Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 5.6.10

Staying Relevant
Symphony takes the challenge seriously
By Paul Winberg

It appears that the Eugene Symphony’s recent performance of Play! A Video Game Symphony provided EW arts writer Brett Campbell with an opportunity to unload about everything he believes is wrong with the classical music industry. While I respect his right to an opinion, his comments were insulting to the Eugene Symphony Association and to the thousands of people throughout the southern Willamette Valley that flock to the Eugene Symphony’s 50-plus concerts and events each year. In fact, far from being an organization on life support, the Eugene Symphony has the largest subscriber base and highest paid attendance rate of any arts group in Eugene. Our work is further sustained by one of the largest, most generous groups of contributors to a nonprofit arts organization outside of Portland. 

The decision to program Play! A Video Game Symphony was not an organizational act of desperation, a programming decision made by a board scrambling to meet its bottom line, or a ploy to lure unsuspecting young people into the concert hall. It was our way to fill a programming niche long ignored by the symphony: presentations that families can enjoy together or be appreciated by patrons regardless of their age, background or experience with classical music. Additionally, the concert was not presented to help subsidize what Campbell referred to as our “standard, unimaginative, repetitive, backward-looking warhorse-heavy fare.” The concert was budgeted to break even and would have been impossible to present without the generous support of the Nils and Jewel Hult Endowment-Arts Foundation of Western Oregon Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation and the Rosaria P. Haugland Foundation. 

 Yes, the classical music industry has to deal with its share of challenges in order to remain relevant to 21st century society. However, as the recent National Endowment for the Arts Audience Participation Survey pointed out, we are not alone. The entire performing arts industry must deal with the challenge of maintaining relevance in the face of dwindling audiences. Believe me, the Eugene Symphony takes this challenge very seriously and is enthusiastically pursuing an agenda that sets us far ahead of our peers and continues to drive unprecedented growth and success for the orchestra. 

 We long ago accepted the fact that the concert hall isn’t the only place for the orchestra to connect with its current and future audience. To that end, we pursue activities that more fully integrate the Eugene Symphony into the fabric of the city and touch the lives of more than 15,000 children and adults each year. We have placed renewed emphasis on building partnerships with the UO, the City of Eugene, Springfield’s Willamalane, 4J Schools, Arts Umbrella, FOOD for Lane County and dozens of other community organizations. Our first free summer concert last year is one example of a these partnerships. More than 4,500 people (nearly 60 percent of whom reported never having attended a symphony performance) flocked to the Cuthbert Amphitheatre to hear the orchestra perform. 

As an organization, we celebrate new music with our American Encounters initiative. This season, we featured the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky. We performed one of his major works, the Second Concerto for Orchestra, and featured two of his compositions in a pre-concert performance with the Eugene Youth Symphony and the University of Oregon Wind Ensemble. Stucky also led a public master class providing insightful and supportive feedback to five young composers whose works were showcased in that event. American Encounters, which has introduced Eugene audiences to today’s top American composers, including John Corigliano, Aaron Jay Kernis, Jennifer Higdon and Roberto Sierra, was created by our previous music director, Giancarlo Guerrero. It has subsequently been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts and Music Alive’s Meet the Composer program. 

 There’s so much more to share and I welcome the opportunity to do just that next time Campbell visits Eugene. For now, I urge him and EW to drop the cynicism and pay attention to what’s really going on when reporting on the activities of the Eugene Symphony. We’ve got a great story to tell and we’re proud of the work we do and of our service to the community.

Paul Winberg is executive director of the Eugene Symphony Association.