News Column

Owensboro Symphony Orchestra continues to thrive

August 24, 2014

By Angela Oliver, Messenger-Inquirer, Owensboro, Ky.

Aug. 24--Throughout the past few years, American symphonies have seen their share of crises -- bankruptcy, threats of foreclosure on concert halls, musicians strikes and declining attendance. While many musicians see a bleak future for the cultural staple, Nick Palmer, conductor and music director of the Owensboro Symphony Orchestra, said the local organization is in great shape.

"The future is only bleak if symphonies aren't willing to adapt to changes of the time," he said, noting new features of the OSO's 49th season, which will feature six main concerts scattered from Sept. 20 to April 18, 2015.

Palmer said the OSO's success is largely due to trying new things.

"There's a change in the demographic of our audience, so we're responding by making concerts more innovative and modern," he said. "We integrate video, photos, popular music, an opera, special guests, many things."

This season includes such twists as dramatic readings of "Romeo and Juliet" by the Rose Curtain Players of Owensboro High School during the opening concert, "Night of Romance;" a Spanish guitar performance by Robert Belinic during "Adventure Abroad" on Feb. 28; and a pops concert celebrating the world's favorite Secret Service agent, "The Music of James Bond," on March 28.

In light of the national trend of single-ticket buyers, rather than season subscribers, Palmer said the OSO also keeps up by putting more effort into marketing each concert and event individually.

"We update our website with program notes so people will know what to expect ahead of time," he said. "We've also expanded our social media quite a bit."

Though symphonies have faced turbulence abroad as well -- Germany, for instance, is down to 131 orchestras from 168 in 1992 -- the overall state of them isn't as pressing as in the U.S.

"Particularly in Europe, there's much more of a tradition built for symphony-going," Palmer said. "There's also more national (government) support in funding."

The OSO receives some state, city and county funding, but private donors and corporations also contribute much to the organization's $730,000 annual budget. Financial stability, Palmer said, is another key reason the OSO has survived.

"We only operate in the black," he said. "We have a strong board and staff that has always had high standards on how we spend our money. Some symphonies overreach, but we're very careful to only fund programs that we can sustain. All arts organizations should run like a business."

State cuts have affected arts in many schools, though local systems maintain attention to arts. The OSO also offers programs to foster the interests of budding classical musicians, or classical music fans, through the Owensboro Symphony Youth Orchestra, Kindermusik, Symphony Safari and other OSO Academy or in-school programs.

"The academy allows us to touch the lives of young people on every level," Palmer said. "It's another reason we're doing well; not every symphony has one."

Now the operations manager, Jeremy Stephens used to work with children in grades K-12 in the academy.

"My goal was to keep it light, fun and entertaining," said the pianist. "Orchestral music was new for some students, but I wanted them to enjoy it so they'd have a lifelong love of the symphony, whether they continue to play or not."

Palmer, who came to the OSO in 1998, said he's eager to work with the board and staff to continue the organization's tradition while adding new traditions, such as this season's Stained Glass Series, which will feature concerts at three churches.

"We're very fortunate that what we need is lined up for us here -- a beautiful concert hall, a good team, professional musicians who have played all over the world, and most importantly, a community that supports us," he said.

Palmer echoes what many musicians and conductors, such as Leon Bostein, music director of the American Symphony Orchestra in New York, have said.

In a 2012 Peabody Magazine article, Bostein wrote that classical music and American symphonies can avoid crisis by adjusting to the presence of competing attractions that are no longer confined to city centers, new patterns of leisure time, and a possible lack of interest due to the repetitive nature of symphonies.

"The typical concertgoer can look forward to hearing repeatedly the same 100 or so works on instrumental concert programs year in and year out," he wrote. "How many Mahler, Beethoven or Tchaikovsky symphonies are being played on any given night across the world?"

Bostein said "classical music is caught in the grip of obsolete structures and practices, ... an archaic business model is still in place for concert life, when the driving social realities have radically changed."

By playing in different venues, taking marketing risks and playing more of the classical standards, Palmer said he hopes the OSO will gain new audiences and perk up the ears of longtime subscribers.

"One hundred years ago, the symphony was only for the privileged few," he said. "But every community has a unique feel for and relationship with the arts. There's synergy here that allows us to do programs that work well for this community. We want the OSO to be for everybody."

Angela Oliver, 691-7360,


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