Over the last few months I’ve been too busy to blog, but recently while working on a future project I had to identify what made the SSO vital and it made me think. I joined the SSO almost two years ago and began the process of defining what it meant to be an orchestra on the prairie. It is remarkable to see the state of the organization today…and while it may well be one of the fastest turnarounds in orchestral history, it has not been easy.
Much of my extra brain space these days is taken up by conceiving and dreaming about the journey to our 100th anniversary. Being only 15 years away from that incredible milestone means that it is time for us to start thinking about the SSO’s identity – what part does it play in our society, what role does it fill in the community, and where are we going…
The SSO is the oldest professional arts organization in Saskatoon – think about it…it was started by Arthur Collingwood in 1931. An orchestra. Here, in the heart of the depression era dust bowl. Through some of our province’s most difficult days, Saskatoon was building an orchestra. I can only imagine that for the people who wanted an orchestra it was about culture and collective knowledge and civilization and the need for something to help them deal emotionally with struggles far bigger than they had imagined when they moved west.
The SSO is a part of our history – whether from those early days at the Bessborough to the opening night of the Centennial Auditorium, no other organization has seen as many milestones for Saskatoon as the SSO. Musically present for so many important achievements, the SSO has created a soundtrack for the city to build its memories on.
The SSO is versatile – there have been many road blocks placed in the path of professional music in Saskatoon, but here today stands an orchestra in a state of growth. When a strike shut down the venue, the SSO set up shop in a church to keep the music going. When the time has come, multiple times, to make a shift in programming, the SSO has been right there to keep offering incredible experiences.
The SSO has a large artistic footprint – we have a very large audience with wide appeal, we have a lot of concerts, and we employ professional musicians. Better than just employing them, we give them a chance to hone their skills and make their music and still call Saskatchewan home. Our musicians are an essential part of the city’s human capital. Our musicians have impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people whether through their performing or their teaching. It is staggering to think of the number of youngsters who have learned the skills of hard work, dedication, practice, and self-awareness from our musicians.
The SSO is more than just concerts – the SSO Book and Music sale has set the standard across the country for book sale fundraisers. Hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of books have been sold for pocket change to book lovers and avid readers for decades. Beyond the shelves of books there are hundreds of volunteers who give selflessly of their time to create one of the most unique curated sales in all of Canada.
The SSO is underfunded – if I think about how to get this organization to its 100th anniversary, one very large piece of our identity is that we are underfunded. I almost said we are understaffed, but reality is that we have a very small staff because we are underfunded. Ticket prices keep having to go up because it is intrinsically difficult to justify why music matters as much as social and wellness issues. I will not argue that the SSO is more worthy a cause than any other as it would devalue the exceptional work of the non-profits that make a community. And that’s it, non-profits do just that: make a community. As part of the intricate web of social services and public needs, music is as important as all other causes – I hope that we are past a time when I have to explain why music matters. It has immense value and it is time we all started saying that out loud.
The SSO is a survivor. The history of the financial state of the SSO is like a rollercoaster that only ever goes downhill. Yet with the support of nearly 2000 of you, the SSO is debt free. That is no small accomplishment. We’re not out of the woods but we are on the surest footing we’ve ever had. It allows us to look clearly at the future.
The SSO is relevant – in the next 7 months we perform with leading classical artists, including superstar Jan Lisiecki. We perform with throat singer Tanya Tagaq in a concert that explores the music of the great white north. We even are dipping our hand into scientific research, economic development, workshops, and outreach.
The SSO is a teacher – each year we make music for school children, even toddlers now, and it may well be their only exposure to classical music. Educational programming costs us a lot of money, and is always a huge financial loss…but it’s worth every penny. It would be impossible to quantify the impact one school show could make. Maybe it’s the kid who fell hopelessly in love with the sound of a flute and decided that when they get in to band they’re going to play the flute. Or the kid who just needed to hear a piece of music that took their imagination on a journey away from reality. We want even more students, and adults, to learn about music because frankly we freaking love music and you should too.
The SSO should be a leader – now to be clear, I firmly believe we are. Our work enables many other organizations to exist, we set a tone and trend for the local music community. But I think we can do a better job of those things. We are great at making partnerships and creating cool projects, but we could do more. I want to see a future where the SSO has the capacity to help musicians in town bring their musical dreams to life; where we can be the rehearsal space, the musical resource, an artistic voice for our community.
The SSO should be an artistic incubator – the thrill of having a good guest artist is so much more than just putting on a performance where the soloist blows everyone away. As the SSO brings world class soloists to our stage, we want to have them interact with the music community to share what they know, and trust me that magic will trickle down to young people. Even more importantly, we should be a place where Saskatchewan artists have their “first time” – we have been gifted in our province with some very special musical minds that for far too long have had to go away to find their voice. It is so much fun to turn that around and help them explore their art at home. We get to bring them back home to show us what they know, and help the next generation here discover what it is they have to say with their music.
The SSO is putting on incredible performances – I know it’s my job to tell you to come to concerts…but I truly want people to experience what I’m witnessing. We have the opportunity to enjoy wonderful live music…not just good programming and good guest artists, but we are presently witnessing the renaissance of a group of musicians. That first concert of the season – it is incredible what some great rehearsals can do, and great fun to see our new conductor at work! This weekend webring you an incredibly demanding Mozart symphony, a composer we’ve avoided for a long time. We bring you a Canadian symphony, not because we want Canadian content but because it’s gorgeous music that you should hear. We partner with the Saskatoon Jazz Orchestra to have a Christmas concert that is all about great music and fun times. And we bring Eric’s exceptional baroque expertize to Handel’s Messiah…new tempi, new bowings, a fresh breathe of air to a 300 year old masterwork.
Maybe that is exactly why the SSO is vital…bringing new life to old music. It’s not a miracle. It is just what good orchestras do.
See you at the symphony this weekend,