RPO has new programming, fundraising goals

07:28 PM, Feb 15, 2013

Elizabeth Rice, chairperson of the board of directors for the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, talks with the Democrat and Chronicle's editorial board on Feb.1, 2013 about the firing of music director Arild Remmereit. (TINA YEE/Staff photographer)/

Written By Stuart Low and Sean Dobbin | Staff writers

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra is ready to try new strategies to erase its $746,000 operating deficit and build its audience.

RPO leaders plan to offer more concerts in farflung towns, starting with a recently launched series in Ithaca. They also will appeal to local high-tech and financial services companies for donations, hoping to fill the vacuum left by downsized giants such as Eastman Kodak Co. and Bausch & Lomb.

And the RPO is likely to introduce offbeat programs designed to attract new listeners, say CEO Charles Owens and board chair Elizabeth Rice. One series under discussion, Cocktail Classics, would combine upscale food, drinks and a short concert.

Many concertgoers, however, worry about a more fundamental aspect of the RPO’s future: Will it still be a full-size orchestra next season? One easy way to stem the red ink would be to thin the orchestra’s ranks, which now include 87 full- and part-time musicians. But RPO administrators have decided not to go that route.

If you implement that solution, do you critically wound the artistic caliber of the orchestra?” asked Rice. “We consciously made a decision that we don’t want to go there. We’ll turn over every stone to find new sources of funding.”

Like other financially strapped orchestras coping with the post-2008 recession, the RPO is seeking a more diverse pool of donors. In the 2011-2012 fiscal year, which ended in August, it received nearly $2.2 million from individual donors and more than $1.1 million in corporate, foundation and government contributions. It plans to encourage more multi-year commitments from individual donors this season.

Government support has waned steadily over the past decade. In 2011-2012, the RPO received $368,350 in government contributions, according to tax documents, compared with $756,000 in 2002-2003.

The RPO’s government support also is well below the levels seen by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, which received $1.01 million in 2010-2011. The level of local government funding accounts for much of the disparity, Rice said. Monroe County gives the RPO $160,000 a year, and the city of Rochester contributes $65,000.

We’re grateful for that support,” said Rice. “But if we had the same level as Buffalo, we wouldn’t have a deficit.”

That raises the relative importance of the RPO’s corporate and foundation support. Its largest donors, at $50,000 or more, are the Wegmans Famliy Charitable Foundation and Elaine and Richard Wilson Foundation.

And just below that level of giving, the RPO is starting to find exactly the kind of high-tech and financial service companies that it deems crucial to its future.

Fibertech Networks, a Rochester fiber optics communications company, and Canandaigua National Bank & Trust both are multi-year sponsors of the Pops Series. Another high-tech supporter is G.W. Lisk, a Clifton Springs solenoid manufacturer that made a three-year pledge of more than $100,000.

Our sponsorship program has to evolve with Rochester’s new economy,” said Owens. “We’re also drawing support from real estate and construction companies such as The Pike Company and the DiMarco Group.”

As the RPO explores corporate Rochester’s changing landscape, it also is seeking new markets for its concerts. Those have include areas where the former Syracuse Symphony once performed. (That orchestra recently regrouped as a musicians’ cooperative called Symphoria.)

We want to build our audience and base of support within a 100-mile radius from Rochester,” said Rice, adding that the RPO “doesn’t want to compete with Symphoria, but to complement it.”

This summer the RPO will travel as far as Inlet, Hamilton County, a former Syracuse Symphony redoubt, to give a concert. The RPO also booked a three-concert series at Geneva’s Smith Opera House, where the Syracuse Symphony used to perform.

We feel we can grow in some brand-new areas,” said Owens. “It’s not that we think the Rochester market is tapped out,”

Still, that leaves a key question for the RPO’s home crowd: What kind of future programs can they expect around town?

The orchestra’s recently fired music director, Arild Remmereit, is still in talks about terms of his departure with the RPO administration, and some backers hope that he wins his job back. If he doesn’t, the 2013-2014 season will be led by guest conductors while a search committee looks for a permanent replacement.

The RPO is close to announcing its lineup for next season, but officials are still weighing new and old types of programming that might broaden its audiences.

Owens said that special importance will be given to “entry-level products” — casual, low-cost concerts where listeners can learn about the music being performed.

Christopher Seaman’s Symphony 101 concerts were extremely popular and guided by his gift of gab,” said Owens, referring to the RPO’s music director from 1998-2011. “They helped people get over the formality barrier.”

RPO leaders are trying to find underwriting for a Cocktail Classics series that would feature an RPO performance of an hour or less, food, beverages and a post-concert party.

The whole point is to bring in new people,” said Owens. “They’d come for the music, but also for business and social networking. We’re talking now with a major foundation that has expressed a lot of interest.”

Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras in Manhattan, noted that many other orchestras are offering fresh concert formats.

The nature of the performance experience must change to accommodate people’s different preferences,” he said.

The RPO will continue to host concerts by rock tribute bands that appeal to teens and young adults. The music of The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and other groups has been offered in both winter and summer programs.

Finally, the RPO will promote “mini-packages” — combinations of three to five concerts hand-picked by each concertgoer. These are a major growth area at orchestras nationwide, because they cost less than a season subscription and allow for individual choice.

Right now, Owens and Rice feel that the RPO’s box office may be tolerating a little too much individual choice. Rochesterians are notorious for waiting until the last moment to decide whether to go to a concert. That makes it tough for the RPO to predict whether an event will be a high-attendance boom or a total bust.

People don’t commit here,” sighed Rice. “It makes this business more nail-biting.”