learn more about what young families in Denver desire in terms of family programming, as well as what educators need from our music education programs. The results include not only the new Inside the Score series, but across-the-board changes to everything we offer and how the Colorado Symphony does business on a daily basis.”

Fundraising and development also improved. The number of individuals donating to the Colorado Symphony’s Annual Fund has doubled in the last 18 months.

Read more: Colorado Symphony on track for record ticket sales | Denver Business Journal

What do Denver and Houston have in common?   Location, location, location.  Both cities happen to be located in currently fast-growing states.  Denver boasts the additional advantage of being the only full-time professional orchestra in its state.

Factors such as location cannot be controlled for the most part (although the Cleveland Orchestra has found creative ways to deal with the location problem, as exemplified by its winter residency in Miami).   But I think that the Houston Symphony and the Colorado Symphony (notably with its thorough examination of what its community wanted) have provided fine examples for other orchestras of how to wisely spend money to make money, within the limits of their budgets.

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3 years ago | | Read Full Story
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