The Muse in Music: The Menuhin Festival & the "Big Tent" - Inspiring Happenings at Richmond Symphony
By, Dan Perttu
For this "Muse in Music" blog post, I have a truly inspiring conversation with David Fisk, the Executive Director of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra in Virginia. David and I talk about the wonderful things currently happening at the Richmond Symphony, including their hosting of the Menuhin International Violin Competition, as well as their "Big Tent" outdoor concerts in the warm weather that engage audiences across the Richmond vicinity. Enjoy!
Dan: My first question is just a simple way in to the conversation: so, what is inspiring about what's happening at the Richmond Symphony right now with respect to your programming and with the orchestra in general?
David: It’s an interesting, pivotal year. We are searching for a new Music Director, having had a great experience with Steven Smith for almost 10 years. One of our signature projects to appreciate his tenure was to commission, premiere and record a new choral work, Children of Adam, by Mason Bates. It was issued by Reference Recordings, just nominated for a Grammy under the best producer award. We’re delighted our CD was included for that nomination.
David: Thank you. It reflects our commitment to supporting living composers, and commissioning and recording new music. So, this season we have five very exciting Music Director candidates who will bring new ideas, new perspectives, new vision. And, the biggest project we've ever undertaken, to host the Menuhin International Violin Competition, the Olympics of the Violin. That’s something normally beyond our capacity, but we created a consortium with the local public broadcasting company, the City of Richmond, and two big universities, University of Richmond, and Virginia Commonwealth University. Together we are pulling off this extraordinary adventure, which will welcome forty-four of the best young violinists in the world here in May. The Richmond Symphony is giving the opening gala concert, and playing for the senior finals. One really cool part of the project is that we're welcoming the Sphinx Virtuosi here to be the other orchestra playing with us, for the junior finals. We'll be playing together in the closing gala concert, literally side by side. That will look like a clear vision of our commitment to increase the diversity on our stage.
We have nine jury members, we have artists-in-residence that include a representation of violinists from classical through jazz and folk. Regina Carter’s quartet will be in residence for the 11 days, and Mark and Maggie O’Connor. We’ve commissioned from Mark O’Connor a theme and variations on an Appalachian folk tune that the senior competitors will learn. We have also commissioned from Mason Bates a piece for the junior competitors. Again, this showcases our commitment to involve living composers where we can in our work. The Sphinx Virtuosi will be here for eleven days, breaking down into small ensembles and going out into Richmond Public Schools. The competitors who do not continue in the competition do that as well. All the competitors are here for the duration so we find ways to keep them engaged by having them give performances and master classes with the students that we serve.
One of the unique aspects of the Menuhin competition is its very nurturing environment. All members of the jury perform, the artists-in-residence perform, as well as all of the competitors. There is a great deal of engagement with the host city, and with the people we are hoping to inspire. We work with public school systems every week, complementing what the music teachers are doing. It's one thing to buy instruments and to support after-school programming, but there's nothing quite like blowing them away with inspiration, which is what the Menuhin Competition is going to do. We're quite convinced that many of the children exposed to this competition are going to have their lives changed permanently and be driven to want to pursue a life of music.
Dan: That is really exciting, especially from my perspective as a professor and School of Music Chair. These are the kinds of formative experiences for young people that are amazing, especially working with a symphony. That's wonderful.
David: The Menuhin Competition brings it all back to what we're trying to do here. Since 2015, when we bought our "Big Tent" portable stage, we have been moving around the city from public park to public park, building community festivals, at which the Symphony performs, but so do many other performers, both adult and child. As we've gone to these places, we have raised money to buy instruments for that district’s public schools. Since 2015, we've raised over $400,000 to populate 25 of the 32 elementary and middle schools of the city with enough string instruments to teach orchestra at elementary school level. We are moving through the pipeline buying band instruments for middle and high school students. By next September we will have finished the circuit of all nine city districts and every one of those thirty-two schools will have string instruments. That's how we connect with the population that we are trying to serve. Bringing in things like the Menuhin Competition really drives this home. Music can change lives and blow people's minds.
Dan: So, is your approach unique to the Richmond Symphony? I know that other orchestras have outreach initiatives, but I’m not aware of such comprehensive activity. This really seems like a unique, flagship approach.
David: It has been recognized as such by the League of American Orchestras through the Futures Fund. The Director of the NEA at the last League conference gave a shout-out to us for doing this. I can't say we are unique, but I haven't heard of any other orchestras building community festivals and using a mobile stage in this way. Certainly the manufacturer of our tent had not come across it. They were fascinated to hear about it because normally these things go up and stay up: people go to that location. We do it the other way around; we find the people where they are and bring our music to them. In 2018-19 we gave six major festivals on top of our regular season.
We did not imagine when we bought the Big Tent that it would be transformational for us. We generate proceeds from free festivals. It's a very interesting business model. When folks learned that we were trying to leave lasting good behind, it became easier to raise $200,000 in order to leave $100,000 behind than it would have been to raise $100,000 for a three-day festival. We spent six to 10 months introducing ourselves where the Tent is intended to go. That community then sets up a steering committee and smaller committees around logistics, programming, participation, neighborhood relations, and publicity, and they decide what they want the festival to be. The Tent goes up, and the festival lasts a day to three days. The community participates with us. We put it all together, and raise the money together. Whatever is left over at the end of the day from sponsorships, gifts, sales of beer and wine, and food, goes to the schools to buy instruments.
Dan: What a great way to turn those sales into something really, really useful. That's incredible. This flows really well into my next question. What does the future of the Richmond Symphony look like?
David: Success for us, in sustainability and in flourishing, lies in our strategic planning. We have five areas in which we're focused (not listed in any particular order): artistic excellence; financial health; public relevance; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and audience building. We see those five goals as being interdependent, and are focused on progressing in each of those areas. One feeds into the other. The Big Tent has been critical in changing public perceptions and demonstrating our relevance. There are other parts of our work that are associated with artistic excellence. I think the secret to sustainability lies in three areas: what you're doing on the stage; how you're perceived by the public; and how you continue to generate new revenues that will enable you to build, and in some cases, replace what you might be losing through the natural decline of revenue streams that may have run their course.
Dan: As you are saying, the Big Tent is changing public perceptions, which is really remarkable. Can you elaborate on that; how have public perceptions been changing?
David: I was giving a talk recently to a downtown club, and the chairman introduced me saying that the Richmond Symphony has changed the perception that going to hear classical music means you have to sit in a ‘stuffy’ concert hall. There you have the problem, because the people who aren’t coming think that what we do is designed only for a very narrow type of listener who wants to hear only classical music in a very serious (= off-putting) way. If they would pay more attention, they would see that what we do is very different. We perform pops series; we do movie music; we go and play in breweries. Certainly, we present “great works,” large and small. That's not all we do, but you have to get their attention first; after getting their attention you then have to change their perception; and that's what the Big Tent has done. People see us playing in their neighborhood in the open air, in the most accessible way possible. There are families out there in the hundreds. You can have a beer, stand in the sunshine, and listen to the symphony. They then start to pay more attention to what you're doing. Then they say: “oh, I didn’t know you did that,” and they come and see you do Harry Potter or Star Wars, or whatever. We don’t seriously think that from a park 25 or 30 miles away from Richmond, people hearing us on the Fourth of July are suddenly going to want to buy a Masterworks subscription. That’s not the point. But, it is certainly changing perceptions about who we are and what we do. And it is not coincidental, I think, that since we've been ‘meeting people where they are,’ ticket sales have been going up in a straight line, from one year to the next.
Dan: So, actually I'm going to jump to my fifth question, which is about sustaining and growing audiences and enrichment. Do you think the Big Tent is one of the most significant factors that will do that for you, or are there other factors as well?
David: There have been other factors too. I can't point to a direct correlation, since our ticket sales were going up before we bought the Big Tent. But whether they would have continued to go up – maybe not. It is attributable to other factors too, including the end of the recession. Also, the kind of programming we've been doing in our main series. And we added things like movie concerts, which we weren’t doing before then. We face enormous competition here for leisure time and for the leisure dollar, and our sales early this season were not as great as I would have liked, in part because Hamilton came through and sold $11M worth of tickets. That money has to come from somewhere.
Dan: When you mentioned that programming might also have contributed to growth and sustainability of audiences, could you elaborate on what aspects of programming might be doing that?
David: We do eight “Masterworks” concerts, each one twice, but not always in the same hall. And we have a chamber orchestra series, which is a different venue again. So, part of it is around where we play, and part of it is what we're playing. Each of our series is focused on a different potential audience, from the ages of three to ninety-three; we provide something for everyone. I would say that it's obviously programming that people are responding to, but we are careful about pricing and flexibility on our subscription packages. Our increases in sales have been both through subscriptions and single tickets. And by the addition of special concerts, like the Menuhin Competition. We will sell a bunch of extra tickets because we're doing additional activity around Menuhin.
Dan: So then, since we're talking about programming, let me jump back to the music of living composers. How does that play into your programming decisions? I know you had mentioned Mason Bates. Can you talk about commissions in general?
David: We blend music by living composers within the main series. We are premiering a trumpet concerto as a part of our pops series next year. What we've been doing is thinking about ways in which we can present music by living composers on all of the series that we do. We did Exploring America as our summer series last year, and the summer series is just one instrument and piano – six recitals in the summer. So we go all the way down to two people with some of these presentations with living composers. We do maybe two or three commissions a year. Much of our series is broadcast, so there is a chance for archived recordings to be captured to benefit the composers. Very rarely will we create a CD or digital recording for permanent issue. While we don't limit ourselves only to Virginia composers, we do focus on them, even down to sometimes doing composition workshops. And then sometimes there is a special project. There was a residency that we did at the University of Richmond last year that had four concerts, focusing on Beyond Orientalism, beyond ‘exoticism’, and the influence of Eastern traditions in Western music. That also involved commissioning music from Asian composers. That was presented in that series because we got a special grant through the University of Richmond to be able to do that.
Unfortunately, our ability to be as supportive as we'd like is often constrained by the need for special funding for the purpose, whether it is for commissioning or for performing music. We have had grants from NewMusic USA. We actually have two commissioning funds. One is within our own endowment, and one is through the local Community Foundation, for this particular purpose.
Dan: And not everyone has that for sure. That’s wonderful! That actually leads well into the next question, which is: what are the most exciting aspects of the classical music scene to you nowadays and how are you involved with them? I recognize that commissioning would be a factor in that. But, are there other things too?
David: Yeah. We look at our work as being more about the presentation of orchestral music without using the label “classical” too often. Obviously, we are deeply committed to cherishing the classical music tradition, but we want to be careful with labels and not to put labels on things that could confine about how we think about music, or how we present it. So, you'll find us rarely saying that we present “classical” music. We present music of all kinds. And our goal is to present great orchestral music.
Having said that, where we contribute to the vibrancy of classical music in Richmond and beyond is by our relationships with others, by the very healthy culture that exists that has our musicians being ambassadors for the symphony because of what they do too when they're not working for the symphony. Many of them teach. Many of them have connections because of their role outside of the symphony that benefit the symphony too. There’s a chapter of Classical Revolution in Richmond that was started by our Principal Second Violin. That's a good example of the street-level culture of classical music that we are connected to.
Dan: What's really amazing and inspiring is how your orchestra is so deeply engaged in the community in so many different facets.
David: For a very long time it has been part of our contract with our musicians that they are committed to doing education work. We have contracts with all of the surrounding county school systems as well as a deep commitment to the city’s school system. We go into every Elementary School in the region, every year. It's a huge number of mini recitals that are going on as our musicians break out into small ensembles. We know the music supervisors of all the counties, and we have great relationships with them.
Also, for an orchestra of our size to have six youth orchestra ensembles is really quite remarkable. We walk the walk that education is central to our mission. We do as much teaching as we do performing, by virtue of all of this educational activity. Championing music is our third pillar. We are out there in civic leadership, promoting the importance of music education and access to the arts for all the communities that we seek to serve.
Dan: This leads well into my final question. What does the future of orchestral music look like to you both in Richmond and more generally?
David: A successful future looks like us succeeding in what we're currently trying to do as a field, as well as locally: which is to be more representative of the communities that we're seeking to serve. We can’t possibly succeed unless we accomplish that. We are making progress in that area. We have to always be focused on being deeply engaged in the city and the surrounding region, depending on how far a net you want to cast as your service area. It doesn't make sense to try to cover too much ground if, in doing so, all you're making are momentary touches. There need to be deep relationships with the communities you're seeking to serve; each locality will have a different set of ingredients for what a successful relationship looks like. These depend upon the nature of the population. We have the advantage of having been around for now 62 years. We are viewed as a civic institution, but that can work against you as well as for you. But I think if you can connect the idea that the symphony is a civic institution with a very present sense that we are relevant to the public, then you have a solid platform from which to work.
Dan: Wonderful. Well, I have to say, listening to this I truly am inspired by the work that you're doing. Thank you so much for the conversation!
David: Thank you!