More than just decking the halls

Music lovers look forward to the holiday season in a unique way – maybe it’s the anticipation of hearing their favourite Christmas carol, or the joy that comes with the crop of new Christmas albums out there.

This year we wanted to do something really meaningful for our Christmas performances – so we asked ourselves how Saskatoon’s orchestra can best celebrate the holidays – and the answer was clear.  Build community.

Orchestras, including ours, have always played an important role in a city’s holiday traditions.  And there’s no better time in the season to remember that making music is about coming together.  It’s more than just tradition.  In fact it’s more than just music, it’s become a part of what makes a city’s cultural identity.

So over the course of the next two weeks Maestro Sawa and Saskatoon’s finest musicians build some community right there on stage.  The Lastiwka Orthodox Choir has never performed with the SSO, and the renowned Pavlychenko Folklorique Ensemble will join the orchestra for the first time as well.  It’s hard to believe that the orchestra hasn’t performed with these groups as each are ambassadors of the city’s culture.  Not to mention that the exploration of Saskatchewan’s rich Ukrainian traditions is the perfect way for us to explore how a symphony orchestra can be relevant in a modern context.

It is crucial to the future of a music community that the music performed have a clear reason for being programmed – gone are the days when people go to concerts just because the concert is on.  There are so many incredible events going on each and every day in Saskatoon, so it’s even more important for the orchestra to give the audience experiences that meet their musical needs.

So with that goal, how then do you make Handel’s Messiah more relevant to a modern audience?  How can we make a 300 year old piece of music resonate deeper for us?

Earlier this fall we began auditions for our first symphonic chorus – the result has been quite exciting.  A choir that brings together passionate singers of all ages, backgrounds, and from all across the province – performers who are exploring the notes of Herr Handel and the texts of Carl Jennens in a new way.  They are a totally new group.  They’ve never worked together before, in fact until the first rehearsal many of them had never met.  And rehearsals are intense, so there’s not a lot of time to mingle.  But they’ve bonded.

There is countless studies that show that people who make music together, especially choirs, create a unique unspoken connection – they quite literally build community.

It’s no longer enough to just make music – your smart phone can do that now.  Being an orchestra in the prairies is about going back to what made the prairies great.  People coming together in the face of adversity, usually in winter, and building a community.

Your December is completely packed with events and parties and way too many things on the to-do list – but you need to make time to come to these concerts.  Do it to relax.  Do it to have a personal check-in during a crazy time of year.  Do it to get inspired for the holidays.  Do it to build your community.

See you at the symphony,


Time to rally

Recently I was speaking to a group of students at the U of S about marketing classical music to young people – a student raised the question “what do you think is the difficulty of getting people under 25 to come to the symphony?”.  I replied “well, people think classical music sucks.”

Since I joined the SSO team I’ve been very vocal about the city needing to take more pride in its orchestra – my tune won’t change.  My colleagues are individually great musicians and it is fantastic to see them playing so well in recent weeks.  And this city is lucky to have an orchestra – now let’s spread that story.

In case you missed the news, our opening night had incredibly high ticket sales – and a week later our Red and Black Affair sold out.  But the real story is how good these concerts were…each and every single person left the performances energized, recharged.  But the best part for me was that the orchestra enjoyed those performances.

Many people commented on the smiles on the faces of musicians – trust me, the energy you felt leaving that concert was mutual.  And guests at the Red and Black Affair commented on it being “some of the best playing they’ve heard from the SSO”.

So this weekend we have a concert – the first of our Conexus Pops series – and our Oktoberfest is up against a lot of other entertainment options that night, not to mention the lure of staying on the couch!  But its time to have some fun at something with more local community impact than a movie on 2nd Ave.

Many people think that a night at the symphony orchestra is hard work, dull, and stuffy.  Others will tell you that the way to save classical music is dumb it down.  I disagree with them both.  And this weekend’s concert will prove my point.

Music isn’t milk.  It doesn’t have an expiry date.  Good music is good music, its not disposable.  And this weekend is the right example of that – what you likely don’t know about our Oktoberfest concert is how much fun the music is in the concert.

The music of Johann Strauss (both Jr and Sr!) is as fun today as the day it was written.  They knew how to make an audience happy.  They knew how to give musicians a chance to enjoy the opportunity to play around on stage.  The Blue Danube…go ahead, sing it in your head.  Come on – its fun.  See.  Makes you want to dance…instant smile.

Patrons – you’re on our team.  We need you on our team.  And as part of our team you get to reap the rewards of great concerts.  Get your friends involved.  Bring them with you…even if kicking and screaming, because we all know how much they’ll love it!  As the ED I’m never satisfied with ticket sales – I won’t be satisfied until we are packing the place for each event. And all the marketing and paid advertising in the world won’t do that.  No, what does that is a mentality shift – let’s create a culture around the SSO that people want to be a part of.  Its that pride thing I keep talking about.

We have a big concert this weekend – let’s show some SSO pride and share the fun with your friends.  At the very least, share it with yourself!

An incredible achievement

It’s time for a good news story. Your orchestra broke even on last season.

This is no small accomplishment – this is the result of a complete analysis of how we were spending money.  It is the achievement of months of careful decision making and the hard work of every single member of the SSO team – management, staff, board of directors, even musicians.  This is something to celebrate.

For those of you keeping score at home – last year we had a loss of more than $265,000; this year we broke even with the minimal loss of $2300; and in this new season we are on track to not only begin the process of deficit reduction but show a surplus on the season.

Subscriptions are up – this is huge news.  It may not make the nightly news, but it is definitely note worthy in an arts climate where orchestras are constantly bemoaning the loss of subscribers.  Subscribers are up, and we didn’t spend a dime on acquiring those new subscribers.

We have new initiatives – this is significant because if classical music didn’t matter anymore we wouldn’t have people excited about new ideas.  Whether you’ve join the Patrons Club, or you’re excited about the rumours of the after parties, or you’re hoping to snag a Christmas gift at the lobby boutique, you are seeing what can happen when a symphony decides to get relevant.

I firmly believe that people are responding to the programming of the upcoming season – the response has been overwhelming.  People are in love with the idea of a bunch of prairie folk setting off in search of what it means to be an orchestra in the west.  People are excited about the chance to see home grown heroes taking the stage to prove that we grow them talented here!  People are feeling like their symphony is back.  And it is.

Each and every one of us has a part to play in the future of the SSO – each musician, each audience member, each volunteer.  We are all going to be part of Saskatoon’s orchestra.  We can each be ambassadors of the SSO through marketing, development, and public knowledge of the orchestra – don’t be shy to tell your friends you’re going to the symphony; don’t be ashamed to say that you’re playing a part in making sure that there is exceptional music in Saskatoon.  This is the time to show your pride.

I often think that the arts could learn a lot from professional sports – maybe not in terms of dress code, but in terms of team spirit.  Sports teams know that the win is only worth it if there is someone their to share in their moment.  Sports teams make sure that their fans know how important they are, how much they matter in the stands.  And the same is true for music.

This orchestra needs a cheering section because it is doing incredible things.  These musicians need everyone to take pride in piece well played, in a moment on stage that changes the life of a listener hearing it for the first time.  We aren’t asking you to paint your face green and blow those horns from your seats – but we are asking that you celebrate with us!

From deficit to break even to lasting sustainability – this is something to cheer about. And how can you help, you ask? Share the news of upcoming events with people – as the Executive Director for the next three years, I want to have us all sell more tickets.  The musicians are committed to making incredibly artistic music, the management is committed to fiscal responsibility, but the best thing possible would be to start having sell outs.

The fact is, we can’t afford modern advertising – for us to ‘keep up with the jones’ we’d have to quadruple the money we spend on advertising – BUT we do have all of you.  If every single person who loved going to the symphony sold another two tickets to friends or relatives or coworkers, we’d sell out.  We’d have waiting lists.  We’d have people scrambling to get tickets.  We’d have more people taking pride in their music scene, and that my friends is how we create a climate of culture.

If you want something go out and get it – so let’s start packing the place.  Let’s see people realizing that its not about stuffy music and long second halves.  Let’s show people what a little prairie voice can do.

It’s little wonder this orchestra is a survivor.  This is Saskatchewan, its what we do.

See you at the Symphony!