A Positive Vision for the Symphony

Letter to the Editor of the Roanoke Times published 2.27.08

by David Stewart Wiley

As the Music Director of the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra (RSO), it is my privilege to serve our vibrant 54-year-old organization.  There has been much in the news recently about the challenges and reinvention facing many of our region’s cultural organizations, and I feel compelled to share my perspective and vision.  I believe that our region’s arts organizations, including the RSO, remain vital now and into the future.

First, I want to share some great news about the RSO’s successes, and to clear up any lingering misconceptions.  There is much positive news to report at the Roanoke Symphony, and that is good news for our region. The myth that symphony orchestras are a waning institution is not true, certainly not in the Roanoke Valley. In my experience traveling throughout the U.S. and abroad to other orchestras there are many success stories, and the RSO is surely one of them.  We are pleased to report that in the last two seasons at the Roanoke Symphony we have seen a remarkable 25% increase in ticket subscriptions each year in our Pops Series.  Attendance for our traditional Masterworks series at the Civic Center is steadily growing, and our added orchestra performances at Shaftman Hall are essentially sold out.  Our Holiday Pops concert in Salem alone attracts in excess of 3200 people, and enthusiastic audiences hear this and other family-friendly RSO programs in Blacksburg, Martinsville, Staunton, and Marion to name a few.  We provide music lessons and scholarships to African-American school children through the Friends of the RSO.  We provide life changing musical experiences through the Roanoke Youth Symphony, the Junior Strings, the Harp Ensemble, in-school music ensembles, and the Summer Music Institute.  We have increased our partnership with WVTF public radio in broadcasting our events to a wider geographical audience, and our latest CD release is on the Delos International label, giving us both a national and international presence.

During the past decade our balanced budget has grown from less than $775,000 annually to more than $1.8 million this coming year.   We had a few challenging financial years along the way but quickly returned to our pattern of success several years ago, matching new challenge grants and exceeding our goals.  When we show a budget surplus, we put those funds into our growing endowment for ensuring the future, while simultaneously increasing vital education and outreach offerings to those who can least afford it.  We work diligently to keep ticket prices low.  It is a fact that ticket sales alone account for less than half of our needed revenues, and we have tried to keep subscription prices reasonable while working to raise revenues from other sources.  We have a dedicated and experienced administrative staff, a committed board, enthusiastic volunteers, a wonderful regional Roanoke Symphony Chorus, and an orchestra of professional musicians passionate about every performance and educational endeavor.  The RSO is a fun place to work, and it has truly been a team effort to achieve this level of success.  With our success now comes a curious challenge: we need to trumpet our artistic and financial successes of the past few years without giving the incorrect impression that we do not need every dollar of support or are somehow rolling in money.  We are truly grateful for the support we have received through increased attendance and in the investment from individuals, businesses, foundations, and government.  We work hard to be prudent stewards of these valued resources.

As our society changes, the RSO has a realistic and detailed long-range plan for institutional change as well as making the arts vital and accessible to all.   We believe that great music is for everybody, and we see that live music and music education can be a life-changing experience.  Without abandoning the traditional orchestral & choral programs that our patrons cherish, we are pushing the boundaries of what a professional symphony can provide for new audiences and a younger generation.  An upcoming example of just such an experiment will be an exciting event this coming May 31 called ‘Rock Symphony Circus.” This event, to be held at the Roanoke Civic Center Coliseum, together features our orchestra, a rock band, and veteran Cirque performers — with a student price of only $15.  We continue to actively collaborate with many of our regional arts groups, and are looking forward to being a part of the grand opening of the Taubman Museum this fall.  We all need to celebrate the successes of our fellow art groups, and each of us can step up our attendance at events and provide donations for those who falter and can effectively recover.  A rising tide lifts all trains, if you get my drift (and mixed metaphor)

I firmly believe that the RSO can and will be a vital part of our region’s growth for generations to come.  Imagine, for instance, the accomplished doctor who chooses to move her family to Roanoke in the coming years to teach or do research at the new medical school.  She will expect a high level of cultural and educational opportunity, and the RSO is a vital part of that fulfilled expectation.  The symphony will have a spot for her children in our youth programs, we will partner with our region’s schools to provide musical ensembles vital to a broad and creative education, we have a seat at a table for her and her colleagues at a fun and relaxing “Picnic at the Pops” event. Oh, and she might even buy that house you’ve been trying to sell, so replace those shingles that blew away during our recent wind storm.

This positive vision can and will be our future together, and all of us involved deeply in the arts are grateful for your support in making it so.

Dr. David Stewart Wiley lives in Roanoke with his wife and children. He is Music Director & Conductor of our Roanoke Symphony and the Long Island Philharmonic in New York.