A New Conductor. A New Season. A New SSO.

Its hard to believe that the announcement of the new season is just a week away – to be honest the last few months have flown by…it seems that the momentum that accompanies the SSO these days just keeps rolling full steam ahead.

I am so delighted to welcome Eric Paetkau back to the prairies – working with Eric over the course of the last few months has been truly rewarding.  He stepped in to programming and took the reigns – no small task after the success of the present season…but he has made it look and feel easy.

Next year is pretty amazing.  Once again, each and every guest is Canadian.  Somehow, next season features even more soloists with Saskatchewan roots than the present year.  And season 85 features the most Canadian music the SSO has ever seen: a Canadian symphony, a concert with nearly all Canadian repertoire, a Canadian song cycle, and a brand new pops show featuring a Saskatoon artist.

The season is packed with orchestral hits – four of the most loved symphonies ever written, a piece made famous by a brilliant movie, a great piece of Americana, and the greatest concerto ever written.

And to top it off, the biggest orchestra pops show in the world.  And icing on the cake, a classical music super star.

I’m so excited…but frankly, my attention is still going to be focused on the real task at hand.

Our Share in the Future Campaign has been so successful to date – we set out to find 2000 people to give gifts of $100, and I’m thrilled to say that we’ve found over 500 of those people already!

Its going very well – but if you know me, you’ll know that I won’t be happy until each and every music lover in this city, in this province, steps up and adds their name to our list.

I think that audiences here deserve the very best that the music world has to offer.  I see the vision that our new conductor brings to the table, I see the projects that are exciting our musicians, and I see the outreach opportunities across the province in schools and halls – like Eric says its all about “potential”.  We are so close that the phrase “run, don’t walk” comes to mind.

There’s that old saying “the proof is in the pudding” – our concerts are packed, we’ve never been more engaged with our community, and audiences can’t say enough about how much they are loving the concerts.  We have proof by the bucket full – the SSO is ready for the future.

So lets just do this.  I’d like to issue a challenge – I want to hit the 1000 person mark with the Share in the Future campaign by April 1st.  We have two weeks to get another 500 people to be part of what we’re doing.

Maybe you’ve been planning to give, or figured you’d get around to it later.  Maybe you meant to but forgot about it.  Maybe you haven’t thought about it at all yet.  Maybe you’ve already given and have some friends that you should get involved too.  Its time for us to make this happen.

Each and every one of the 2000 gifts to the campaign are matched by the Frank and Ellen Remai Foundation – thanks to their incredible generosity, your $100 becomes $200.  If you’re a couple, your $200 becomes $400.

We are doing this so that the organization can start running ahead with the future – and quite frankly, if we can’t find 2000 people who want to see their city have an orchestra then we shouldn’t have an orchestra.  This is about putting together a list of names that stand up and let it be known that they want to have an orchestra.  Let’s face it, if you haven’t stopped reading my rambling yet, your name should be on that list.

Just think – on November 21st we’re going to put all 2000 of those people in one room with our amazing musicians of the orchestra, our brand new conductor, and one very special guest artist…now that’s going to be a party to remember.

Come meet Eric.  Click here and put your name on the list.

See you at the symphony,


SSO’s New Maestro to be announced on March 4th



A new era is about to begin.

A new conductor is an exciting time for any orchestra – no, actually, its an exciting time for the orchestra and their audience.  And maybe even more exciting in today’s classical music climate.

I was in New York last week when the NY Philharmonic announced it would be looking for its next music director…and the excitement was palpable.  And its not unique to New York – it seems that we are in a changing of the guard in orchestras.  Over the course of the next few seasons, a large number of Canadian orchestras will be welcoming new conductors.

The SSO search was an incredibly fulfilling process.  We took time to map out what the future of the SSO looks like – what kind of leader does the SSO need? what kind of leader can the SSO be in the community?  what role and impact will the next conductor have on the local music scene? where do we want to go artistically?

We struck a committee – two board members, three principal musicians from the orchestra, and myself.  We had 77 applicants from all over the globe.  The committee whittled that down to a shortlist of 8.  A truly exceptional shortlist; exceptional musicians and visionaries who are passionate about music and their art.

The interview process was among the most rewarding experiences of my professional life – asking these artists about their process, about their ideas, was the source of much inspiration and discussion for the committee.

This was not an easy decision – many long hours of thoughtful discussion took place.  When the final meeting of the committee took place, I can say that we enthusiastically put forward a unanimous recommendation to the board.

The classical music world is presently at its most exciting, in my opinion.  There is a wealth of young conductors and soloists who are entrepreneurial in their art form.  Gone are the days when a conductor was a stoic figure on a very high podium – today’s conductors and soloists are out there trying to make their own artistic experiences and create new work for themselves and their friends – in fact, nearly all of our shortlist had at one point started their own orchestra.

The next generation of classical artists need to know more than how to make music.  They need to understand the business of the arts, the finesse of budgeting, and the art of selling tickets.  Programming is no longer about what a conductor wants to play, but rather what artistic statement the audience wants and needs.  The way we create concerts has changed.

This new generation of music makers aren’t classical snobs – but they are passionately driven to make exceptional music and see high standards as a baseline.  Today’s conductors don’t see classical music as the only path to musical enlightenment – the new generation of conductors are as comfortable at a jazz concert or playing on a Polaris prize winning album as they are on the podium.

Classical musicians love music in all its forms.  Every classical musician I know, or have worked with, would list classical as only one of the many facets of their love.  (Little known fact, I love rap).

I’m excited that Saskatoon is on the cusp of something great.  A time to explore new things, new sounds, new skills – a chance to renew our passion about this orchestra.

The 16th conductor has big shoes to fill – I can say that next season’s programming is amongst the most exciting, unique, and imaginative that Saskatoon has ever seen.  We’re setting a new soundtrack for our city.

We are about to announce a new maestro who has prairie ties and will call Saskatoon home.  Excited yet?

See you at the symphony – and hopefully one of our big launches in March.


The state of the SSO

We’re at the half way point of the season – after my first year with the SSO, I want to take some time to take stock of things.

Over the course of the last 12 months we’ve made an exceptional amounts of changes at the SSO:

  • We changed how we budget – long term budget development has allowed us to take a serious look at how the organization needs to plan for each concert, each decision, future growth, new programs, and assessing how our financials meet the musical needs of Saskatoon.
  • We’ve drastically changed how we spend money – we’ve been strategically cutting expenses, but I’m proud to say that we can cut expenditures and still present incredible programming; and speaking of programming.  No more over spending, those days are gone.
  • We changed the way we program – we acknowledged the fact that our audiences deserve programming that fulfills their musical needs.  Its not enough to just ‘put on a concert’, it has to be an artistic experience, an event that gives something to the audience.
  • We implemented a strategic plan – it covers everything from a commitment to long term fiscal responsibility to improving performance quality
  • We have been working on a development overhaul – until this past year, the SSO had a non-existent donor database.  I’m excited to say that our new database is up and running – it will completely change the way we work with our supporters, and allow us to develop new initiatives.
  • We are getting interactive – whether you’re experiencing the opportunity to sing in our new chorus, enjoying getting social with us online, or voting on the last performance of the year, we’re making huge strides involving patrons in the process
  • We are enjoying the benefits of all of the above – each and every concert in the first half of the season saw a surplus.  Its not only financially satisfying, its been wonderful to see such large audiences engaging in their orchestra!
  • We’ve committed to creating artistic opportunities for Sask artists – how exciting it is that a kid can grow up in a farm in Saskatchewan, fall in love with music, get inspired by prairie skies, go off to find a career, and return to be celebrated by their own orchestra – that is one of the best parts of the whole year
  • We have hired a new music director – 77 phenomenal candidates all boiled down to one.  One exceptional musician.  A visionary with big dreams whose commitment to defining a higher artistic standard will redefine the music scene.  A conductor who is as comfortable on the Masters stage as they are biking to an indie concert.

These achievements are remarkable – its a testament of the leadership of the board, a hardworking staff, and most importantly musicians who showed us how beautifully they can play Mozart!  Its owed in large part to our supporters…our stakeholders.  The people who are not just enthusiastic about music, but are showing up to concerts and helping us rediscover what the orchestra means to Saskatoon and beyond.

So its time to tackle a hurdle.  The SSO had too many years of not being fiscally responsible.  It is truly the most frustrating part of my job – its a reality created before I got here and a mountain too big to move on my own.  Its the deficit.  Everyone tells me that no one likes to talk about a deficit, but when I joined the SSO I promised that I would be frank and honest about the organization…and its time to move ahead.

With the present state of the SSO, the organizational health we’re experiencing, we can actually deal with the deficit and stop the cycle.  If we’re going to create a great orchestra that people across the country will take note of, we have to recover from the past and commit to the future.

By getting rid of the deficit the SSO can effectively invest in our community – facilitate long term planning for raises for the orchestra musicians, expand our educational programming, reach out to our surrounding communities, attract world renowned guest artists, create new projects that flex the artistic muscles of our arts scene.  If we can achieve such great accomplishments in the last 12 months, just think of where we’re headed.

We have one last major step to take.  And we’re about to take it.

See you at the symphony,
Mark Turner

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!