From staff and wire reports
For the Longview Symphony, Christmas was a night note.
The bottom level of seating at LeTourneau University’s Belcher Center — the space the ensemble keeps for audiences when it stages most of its performances — was almost full. More than 1,000 of the 1,300 available seats were filled, said Executive Director Erin Tooley.
“I think it was an encouragement of what we could have in the future,” she said.
That success, though, was followed by the organization’s 50th anniversary concert in February, when several factors resulted in much lower attendance. About 300 people attended the concert at the Mickey Melton Performing Arts Center at Longview High School, which was conducted by the man who founded the symphony, James Snowden. Cold weather and sleet, combined with the change from the symphony’s typical performance venue, were probably among the factors that affected the size of the audience.
“It was disappointing,” Tooley said.
The attendance at the Christmas concert, which featured popular Christmas music and an audience filled with children, was “amazing,” she said.
“I want to go back to that,” she said. “I do feel there still is a want for the symphony, but I think we are also trying to figure out how to appeal to new audiences and also to people that love the classical and would be completely content with listening to a whole Bach concert or a whole Mozart concert and how to balance those.”
The symphony has named a new conductor, Jerry Steichen, whose hiring is part of the organization’s effort to move the ensemble in a different direction and remain relevant to the community. The newly announced 51st season consists of five concerts in three venues, with “something for everyone,” Steichen said.
“I don’t think Longview is the only symphony that is trying to figure out themselves in a way,” Tooley said.
Those struggles vary among symphonies.
The Houston Chronicle reported earlier this year that the Baytown Symphony Orchestra was struggling financially to complete its final two shows.
“We’re in kind of dire straits, as many orchestras are,” said James Marioneaux, 69, a retired school band director who lives in Baytown and plays clarinet in the orchestra, which is marking its 51st season.
A number of community orchestras such as Baytown’s have carved places for themselves amid Houston’s sprawl. The groups gather in the Energy Corridor, the Texas Medical Center and various suburbs. Baytown is not alone in its struggle: The Woodlands Symphony Orchestra closed for about five years before starting again in 2013.
These orchestras serve multiple roles. Professional musicians get freelance work, volunteer amateurs have a place to play and advanced students perform with the pros. Tickets in Baytown cost $20 for any seat, and locals can hear classical music among neighbors, close to home.
Longview Symphony officials say its finances are solid, even as it works to attract larger and new audiences.
“The Longview Symphony has done a really good job with our foundation to help support music for the future,” Tooley said. “So, we have a really good foundation, and it just gets to the point of how do we appeal to all kinds of audiences.”
Board President Justin McFaul said the organization has built a larger cushion in its finances in recent years. It’s financially stable, but fundraising to support the symphony’s activities is a continual effort.
Concerts can cost tens of thousands of dollars, considering the number of professional musicians who must be hired, facility rental, marketing and other costs. This year’s budget for the Longview Symphony, for instance, is about $300,000. Ticket sales don’t cover those costs, and he said the organization typically must raise two-thirds to a half of its budget each year. The symphony is among groups that typically receive funding from the city’s hotel occupancy tax revenues, but it also raises money through sponsorships and donations, a signature fundraiser with the help of its guild and program advertising, for instance.
“We are doing everything we can in our community to ensure that — we’ve been here for 50 years through good times and through lean times — we’re doing everything we can to keep that tradition going,” McFaul said