The National Symphony Orchestra has made a lot of music in Kentucky since landing in Louisville Thursday. But Wednesday morning, executive director Rita Shapiro and Kentucky Residency conductor Hugh Wolff sat down behind microphones to discuss presenting orchestral music to changing audiences in economically challenging times.
“There aren’t any fat years,” Wolff said of arts funding, to knowing laughter from the audience, which included Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra music director Scott Terrell and LexArts president and CEO Jim Clark. “These are very lean years.”
Though the very real probability of deep cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts in the next federal budget was never directly addressed in their chat, the conversation was colored by the presumption that arts finances will not be improving anytime soon.
“Everybody is having a hard time, even big behemoths like the Kennedy Center,” Shapiro said, referring to the home base of the National Symphony.
That, she said, should prompt arts groups to get more aggressive, viewing advocacy as marketing, and trying to build partnerships both with influential donors, officials and celebrities and social services that benefit from outreach by the orchestra and its musicians.
“We feel as good community partners we need to get into neighborhoods where they do not have exposure to classical music and work with those communities,” Shapiro said, citing instances where donors to social service groups have seen the value of music programs in the programs they support and become orchestra donors as well.
Programming, Wolf and Shapiro acknowledged, has to reorient itself from being a top-down idea to a bottom-up approach, addressing community and educator needs.
“It used to be, ‘We’ll present our music and you’ll love it,'” Wolff said. Now, he and Shapiro said, audiences and educators need to be drawn in by extra-musical facets of a program such as science, math or social studies.
“That way, when a teacher is trying to justify bringing kids to one of our educational concerts, they can say, ‘They’re going to talk about math too,'” Shapiro said.
In doing outreach, Shapiro said she occasionally encounters a, “‘I didn’t go to Juilliard to work in public schools,'” attitude from musicians, “but that attitude is not prevelant.”
And Wolff, who teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music, said that attitude is going away among younger musicians.
“They don’t have a older preconceived notions of the role of an artist,” Wolff said. “In fact, outreach feels very natural to them. These kids are very flexible and willing to reach out.”
Wolff said the overall concert experience needs to evolve too, pointing out the event starts with antiquated notion of all the musicians dressing in 19th Century dinnerwear.
“The next generation will have a whole different attitude toward what a performance is and how it fits into society,” Wolff said.
A very important thing, they said, was local arts groups making community contacts like the National Symphony does in the Washington D.C. area.
For officials with the local band, the Lexington Philharmonic, the topics were familiar, and it was good to hear how a major orchestra was handling them.
“It was good reinforcement,” said executive director Allison Kaiser, who formed numerous partnerships with community groups during her years as director of the Lexington Art League.
Terrell said, “We are fighting the same battles the National Symphony is fighting, and it’s not going to get any easier.”