Olympia Symphony survives in downtrodden arts world

The recession has not been kind to the performing arts. In the last few years, symphony orchestras in Honolulu, Syracuse, New Mexico, Philadelphia and Louisville have filed for bankruptcy. Orchestras in other places, like Chicago and Detroit, have endured but only through ugly strikes over slashed compensation to musicians.

A few orchestras, like those in Bellevue, Wash., and Savannah, Ga., have simply disbanded.

Against that backdrop of artistic struggle, the resiliency of the Olympia Symphony Orchestra over its 60-year history appears remarkable.

It has sold out several recent concerts, including its anniversary celebration performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in mid-October, which left many patrons raving about the high quality of a mostly amateur and local orchestra.

It would be a mistake, however, to paint too rosy of a picture.

The Olympia Symphony has also struggled financially from time to time over the six decades since it was officially incorporated on Oct. 23, 1952. Its fortunes have swung mildly on the periodic shifts in popularity of classical music, and the impact of several recessions on ticket sales.

Yet, through the many economic cycles since World War II, the local orchestra has survived.

Credit some of that success to a community well-known for supporting the arts, and the rest to a well-managed organization, from both a musical and financial perspective.

Audiences have been noticing the Olympia orchestra’s improvement. Music director and conductor Huw Edwards, now in his 10th season with the symphony, has taken the orchestra to a level that has South Sound classical fans wondering: why bother driving to Seattle anymore?

Edwards’ ability to recruit and train the orchestra’s musicians has played a critical role in that transformation. He applauds Thurston County’s schools for maintaining their strings programs in elementary, middle and high schools.

The public school music programs not only provide him with a pool of potential new players, it also builds an awareness and appreciation for classical music. Students who don’t continue with their instruments are more likely to someday join the symphony’s audience.

Edwards’ new connection to the renown music program at the University of Puget Sound – he recently accepted a position as the school’s new director of orchestral studies – will also attract top players to Olympia, as well as shared fees for the rights to perform certain pieces of music.

The symphony’s board of directors has also learned from the orchestral fatalities in other cities that it cannot survive in an insular environment. It has been reaching out to other local performing arts groups to create exciting performances and to expand its audience base.

For its most recent concert, the symphony collaborated with the Olympia Choral Society to perform Beethoven’s Ninth. In May, Ballet Northwest performed with live music for the first time with members of the symphony in the Washington Center’s orchestra pit.

The symphony has also recently collaborated with Harlequin Productions, South Puget Sound Community College and Saint Martin’s University. The symphony has recognized those partnerships as new opportunities to expose people to classical music.

That’s a smart strategy, one likely to extend the symphony’s sustainability.

And yet, despite having a gifted musical director, respected artistic partnerships and a growing base of talented musicians coming up through our public school districts, the ultimate survival factor for the Olympia Symphony Orchestra comes down to monetary support.

As Mike Ryhed, vice president of the board of directors, put it: “We’ve done it for 60 years. If we’re going to do it for another 60 years, we need community support.”

There’s a symbiotic relationship between any nonprofit and the community it serves. The nonprofit, in this case the symphony, provides a benefit, and the community provides the financial means to continue.

Only a third of the symphony’s $400,000 operating budget comes from ticket sales.

The Olympia Symphony has kept its share of the bargain by providing a consistently improving orchestra involving South Sound players. Now the community must do its part.