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Board plans major shake-up for Concord’s Granite State Symphony Orchestra

Last modified: 4/19/2014 12:00:12 AM
Charlotte Cox and her friends were ready to hear a symphony. So earlier this month, they were surprised to find a cancellation notice posted outside the Concord City Auditorium. The Granite State Symphony Orchestra concert they had hoped to attend that evening was off, and so was the concert scheduled for May.

“Nobody was there. It was closed up tight as a doornail,” said Cox, who lives in Laconia.

Those two shows would have kicked off the orchestra’s 20th season in Concord. But after the 19th year was filled with scheduling troubles and financial woes, the group decided to cancel those concerts, postpone the anniversary season and shake up the organization in an effort to bring in new listeners, said Paul Brogan, the orchestra board’s director of development.

Now, the 20th season is scheduled to begin in November, under a new musical director, at a new venue, and with a new sound.

“You can’t continue to do things the way they have been done and expect to be able to take that next leap forward,” said Brogan, who has served on the orchestra’s board since 2011. “The only way you are going to attract a new, younger audience is to mix it up a bit after 19 years. We would be foolish not to try that.”

The Concord-based orchestra isn’t the only one trying to keep the music fresh in an effort to expand its listener base. As more media is available at home and people’s attention spans get shorter, it is tougher to get people to sit quietly through a 90-minute concert, said Peggy Vagts, professor of music at the University of New Hampshire.

To bring in new crowds, she said, classical music groups have started becoming more active on social media; producing shows that tie into the community, such as partnering with another local arts group; and experimenting with a mix of pieces, old and new.

“I think there will always be people who want to play and perform classical music,” Vagts said. “To have audiences there to support it and keep it at a high level – that is the trick.”

For the upcoming 20th season, the Granite State Symphony Orchestra plans to add some contemporary pieces to the orchestra’s traditional repertoire. The group will play under the direction of a new musical director/conductor, who will replace longtime conductor and co-founder of the Granite State Symphony Orchestra, Robert Babb. In November, Babb said he was notified that he wouldn’t continue directing the group.

“Without giving me a reason, they did not renew my contract after 19 seasons,” said Babb, who had worked for the orchestra under a verbal agreement. “It was the furthest thing from a mutual decision.”

Babb had become the face of the orchestra for many concertgoers, Brogan said. “He is nothing short of a wonderful musician who gave tirelessly for 19 seasons,” he said. “But moving in a different direction, I think you have to look outside of the box and experiment.”

The board can’t announce who will take on the conducting role yet because the parties are still finalizing paperwork, Brogan said. But the orchestra will draw from within the state to fill the position.

The group also plans to assemble a new core of professional New Hampshire musicians to anchor the orchestra, instead of working with a contractor who draws professional musicians from across the Northeast. Brogan hopes the focus on local will increase the community feel of the orchestra so “each time you go, you begin to recognize the cellist or violinist . . . and start to feel more connected to a musician.”

After using the City Auditorium for many years, the symphony orchestra’s board is in preliminary negotiations with the Capitol Center for the Arts to host the 20th season. That decision was driven in part by the Capitol Center’s ticket-selling and advertising capabilities, Brogan said. At the Audi, board members were in charge of selling tickets and used an online sales site that charged a high usage fee.

David Murdo, the Audi’s information chairman, confirmed the orchestra’s decision to cancel the two shows and move future concerts elsewhere, but he didn’t comment further. Brogan’s hope is that the Capitol Center will “help us to reach a lot of people we might not otherwise.”

Attendance had begun to tail off over the past few years, said Dan Crean, co-founder of the orchestra and a former board member.

Getting new people in the door was one of the toughest parts of the job, said former board member Cammy Nolin, a Loudon resident. “You are going to see a lot of the same die-hard people who really appreciate it come . . . almost not matter what,” she said. “The hardest thing was getting teens or families.”

Cultivating a new audience is the driving force behind many of the orchestra’s planned changes. Depending on the concert, the Granite State Symphony Orchestra could bring in anywhere from 300 to 500 patrons, Nolin said. Brogan hopes the transition will start to slowly bring that number up to between 600 and 800 regularly.

The key is to balance between old and new, Brogan said, and then to evaluate at the end of the season. “I think we have a very good chance of holding onto our base, but building on it . . .”

He is also hoping to expand the orchestra’s volunteer-based board. There are five active members, the lowest number in some 10 years, Brogan said. “It would be nice to add some people, but not just for the sake of adding bodies . . . people who share the enthusiasm to make this 20th season happen.”

Since the Granite State Symphony Orchestra announced last year that it would put the season on hold, Nashua-based Symphony New Hampshire saw a need. That orchestra has tentative plans to perform at the Capitol Center next winter, said the group’s executive director, Eric Valliere.

“We don’t want to step on another orchestra,” he said. “In the absence of information about what they are doing, we are proceeding with trying to serve that population with at least one concert.”

It’s the music lovers in the Concord area that are losing out this spring, Cox said. She has attended at least one of the Granite State Symphony Orchestra performances each season for the past five years and is willing to follow the group into the future as they transition.

“There are lots of popular choices in the Concord area,” she said, but “they have been valued as one of the top classical symphony orchestra performances. I hope that can continue.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)


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