It’s no secret that orchestras have struggled financially over the last several years. Start with a poor economy and mix in the American public’s changing taste in music and you have the challenges of symphony orchestras around the country.
Since 2011, the Honolulu Symphony, New Mexico Symphony and Syracuse Symphony have all ceased operations and larger orchestras like the Detroit Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Indianapolis Symphony and Minnesota Orchestra have been involved in very public labor disputes or have had to file for bankruptcy protection.
For residents of the Grand Valley, this is not the case for the Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra. While attendance has dipped slightly in recent years, the programming has remained consistent and has even expanded; music education in schools has continued; and the musicianship of the orchestra has greatly increased. Music Director Kirk Gustafson recently said that the Beethoven & Mozart concert on Sept. 10 was the greatest the orchestra has ever sounded in his 25 years as conductor.
In a recent meeting of the GJ Symphony board of directors, the topic of how to attract more ticket buyers dominated a discussion on strategic planning. Over the past four seasons, the average attendance at a GJ Symphony “Pops” concert like The Texas Tenors or The Beatles: Classical Mystery Tour has been about 1,400 while a “classical” concert featuring works of Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms and the like has pulled in about 900 on average. This variance is fairly common for symphony orchestras across the U.S. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, in the last 25 years paid concert attendance at classical music events has been dropping and there was a 20 percent drop between 2002 and 2008.
While Pops concerts tend to draw larger crowds, they cost quite a bit a more to produce and the technicality of the music does not challenge the musicians. If you were to ask the musicians of the GJSO whether they would prefer to play a Beethoven symphony to an audience of 500 or Beatles music to a sold-out crowd of 1,500, an overwhelming majority would probably choose the Beethoven. They, of course, want to see every seat in the hall filled but their passion is performing music that challenges them technically and that inspired them to pick up their instrument in the first place.
This writer wants to make very clear that he is in no way getting down on groups like The Texas Tenors or The Beatles. In fact, the latter is exactly the type of music he grew up listening to and songwriters like Lennon and McCartney have been inspired by melodies created by the world’s great composers. In fact, it is expressly the intent of the GJSO to see a crossover in attendance from pops to classical concerts. Jess and Helaine Cohen, the sponsors of The Texas Tenors concert this Saturday, made a conscious decision to bring in a group that would pack the auditorium at Grand Junction High School. While they mainly support classical piano, the Cohens saw an opportunity to reach more people and give them an enjoyable night out by bringing back the Tenors.
So the question still remains: Why the shift in public taste for symphonic music?
Judith Kurnick, vice president for strategic communications for the League of American Orchestras, cites one possible reason for the change: The cutting of arts programs in schools. “It (orchestral music) is simply not a music form that Americans are studying anymore in school, and Americans are not playing piano and violins anymore and we have seen a corresponding drop in the audience participation rate for those art forms.”
Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom for the GJ Symphony. School District #51 continues to fund arts programs and train up the future musicians of the GJSO, and excitement continues to build around the construction at the Avalon Theatre and making it the future home of the symphony. So if you have never been to a symphony concert in your life or it has been a few years, make plans to see The Texas Tenors this Saturday and then make the transition to a classical concert like “‘Tis The Season” on Dec. 14, featuring the combined choirs of Central, Fruita Monument and Grand Junction high schools; or “Slavic Symphony” featuring Young Artist Competition winner Joshua Sawicki on Jan. 28. You will not be disappointed.
For more information about the Grand Junction Symphony, visit gjsymphony.org or call 243-6787.