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Eyeing the future, RPO takes a fresh approach

The RPO is in month seven of the final year of a three-year strategic growth plan, and CEO Charles Owens is talking shop.
Owens joined the orchestra six months ago from the Hartford Symphony in Connecticut. He is rebuilding the administrative team to better position the RPO in the minds of donors and listeners, he says. He is about to hire directors for development, marketing and education.
Owens mentions the marriage of artistic vision and resources-or, in marketing speak, “the nexus of product, potential audience and location, a triangulation we think about a lot.”
The future of the RPO will depend not only on the quality of the musical experience the orchestra provides but on the variety of audiences it can reach.
“We need to constantly review, refine, explore new ways of generating earned revenue, which means building audiences and making sure that our marketing program stays fresh and creative and solid,” he says.
Like its counterparts across the country, the orchestra has had its share of lean years-tough periods during which revenues and morale took a nosedive. The current strategic plan retuned the orchestra’s focus from trying to make ends meet to investing in growth.
The RPO finished fiscal 2007, which ended Aug. 31, $240,000 in the black-something of which it could only dream during leaner seasons in the early 1990s and 2000s.
Revenues from ticket sales, concert fees and contributions reached $3.98 million in fiscal 2007, up from $3.65 million a year earlier.
Donations to the non-profit orchestra have grown 21 percent in the first two fiscal years of the plan, with much of that funding reinvested in staffing for marketing and fundraising.
RPO board giving has grown dramatically, with nearly $500,000 given in fiscal 2007 by 29 board members and several honorary members, up by $150,000 from fiscal 2004.
And the endowment has reached $20.5 million, which provided $1 million toward the RPO’s $9.6 million budget in fiscal ’07.
In other words, as it celebrates its 85th anniversary, the state of the RPO is fundamentally strong, Owens says. But as bright as the future appears, there’s no time for relaxing.
“Organizations like this can’t ever rest on their laurels. The remarkable success of the first two years-we have to work very hard to sustain that momentum.”

Collaborations
The strategic plan (a new one is to be announced this summer) opened the floodgates to new ideas. Once new marketing and development people are in place, Owens expects those ideas and more to take shape.
Working with other arts institutions is a high priority for Owens. Impressed by what he says is a warm and welcoming community (“in some areas, local arts organizations are a little wary of one another”), Owens says arts leaders have reached out, eager to collaborate. He mentions Strong National Museum of Play, the Memorial Art Gallery, Young Audiences of Greater Rochester and PUSH Physical Theatre.
The RPO’s educational programming already is vast, reaching preschoolers on up to high school students. Owens is circumspect about new projects in the concept stages, saying the RPO is hiring a director of education and community programming to bring ideas to fruition. But his excitement is no secret.
“Can you imagine if we were to go into (schools) and to combine music and physical theater, music and movement, into programs? It’s just one example of how the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts, which are already great on their own.”
Owens would like to see more programs that nudge the traditional classical repertoire into new territory. For example, a communitywide celebration week for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is a big success in Hartford and could be replicated here, he says. It culminates “in one big joyous communitywide concert celebration.”
But Owens knows that with any new venture, there are plenty of questions to be answered first: What is the nature of the programming-classical, jazz, gospel? Who participates? How is it promoted?

Eastman Theatre
While many of its promising partnerships are in the earliest stages, one is solidifying nicely.
The relationship between the RPO and its “landlord,” the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, has never been closer, Owens says. The orchestra’s board and staff members have been at the table as the school plans a major renovation of Eastman Theatre, the RPO’s performance home. The two organizations are working together on raising funds for the renovation.
The RPO’s first season in the renovated theater, 2009-10, promises to be nothing short of transforming, says Music Director Christopher Seaman, who is nearly breathless as he describes opening night.
“That will be a huge watershed event in many, many ways. It will transform the experience. It will look like a world-class concert hall; it will sound like one. It will retain all the art … that we’ve all got so attached to.
“The whole thing is being raised to a level whereby it’s a lovely, enjoyable and actually quite prestigious night out, and that’s what we need in downtown Rochester.”

The 2008-09 season
For its final season before the theater renovation, the RPO will open with famed pianist Andre Watts on Beethoven’s “Emperor Concerto.” Other guest artists include the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, Wynonna Judd and Don Potter, New York Voices, Jon Nakamatsu, Michael Cavanaugh (star of Broadway’s “Movin’ Out”) in a Billy Joel retrospective, and former Cirque de Soleil acrobats and aerialists.
“Creating these kinds of evenings and events-it’s hard. It takes constant work and pressure,” says principal pops conductor Jeffrey Tyzik, who will mark his 15th RPO season.
Rochester audiences expect excellence, says Tyzik, who is in demand as a guest conductor around the country. He is principal pops conductor in Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, British Columbia, and has regular gigs in other cities.
“Traveling gives me an interesting perspective. … Rochester tends to be fairly conservative, but people are definitely open to new things if they’re of a high quality because they know the difference.
“The musical arts here are on a very, very high level.”
sparker@rbj.net / 546-8303

04/25/08 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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