Even in tough economy, patrons, donors turn out in records for symphony

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Can the arts survive in these turbulent economic times? I would say a resounding yes for reasons that may come as some surprise to you.

As the second-oldest symphony orchestra in the state of California established in 1927, the Santa Rosa Symphony has seen its fair share of economic upheavals. Yet this month, the Santa Rosa Symphony set a record-level of attendance and auction bidding at our season-opening gala fundraising event and welcomed record-setting, sold-out audiences to the opening concerts of our 82nd season.

What can account for this outpouring of support when the medium for music today is increasingly iPods, YouTube videos and CD players with surround sound wireless headphones? These mediums convey a message that convenience is more important than quality and even more disturbing that “tuning out to do your own thing” is superior to joining in as part of a group. Now I am no Luddite. It would be absurd to argue that these changes haven’t made life easier for us in important ways. But they also often are disconnecting and isolating.

By their very nature, attendance at classical music concerts is a direct counterpoint to this modern-day electronic phenomenon. The Santa Rosa Symphony’s basic purpose is to touch the common chord among all of us through the power classical music has to move us deeply. What happens – if the performance is good and the audience is right – is that we have allowed the concert to interrupt the rhythm of our pre-programmed days and weeks and to tap into emotions that lie just below the surface of daily lives but which sometimes need a little nudge to get out in the open where these emotions can be let loose to be shared.

As we continue to ride the latest waves in these turbulent economic times, not only audiences but also donors help affirm the crucial role our music plays in peoples’ lives. For each time we, or any other orchestra for that matter, perform, we lose money. Another way of saying this is: on average 45 percent of our orchestra’s expenses are paid for by tax-deductible donations largely from individuals, businesses and foundations.

So as you can see, the fundraising never ends, and the precipitous drop in the stock market has challenged us to tell our story more passionately, more clearly and to more people.

To the business community, we must continue to make the case that arts are a good investment, a relatively inexpensive way through association to enhance a company’s brand and reach a highly educated audience with high disposable income and send out a positive message that Sonoma County is a culturally enriched place to live and do business.

To the community at-large, our success hinges on far more than artistic excellence. It speaks to the need to demonstrate our relevance to the community, both young and old alike, in a very fundamental way.

In an era when arts have been deleted from many public school budgets, the Santa Rosa Symphony has an extensive music education program that trains young musicians in not one but four varying levels of youth orchestras and reaches out and touches more than 12,000 elementary school children with free concerts and intensive music immersion activities.

This season we will geographically reach out with church performances of an all-Mozart program in Petaluma, Santa Rosa and Windsor. We have reached out to diverse county populations with a unique Festival of Remembrance concert series with music commemorating Mexico’s Day of the Dead, the Japanese-American internment in WW II and Jewish composers who perished in the holocaust.

And finally, we continue, as long-term partners with Sonoma State University, to complete fundraising for what will be a world-class concert hall at the Green Music Center, which will not only be our new home but also promises to be a key economic engine in making Sonoma County a nationally recognized cultural tourism destination.

As you can see, our music is not a lavish luxury, not a plaything or an amusement. I truly believe it fulfills a basic human need. It is one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds.

In short, live classical music performances can contribute to the restoration of our common humanity and our sense of community. This is the rich vein that can be struck through your attendance and donations, where the treasures to be found are a deeper awareness of ourselves and others that can act as a healing force in a divided world.


Alan Silow is in his eighth year as executive director of the Santa Rosa Symphony. Contact him at asilow@santarosasymphony.com or 707-546-7097 ext. 213. Visit www.santarosasymphony.com