How a Small Virginia City Saved Its Withering Symphony. Roanoke's proselytizing approach to the joys of classical music could provide helpful answers for beleaguered orchestras elsewhere
ROANOKE, VA. — THREE years ago the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra faced what has become a familiar plight of orchestras around the United States. Attendance had withered; programs were running a deficit; and morale was at an all-time low. Amid this bleakness, ``I saw a situation with a lot of potential,'' says Victoria Bond, the irrepressible conductor. Hired at the Roanoke Symphony's nadir as its first full-time director, Ms. Bond set out to reverse the fortunes of classical music in the town.
Today season tickets are sold out for the orchestra's 2,400-seat auditorium. Next year's budget is targeted at $1 million, five times its amount just three years ago. After 35 years of struggle, the orchestra has become a regional attraction in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains.
At the heart of the changes is a proselytizing approach to the joys of classical music that may hold answers for beleaguered orchestras elsewhere. Nationwide, probably half of all orchestras are running in the red, says Catherine French, chief executive officer of the American Symphony Orchestra League.
Drastic cuts in government support and corporate mergers that undercut home-based industries have devastated many orchestra budgets. In recent years two major US orchestras have closed, and many more have been forced to reorganize.
But from Roanoke, a river-and-railroad city of 100,000, the message is that active programs of public outreach can arouse undreamed-of local support. Community interest in classical music, says Bond, ``was a sleeping giant that hadn't been poked.''
The first woman ever to receive a doctorate in conducting from Juilliard (and now one of only 55 women conductors among the American Symphony Orchestra League's 881 member orchestras), Bond is accustomed to rocking the status quo.
Her first move in Roanoke was to reinvigorate the dispirited orchestra, adding rehearsals and strengthening the repertoire. Almost from her first performance, ``the programs and the quality of the music increased dramatically,'' says Margarite Fourcroy, the orchestra's general manager.
Musicians who had once opened their music for the first time at rehearsals lost their complacency. ``Some people think the repertoire is too demanding for the kind of orchestra we have,'' says violinist Linda Plaut, noting that most of the musicians commute from full-time jobs in cities as far away as Washington, D.C. ``Others of us say, `Hoop, hoop, hurray. Pour it on. Make it harder.' The standard of musicmaking has been raised.''
THE new conductor quickly became a public figure in Roanoke, speaking to the Kiwanis Club, the Rotary Club, the Dental Association, and the public schools. She accompanied young gospel singers in a black Baptist church. She began a lecture series to explain musical works coming up, in terms she had developed to explain classical music to her husband of 15 years, Stephan Peskin.
She rode a float in the Christmas parade and a horse in a polo match fund-raiser. ``You cannot be passive about this,'' she says firmly. ``You've got to reach out, not just as an organization but personally.''
To broaden the base of music support, Bond incorporated jazz, bluegrass, and popular and modern music into the familiar classical repertoire. Jazz pianist Billy Taylor and an Appalachian bluegrass band, the McClain Family Singers, performed with the orchestra.
Last year blues legend Ray Charles performed ``Black Requiem,'' written for him by Quincy Jones, with the Roanoke Symphony, backed by a 150-member gospel choir composed of local singers.
A concert in a public school opened with a helmeted policeman riding a motorcycle directly on stage, first giving the conductor a ticket for going presto in an allegro zone and then sitting down to play cello with the orchestra. Another school concert included a computer on stage that could allegedly make contact with outer space through the universal language, music.
In response to Bond's efforts, symphony support groups began springing up all over town. A group called Symphony After Five now brings jazz groups and string quartets to downtown office buildings after work.
Friends of Roanoke Symphony, formed by several prominent black citizens, sponsors concerts and music scholarships for young black musicians. ``Schoolteachers had been trying for years to start such programs, to help our children know that they can aspire to play these instruments and just appreciate it,'' says Marionette Sprauve, a retired music teacher and president of Friends of the Roanoke Symphony.
``Since Victoria's been here, it's kind of caught on like wildfire,'' Mrs. Sprauve says. ``She's like dynamite.''
Outside Roanoke County, New River Valley Friends of Roanoke Symphony and Franklin County Guild of the Roanoke Symphony are raising regional support for the orchestra. The orchestra has performed in the outlying towns of Blacksburg and Martinsville.
Bond says she has been complimented on the orchestra by parking lot attendants, a TV repairman, and a stagehand at the Civic Center (who particularly liked the ``Roman Carnival Overture'').
THE community has benefited from its orchestra in tangible ways, says Reginald K. Hutcherson, chairman of the symphony board's fund-raising committee.
``I'm not the music lover that a lot of people think board members are,'' Mr. Hutcherson concedes. ``My main interest is that it helps attract quality businesses and institutions to the area.'' Recently a major company moved its headquarters from Chicago to Roanoke, citing the symphony specifically as one reason for choosing the town.
Some townspeople frankly confess that they attend the symphony out of curiosity, or because it has become the place to be seen in Roanoke. But Bond believes she has a solid core of citizens who are becoming truly knowledgeable about music.
Herself a composer who has written more than 70 works, including an opera, three ballets, chamber music, concertos, and symphonies, Bond hopes to introduce more new music to her audience.
``Building a climate for being adventurous, for hearing things that aren't already familiar, is something that people are ready for here,'' she says. ``If you give people guidelines, you can lead them into a piece rather than frightening them away.
``The potential for loving music is there in all people,'' she explains. ``It just needs to be nurtured.''
The result can be a community that nurtures its classical music program. Says the American Symphony Orchestra League's Catherine French, ``If you get the leadership in place and are offering a quality program, the money will follow.''