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  • Interview with Bruce Ridge by Melissa Trier Kirk

A Positive Note! Things aren't as bad as you think!

I recently had the pleasure to sit down with Bruce Ridge, Chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM). Bruce, a bassist with the North Carolina Symphony and tireless advocate for the arts, has been traveling the country this summer, talking with musicians and spreading the positive news that charitable giving to the arts is at an all time high, and that many orchestras have emerged from the economic downturn of 2008 stronger than ever. This news runs counter to conventional wisdom, since what we often hear in the press is that U.S. orchestras are floundering and classical music is dying. Bruce’s message is that symphony and opera orchestras are more relevant than ever. Every year about this time he creates a list of positive developments for orchestras.

What inspired you to become an arts advocate?

Music fundamentally changed my life. My mother had a vinyl record collection that wasn’t so large but huge in variety including many classical recordings. As a child I had a terrible speech impediment and found school difficult. I loved the Beatles tune, “I Am the Walrus” which begins with classically hypnotic cello and bass lines, and Rachmaninoff ‘s “Variations on a Theme by Paganini”. In training my ear to replicate the music I was hearing I was able to overcome my speech impediment. Studies show that studying music as a child keeps students in school and improves mental health for folks well into their 80’s. My personal experience made me realize how critically important the arts are and that music is a force for good and beauty.

Why do you say that orchestras are more relevant than ever?

Symphony Orchestras build communities. Imagine the number of school children that the musicians of ICSOM reach on a daily basis. What I am seeing is that symphony orchestras are more necessary than ever. It is the nature of the press to write a negative story because that’s what sells. In 1970, UPI published a piece which predicted that 25 American orchestras were doomed to die. Today they are all still in business. The story that needs to be told especially coming out of the recession is how resilient American Orchestras are and how well they have survived. We rarely study our successes. Yes, some orchestras fail. According to American Express, 90% of new restaurants fail in their first year of business but that doesn’t mean we don’t like to eat! The fact is that charitable giving to the arts is at an all time high. In 2014, charitable giving to the arts was the fastest growing category of giving in America.

Talk more about the resilience you are seeing.

Many orchestras are thriving and advancing. The Cincinnati Symphony added $26 million to the endowment and will add 14 new musicians to the roster in the next few years. The simple fact is that people will give to organizations that inspire them and they don’t give to organizations that question their own sustainability. Orchestras that are putting out a positive message about what they mean to their community are seeing tremendous growth. People say that our audiences are aging, but the Cleveland Orchestra has doubled the number of students attending concerts in the past couple of years. They’ve done this by reaching out, inviting them in and creating a more appealing atmosphere. An organization that says it’s going to be around for along time serving its community into the future is far more likely to attract donations and audience members. No arts organization or business has ever solved its financial problems by offering an inferior product. Cutting and lowering our presence in the community doesn’t help.

Charitable giving is up; how about government support?

The latest legislation on education in the Senate is the “The Every Child Achieves Act” which for the first time lists music as a core subject. Funding the arts is a good investment. The arts supply over 4 million jobs for Americans every year and billions of dollars in economic activity. On a national average, every dollar the government invests in the arts returns 7 dollars to the community. On a local level it’s higher. Whenever a concert takes place in a city it impacts other businesses as well, restaurants, cab drivers, and parking garages to name a few, the greater the investment, the greater the return. The core mission of any orchestra is to put on the greatest music ever written with the greatest musicians in the greatest halls at the highest standard possible. That brand has to be protected and can’t be compromised. Orchestras are often ambassadors for a city and are tools for furthering economic development and quality of life.

What do you say to those who think classical music is only for the elite?

Yes, classical music is performed in the great concert halls and opera houses across the country but it is virtually everywhere in our culture. Young people may not realize that they know a theme from “Carmina Burana” but they hear it in films, network TV and advertisements trying to sell tacos. Music is beneficial. When you perpetuate the myth that classical music is elitist, you build barriers.

How does music offer hope?

In many places in the world, hope is a rare commodity. Orchestras offer hope. If you turn on the news on any given day you’ll hear about senseless acts of violence. Music has an intrinsically positive effect. It enriches lives.

A documentary was produced recently, “Some Kind of Spark”, which follows inner city kids (age 6-14) enrolled in Juilliard’s “Music Advancement Project”. It serves as an entertaining and educational reminder of the power that music plays in our lives. In New Orleans there’s a program called “Trumpets not Guns”. Young people are being given instruments and instruction to improve their minds and open their hearts. We have to supply our young people with hope and that’s what music teachers do. Every note we play, every new piece we share is inherently anti-violent and a message of hope. That’s what our cities and young people need. Luckily we have it. The answer is to invest in that.

Give us an overview of the upswing in giving to the arts.

Orchestras have emerged from the economic downturn of 2008 extraordinarily well, many stronger. It is true that some organizations are in trouble and we have to assist them with a positive message. There will always be challenges, but the question is what is the trend, and the trend is very clearly up.

Here is review of successes this year:

  • The Arizona Opera exceeded its fundraising goal.

  • The Buffalo Philharmonic saw record ticket sales and subscription revenues for the 3rd consecutive year.

  • The Charlotte Symphony just received a 2 million dollar gift.

  • The Cincinnati Symphony raised over 26 million dollars for their endowment and signed an innovative labor contract that adds 14 musicians to the roster.

  • The Dallas Symphony just received a 5 million dollar gift.

  • The Detroit Symphony raised 1.4 million dollars in one evening.

  • The Houston Grand Opera exceeded its fundraising goal by raising nearly 173 million dollars.

  • The Houston Symphony received the largest gift in a decade of 5 million dollars.

  • The Memphis Symphony just received a 1 million dollar gift to fund its education project.

  • The Omaha Symphony saw record attendance.

  • The Oregon Symphony set new records for ticket sales and contributions and raised $700,000 at their gala. This was double what they’d raised before. They have a new general director and when asked how he did it, his answer was, “We asked for more”.

  • The Pacific Symphony raised 1.6 million dollars in one night.

  • The Richmond Symphony got a million dollar gift to finance their outdoor concerts. Rochester Philharmonic reported a 19% increase in single ticket sales.

  • The Saint Louis Symphony just received a 10 million dollar gift.

  • The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra saw it’s highest attendance in 20 years.

  • About this time last year, the San Diego Opera was written off by management and press as dead. This year they put on a season, supported by the community and finished in the black and received a 1.5 million dollar gift.

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