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Steve Metcalf has been writing about the musical life of this region, and the wider world, for more than 30 years. For 21 of those years, he was the full-time staff music critic of The Hartford Courant. During that period, via the L.A. Times/Washington Post news service, his reviews, profiles and feature stories appeared in 400 newspapers worldwide.He is also the former assistant dean and director of instrumental music at The Hartt School, where he founded and curated the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series. He is currently Director of the Presidents' College at the University of Hartford. Steve is also keyboardist emeritus of the needlessly loud rock band Duke and the Esoterics.Reach him at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.

Hartford Symphony 2.0: Now It's Your Turn

John Schiller
Creative Commons
The Hartford Symphony performing at the Talcott Mountain Summer Festival.
Hartford has always been pleased to define itself as a place where the performing arts are especially prized and practiced.

When we last looked in on the Hartford Symphony Orchestra a little more than three months ago, the management and players had just settled on a new four-year contract.

The vote was a tense, eleventh-hour affair, and came after a protracted and uncomfortably public standoff between the two sides, punctuated by management's declarations that the organization would simply shut down if an agreement could not be reached.

In the end, the players came to terms with management’s call for reduced services for the musicians, and a corresponding reduced wage for most of them.

Although the musicians’ union did not make the vote tally public, it was widely understood that the vote was far from unanimous.

But if the climate was not one of pure elation, the new contract at least bought the organization some time.

In the ensuing months, some significant things have happened:

1. The HSO's management contract with the Bushnell, put into place in the spring of 2014 as a way of ostensibly reducing costs and streamlining administrative tasks, has been modified and scaled back, although many of its central features – including the fact that the HSO offices themselves now reside within the Bushnell – are still in place.

Credit Facebook / Creative Commons
Creative Commons
Adam Kerry Boyles.

2. Stephen Collins, who had been hired two years ago as the director of artistic operations of the HSO, has been elevated to executive director. That means that David Fay, the Bushnell’s president and CEO, who had been also serving as the orchestra’s CEO (an awkward arrangement, in the view of almost everybody) has relinquished that post. Collins now reports to recently-installed board chairman Jeff Verney rather than Fay, a shift that will hopefully grant him more administrative independence, and help him, among other things, win the confidence of the musicians.

3. As had been widely discussed during the contract talks, a fundraising campaign to significantly augment the HSO’s endowment is understood to be getting itself together. Although the particulars will be not be forthcoming for a while, in keeping with the initial “quiet phase” tradition of such campaigns, the endowment drive will likely be a multi-year project with a goal in the neighborhood of $8 to 12 million, if not more. Such a number would have a dramatically stabilizing effect on the organization, whose present endowment rests at around $4 million. The details of this campaign are expected to be announced in the fall.

4. The HSO has hired an assistant conductor, Adam Kerry Boyles of Boston, to periodically spell music director Carolyn Kuan and to assist with various educational and outreach activities.

5. The POPS, Talcott Mountain Summer Festival and regular season Masterworks concert series have now all been announced. By the HSO’s own acknowledgment, the upcoming season is a relatively conventional one, featuring a healthy dose of crowd-pleasing warhorses, plus a few novelties. Considering the upheavals of the past year, that is probably a good idea.


Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR
Carolyn Kuan.

So looked at from a purely practical standpoint, the HSO has done many of the things that everyone hoped and expected it would do.

Now what? I’ve talked with many of the players, and with board members and administrators, trying to get a sense of where the organization is headed.

More than anything, it’s clear that the next two or three years will basically determine whether this orchestra prospers, or indeed, survives.

The Bushnell Performing Arts Center.
Credit Facebook
The Bushnell Performing Arts Center.
With a certain fresh sense of its own essentialness, the Hartford Symphony is at a crossroads.

During the contract standoff, there was, of course, a lot of talk about money: how to raise it, how to distribute it to the musicians and/or staff, how to spend it wisely with respect to marketing and promotion and advertising, etc.

It’s certainly essential to do those things. But lately I’ve come to think that the challenge facing the HSO – and for that matter all part-time regional orchestras – is both deeper and simpler. It’s really a question of whether communities like ours will support a professional orchestra in the most fundamental way: buying tickets and attending concerts.

That might sound self-evident, but it sometimes gets lost in the conversation. The board can write checks (or persuade their friends to do so), the management can walk arm in arm with the musicians on pay scales and work rules, the marketing folks can design slick interactive websites. And sure, these days the “product” can include some unconventional things like film and video game music.

But a symphony orchestra, with 60 or 80 or even a hundred players sitting up there, has to attract large numbers of paying customers or all the other stuff is beside the point. The HSO attendance numbers have not been catastrophic, but they have not been moving in the right direction, either.

Sometimes I find myself thinking about the Hartford performing arts scene and its sobering recent history.

Not all that long ago, that scene included the following: the Hartford Ballet, Connecticut Opera, the Bushnell’s Visiting Orchestra Series (as well as the hall’s Chamber Music Series, Bank Boston Variety Series, and, further back in time, a Dance Series), as well as the Hartford Chamber Orchestra, and a goodly smattering of other chamber entities like Arioso, Chamber Music Plus, and Soni Fidelis.

They are all, let me gently and reluctantly point out, now gone.

Hartford has always been pleased to define itself as a place where the performing arts are especially prized and practiced.

Yet among musical organizations, the Hartford Symphony is the lone large-scale player standing.

Yes, the city’s choral groups have hung in there, and we have some high-quality opera, albeit on a modest scale. Yes, the Hartt School serves up a fine array of performances, both student and professional. Yes, we have our civic and community orchestras, which add nicely to the overall fabric. And we have some small-ensemble and chamber organizations doing terrific, inventive things.

But a city’s symphony orchestra is its musical standard-bearer, and, as we learned during the contract dispute, even people who don’t know Bartok from Bart Simpson understand that losing the HSO would diminish the city in unthinkable ways.

With its new contract, its new board chairman and executive director, and maybe even a certain fresh sense of its own essentialness, the Hartford Symphony is at a crossroads.

It needs to make good programming decisions, it needs to proclaim itself more loudly and effectively, and it no doubt needs a little luck, especially where the summer season weather is concerned.

But above all it needs all of us -- and not just out of civic obligation, but because it really does make our lives better – to get ourselves out of the house and down into the hall to listen to the music.

Reach Steve Metcalf at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.

Steve Metcalf is an administrator, critic, journalist, arts consultant and composer. He writes the weekly Metcalf on Music blog for WNPR.org, and is the curator of the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series at The Hartt School.

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