The Richmond Symphony begins its 50th anniversary celebrations this weekend. The party may seem lower-key than you'd expect for such a milestone, but "this orchestra is in an almost unprecedented situation," says Henry Fogel, president of the American Symphony Orchestra League, the leading trade organization in classical music.
That "situation" is the symphony's homeless status since the Carpenter Center closed for renovations in 2004. It will continue for two more years, assuming the Richmond CenterStage theater complex opens as scheduled in fall 2009. This season the orchestra will perform in more than a dozen venues, from church sanctuaries to Toad's Place.
All that moving around costs money. The symphony's budget, projected at $4.7 million this season, is kept in precarious balance by special grants and extra fundraising drives to cover the costs of migrating from place to place and to make up for losses in ticket revenues. (Ticket prices were cut by as much as half when concerts moved out of the Carpenter Center and into churches.)
Playing in suburban venues, the symphony has attracted a new, somewhat younger crowd, including more than 1,000 new season subscribers. But no one knows how much of that audience will follow the orchestra back downtown and pay more for seats when it resettles into the renamed Carpenter Theater, anchor of CenterStage.
Since 2002, when one-third of its musicians accepted a retirement buyout, the symphony has gone through a generational makeover. The median age of players fell from 40-something to 20-something, and the musical energy level rose. So did turnover: Eighteen of the 72 players on this season's roster weren't here three years ago, and short-term substitutes often fill out string and wind sections. Erin Freeman, the new associate conductor, is the third in four years. Next season, the orchestra will audition candidates to succeed Mark Russell Smith as music director.
"That puts a strain on the organization," Fogel says. "I've known of orchestras that have played maybe one season in temporary venues while their halls were being renovated. But five years? And playing in so many venues? And recruiting a new conductor under those conditions?"
Fogel came away from a February visit to the symphony "very impressed," both by the performance level of the orchestra -- "a very close-knit group with an extra level of concentration," he says and by "an organization with a very positive internal culture," with "real respect between the musicians and the management and board."
But the musicians' frustration with playing in multiple venues with variable acoustics is mounting. "We can't hear each other" is a near-universal complaint. As one player puts it, "I'm playing with my eyes as much as my ears, getting my cues from what I see other musicians doing rather than what I hear because I don't hear much."
Adversity may build esprit, but it also instills some doubts. "The people who were hired with me," says Ralph Skiano, the symphony's principal clarinetist and part of the post-buyout generation, "aren't ready to call Richmond home yet. They aren't sure whether Richmond is ready to invest in an orchestra and a decent hall for it to play in."
The birth of an orchestra Richmond waited longer than most American cities to establish a symphony orchestra. In the early 19th century it began to import classical music. By the 1950s it was a regular tour stop for the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera and top-tier recitalists. Three efforts to organize a hometown orchestra foundered in the '30s and '40s.
Then, in the fall of 1956, a half-dozen musicians and music-lovers gathered in the home of Edmund A. Rennolds Jr. and his wife, Mary Anne. The group was brought together by John White, a University of Richmond music professor who used his column in the Richmond Times-Dispatch to campaign for a local orchestra. The gathering's guest of honor, Edgar Schenkman, formerly of the Juilliard School and at the time conductor of the Norfolk Symphony, explained what it took to sustain an orchestra. Starting with money: Raise $10,000, he said, and I'll know you're serious.
After a year of stroking skeptical donors in the social and business establishment and passing the hat in classrooms and at civic-club meetings the down payment was in hand. Schenkman agreed to recruit and conduct the musicians, and on Oct. 28, 1957, the orchestra gave its first concert at the Mosque (now the Landmark Theater).
"In the beginning, it was a community orchestra with a season of three concerts," says violinist Elizabeth Moore, the last charter member still performing with the symphony. (She retired in 2002 but continues as a substitute player.) "We had to bring in musicians from Norfolk, Washington and other places to fill out the ranks. The Richmond members all made their living doing something else." The pay scale in the early years, she recalls, was $5 per rehearsal and $15 per concert.
"We grew more professional by increments," says Jonathan Friedman, the orchestra's principal bassoonist since 1974. He joined the orchestra after Jacques Houtmann, the symphony's second music director, persuaded its board to support hiring a full-time "core" of musicians that would form the nucleus of the full-sized symphony and perform on its own as a chamber orchestra. Once called the Richmond Sinfonia (the name was dropped about 10 years ago), the core now numbers 36 musicians. This ensemble performs in Bach Festival and Kicked Back Classics concerts and most tour engagements. The rest of the roster is still part-time.
Pay scales for core musicians now range from just over $30,000 for a newly hired section violinist to slightly more than $40,000 for principal players. "That's competitive for orchestras our size," says David Fisk, the symphony's executive director.
"When I was hired, I was told [full-timers'] pay would be about the same as a schoolteacher's. If that's still the benchmark, we're beginning to lag," says Friedman, who also is president of Local 123 of the American Federation of Musicians, the symphony players' union.
Forward march "We don't do business as we did before," Fisk says. "Circumstances have made us evolve into a different institution."
The old symphony in white tie and tails is now staking its future on the innovations of recent years more informal and interactive concerts, more collaboration with the Richmond Ballet, Virginia Opera and other groups, more extended residencies in schools and programs aimed at families, and a continued presence in the suburbs.
Although the symphony is committed to CenterStage, "not every performance we give will be in the Carpenter Theater," Fisk says. "Our patrons have told us they like hearing the orchestra up close" in smaller venues, "and they like the accessibility of concerts near their homes. We're not going to leave that audience behind, much as we crave being in a proper concert hall."
"The symphony is doing a better job of marketing us as artists who are part of this community," says Mary Boodell, the orchestra's principal flutist. "The musicians are getting more of a say in programming," she says, through a newly empowered artistic advisory committee. Perhaps the most striking sign of empowerment: Musicians occupy five of 10 seats on the search committee for a new music director. (They were three among eight on the panel that selected Smith, the outgoing music director, in 1999.)
"Despite this wild four or five years we're going through, and the uncertainties we still face, I'm optimistic," says Marcia Thalhimer, president of the symphony board. "We've worked hard at growing our donor base, especially the individual donors that performing-arts organizations increasingly depend on. We've learned a lot about connecting with audiences. We've got great musicians."
"This orchestra has never been better, and I think it is recognized as a remarkable asset for a city of Richmond's size," says Rudolph H. Bunzl, a longtime patron of the symphony and an influential figure among high-end donors to nonprofit groups. "I can't see why there would be trouble getting people to support it."
Follow the money and watch the roster, Friedman advises. "Orchestral playing is a team sport, and high turnover makes it difficult to achieve tonal and stylistic consistency," he says. If part-timers and substitutes continue to make up half the orchestra, "you'll hear performing unity and consistency from top to middle rather than top to bottom."
"Richmond has been getting an incredible bargain, living off the return from an investment yet to be made," Friedman says. "At the budget level the symphony has operated on for years, the pie is too small for the organization to really grow and thrive. If we don't have the ambition to grow, will the community keep thinking we're a worthwhile investment?" S
The Richmond Symphony launches its 50th anniversary season with Masterworks concerts Friday, Sept. 14, at Second Baptist Church; Saturday, Sept. 15, at First Baptist Church; and Monday, Sept. 17, at St. Michael's Catholic Church. All performances at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10-$50. Call 788-1212 or visit www.richmondsymphony.com.
Mark Russell Smith conducts the orchestra in a live broadcast concert Sept. 20 at 7 p.m. on WCVE (88.9 FM).
Style Weekly music critic Clarke Bustard produces Letter V: the Virginia Classical Music Blog, at
Style Weekly's mission is to provide smart, witty and tenacious coverage of Richmond. Our editorial team strives to reveal Richmond's true identity through unflinching journalism, incisive writing, thoughtful criticism, arresting photography and sophisticated presentation.
We make sense of the news; pursue those in power; explore the city's arts and culture; open windows on provocative ideas; and help readers know Richmond through its people. We give readers the information to make intelligent decisions.