On one of his first trips to Harrisburg, Andreas Oeste learned a lot about the community’s love of the arts by stepping inside Neato Burrito.
“I was clearly not from town, and they sort of asked what I was doing in town,” he recalled. “I said I was playing with the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra (HSO), and they said, ‘Oh—we love the symphony.’”
Oeste, now 29, began playing oboe with the HSO at the age of 25.
As one of the youngest musicians within the 70-member orchestra, what are his thoughts on the sustainability of a career in the arts today?
It basically boils down to one thing—location, location. And the Harrisburg community, well beyond Neato Burrito, values the arts, Oeste said.
“I feel constantly supported by our regular and wonderful patrons,” he said.
Additionally, the HSO’s musicians are financially fortunate to call Harrisburg home, because many orchestras around the country haven’t issued pandemic paychecks.
“Most famously [New York’s] MET Orchestra musicians have not been paid at all, and yet here in Harrisburg, the HSO is still paying musicians,” Oeste said.
Striking a Chord
The HSO marked its 90th anniversary in late March. Like many pandemic milestones, the celebration was “different,” via a live-streamed, pre-recorded, socially distanced performance—the HSO’s seventh of 10 ticketed virtual performances comprising “A Season Like No Other” that opened in October.
Although virtual performances have been a hot ticket, “the largest single element of the HSO’s budget is not ticket sales, but development money,” said Steve MacDonald, HSO board president.
This fiscal year—a year when live performances have been impossible—the HSO raised 93% of its annual goal by January. That’s $200,000 ahead of the previous year’s financials.
He calls it a “great tribute” to development staff and patrons, “who mostly give modest amounts of money” toward the HSO’s annual $3 million budget. It tells him “this community wants us to stay intact and thrive.”
What is it about the HSO that strikes such a chord among its patrons?
“I can’t read or play music, but I love it,” said MacDonald. “It moves me deeply. I think it’s one of the greatest things human beings have created. It’s my honor and duty to support the HSO.”
Not a pandemic day has gone by without phone calls from “patrons who are like family,” said Gloria Giambalvo, HSO marketing director.
“Daily, from March 2020—I kid you not—in some way, I’ve been on the phone with our patrons who miss us dearly, love us and are concerned,” Giambalvo said. “They want to make sure we’ll be back.”
Many of those calls are also calls for help—asking how to access online audio or video performances. It’s a process that almost always ends with what Giambalvo describes as “a gasp I wish I could bottle” as the sound of music begins.
Not only did the HSO retain a large percentage of its audience via online performances, but it’s expanded its reach—no small feat for an organization that embraces primarily gray-haired patrons who often admit they’re not computer-savvy.
“For us, and arts organizations across the world, taking this step into the digital world has always been on our to-do list,” Giambalvo said. “So, if I had to find a silver lining in the pandemic, this would be it.”
Online performances have allowed musicians’ friends and family, as well as music lovers around the globe, to discover the HSO.
“The creativity we applied to this season will take us forward into more normal seasons with enhanced offerings,” said Maestro Stuart Malina, HSO music director and conductor. “We intend to continue streaming some of our concerts.”
Still, musicians and audiences alike are anxious to get back to live performances at Harrisburg’s Forum.
“Streaming concerts is innately problematic because you’re no longer creating a one-time experience—that innately changes the nature of what it is,” Malina said. “That’s why live performance is the greatest way to experience music, because it’s a moment in time, and that makes it magical.”
And that is also his rebuttal to the age-old criticism that classical music is dead.
“Great works of art are forever,” Malina said. “Through live performance, you’re actually bringing a work of art to life anew.”
Another classic question: How do you cultivate new audiences?
Critics have noted “gray-haired audiences” since the 1930s and ‘40s, Malina said, yet they “miraculously” continue to regenerate. HSO audiences have remained consistent under Malina’s baton the past 20 years, and HSO youth orchestras and family ticket programs—called “Musical Chairs”—are strong.
Setting the Stage
The fate of the HSO’s live outdoor concerts—summer staples—as well as next fall’s season, have not yet been announced.
“My hope is that we’ll have a season in the Forum this October to May,” said Matthew Herren, HSO executive director. “A lot depends on the vaccine rollout … but I’m optimistically tentative.”
He said that the need for music has never been greater.
“On a good day, I think the arts seek to explain or answer the great questions,” Herren said. “Who do you know during this past year who has not sought comfort in a book, been online binge-watching? We need [the arts] now more than ever.”
Music may indeed hold the key to post-pandemic healing, depolarization and perspective, said Peter Sirotin, who’s played violin with the HSO since 1996.
“I think having the opportunity to unplug and connect to a different space mentally and emotionally… is going to become more important as a form of physical self-preservation and wellbeing,” said Sirotin. “Music has a role to play, particularly music without words.”
For more information on the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra, visit www.harrisburgsymphony.org.
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